Aflac’s CHRO Matthew Owenby explains why a customized approach to HR drives an 87 percent employee engagement rate.
By Debbie Bolla
“Most companies don’t want to customize HR, but if you want employees to feel cared for, it’s a must.” This is the philosophy behind CHRO Matthew Owenby’s unique approach to HR for Aflac. Whether it’s providing easy access to on-site healthcare services to overcome rising benefits costs or giving employees the platform to share feedback that often gets incorporated into the business strategy, the insurance provider understands the impact of employee-driven initiatives. Simply put: People are core to their success.
And these forward-thinking initiatives are working. In the last cycle, employee engagement and satisfaction scores measured 87 percent, well above the industry benchmark of 72 percent. Learn more about Aflac’s key initiatives and results in this exclusive interview with Owenby.
HRO Today: Tell me about the “Aflac Care Centers.” Why do you think health and wellness offerings are so important to today’s employees?
Matthew Owenby: All of the initiatives we undertake at Aflac are really based in the foundation that we want to take care of employees because if we do that, they will take care of the business. People are concerned about their benefits, and I believe the best place to provide them is in a corporate environment.
One of the many ways Aflac distinguishes itself from other large corporations is how we deliver our employee benefits. In an environment where healthcare costs seem to be perpetually increasing, we recognize the burden that this places on our employees and their families. Companies generally have a choice: Pass the cost onto the employees or absorb it. We decided to tackle the problem by doing something outside-of-the-box and create on-site healthcare clinics at many of our campuses across the U.S. Two things happened: Our healthcare costs went down and our employee satisfaction went up. Employees loved the convenience of the service, and we are looking for ways to expand the offerings of the program in 2019. But at the heart of it was how can we do more for employees, how can we do a better job of taking care of them? Getting a cold or not feeling well can now be handled down the hall rather than across town or down the street. Get a wellness check, sick check, nutritional support or a preventative screening. Employees love it because there is no waiting—employees make an appointment online and walk to the facility. Preventive services are free and acute care costs $5.
Owenby: We have seen a decrease in absenteeism due to illness and lower family and medical leave (FMLA) rates. The impact to the business from a financial perspective is astoundingly good. The “Aflac Care Centers” have reduced the amount of money we spend in support of employee benefits. Why? We have found that the most costly type of care outside of an emergency room visit is urgent care. And we have seen an 80 percent reduction in urgent care visits since implementing the program.
HROT: What do employees think?
Owenby: The results of our most recent employee survey found employees asking to expand the offerings more broadly. Employees are now looking for massage therapy, physical therapy, and psychological issues support. We have also expanded our “Aflac Care Centers” to multiple campuses.
HROT: What’s the longer-term plan?
Owenby: I truly believe that we are going to live in an environment where healthcare becomes, unfortunately, so expensive that corporations will have to offer full healthcare in order to maintain a workforce.
HROT: How did HR get executive buy-in for this project?
Owenby: Our CEO, executive leadership team, and board have a long view of the corporation and want employees to stay at Aflac for long as possible. We don’t want turnover and we want to attract the best workforce. For an insurance company, the product is really the people that work here. When it comes to our employees, we want to provide the highest value possible.
HROT: How has the “Real Talk” program improved communication and transparency among employees and leaders and made a difference in the work environment?
Owenby: This corporation has a level of transparency that I have never experienced in my career.
The “Real Talk” program started a few years back and was designed during a time when the corporation was experiencing a lot of change and transformation. We wanted to facilitate real conversations in small settings between employees and members of the executive management team. Topics like strategy, execution, personal goals, coaching, and development were discussed.
The “Real Talk” program offers three things that can sometimes be forgotten at an organization:
- the ability to access leaders that employees don’t normally have access to because they are simply too busy;
- the opportunity to see leaders as real people that do care and are interested in the employee base; and
- the chance for employees to speak their minds in a real setting where is it acceptable to have a hard question that will be worked through.
Initially, we thought it would be a temporary activity during years of broader change management activities. But as we were managing the metrics of the program by attendance, we were seeing rates continue to grow over time. And it is something we benefit from today.
Owenby: Aflac’s “Knowledge Sharing Network (KSN)” allows us to do a better job of sharing best practices. It’s a formalized program that allows employees to share approaches they feel can improve processes and deliver better results. The “KSN” ensures that the collective knowledge of the workforce is being harvested and shared more broadly across the enterprise.
It’s a great way to leverage the knowledge of our workforce and get feedback from employees who understand the business in ways executives cannot, while also developing workers at the same time.
HROT: Can you provide any example of an idea that came from the “KSN” that is now instituted?
Owenby: One idea that came from the “KSN” from an employee that had recently joined from another organization was to onboard employees through business simulations. The crux of the idea is that employees can learn the most about the organization through the eyes of a leadership team member. Through a gamified business simulation, incoming employees can pretend to run Aflac in various seats, including CMO, CEO, or head of distribution. The new hire can play a game with real company data to see how decisions impact the business.
What also came from the “KSN” are informal groups, like management best practices groups and even book clubs. We also provide a platform to empower employees to share through internal blogging—our own internal Wikipedia. Employees can easily search problems and find solutions on their own.
HROT: Considering your industry, do you align employee satisfaction with client satisfaction?
Owenby: We believe the satisfaction of our employees is directly correlated to the satisfaction of our customers. The two things are perfectly linked. If an employee is satisfied at work, they will ensure our customers are too. One of our values is to treat employees in the same way that they will treat and care for our customers. When a customer calls with a cancer diagnosis, we want to ensure they interact with a calm, compassionate, thoughtful person.
HROT: What’s currently on your agenda?
Owenby: Right now, we are spending a lot of time deciding whether or not we are going to be leveraging the current suite of artificial intelligence (AI) tools, particularly when it comes to talent acquisition. We are examining whether to use AI in our ATS or to drive candidate quality and candidate filtering in a way that is not possible based on current staffing levels. We are also considering using a chatbot to assist after all of the paperwork is signed to improve the onboarding process. The chatbot would act as an education concierge, offering candidates company knowledge based on their experience with the organization. There are very exciting products on the market that leverage AI and have the ability to actually improve HR.