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In conversation with: Aon’s Marguerite Soeteman-Reijnen

Marguerite Soeteman-Reijnen, the chairman of the executive board at Aon Holdings and global chief marketing officer at Aon Inpoint, discusses embracing digital transformation, and promoting diversity and inclusion.

Marguerite Soeteman-Reijnen
Aon’s Marguerite Soeteman-Reijnen states that companies that embrace diversity will reap the rewards when it comes to the agility of their workforce.

Marguerite Soeteman-Reijnen is celebrating her 30th anniversary at global professional services firm Aon in 2020 amid ‘new normal’ circumstances. Covid-19 has altered business operations and the nature of the workforce, with a high number of employees still working remotely and companies therefore needing to improve their digital capabilities.

“Shifts in global trends are creating increasingly complex operating environments, which present challenges but also opportunities for traditional business models,” says Soeteman-Reijnen.

Indeed, within the space of few months, companies had to adapt to the ‘new normal’ brought on by Covid-19 on top of developments in the years previous, such as the rise of the gig economy, more stringent regulatory requirements, cybersecurity becoming more prominent, and health and safety concerns rising, among other issues. All of these factors have only risen in importance since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Aon’s coalition gathers momentum

Helping organisations to navigate these risks and opportunities is key for Aon, which is currently working on bringing together leading companies to create a set of guidelines to assist businesses in addressing the challenges brought by the pandemic and kick-starting the economy back into life.

This coalition is a shared commitment between businesses, governments and community leaders, explains Soeteman-Reijnen. The goal is for member companies to share insights related to planning and operations and assess impact measurements, but also to use their experience in affiliate technologies. The initiative started in the US, before expanding to Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands and Singapore, among other places.

The need for an agile workforce

While some companies are in a position to share insights and advice on how to address the challenges created by the pandemic, Soeteman-Reijnen stresses that a number of others have not been well equipped to face such a disruptive event. Nevertheless, the crisis has emphasised the importance to all of being able to adapt quickly to a changing world, and this has helped to accelerate long-due digital transformations in many companies.

Indeed, Aon’s Accelerate Your Workforce into the Future report published in October 2020 found that a number of companies “were not equipped to activate a digitally ready workforce” just before the outbreak of the pandemic. These companies had done little to adapt their structures for digital transformation. The report revealed that before the pandemic, 59% of HR managers said that their organisations did not have the defined set of skills needed for their digital transformation. On top of that, 61% of responders reported that their organisation did not know how to spot digital potential.

However, the landscape has changed significantly over the past few months as a result of the pandemic, with digital skills and technology infrastructure now identified as indispensable factors to the functioning of a business.

More specifically, Aon’s Global Covid-19 HR Pulse Survey reveals that 52% of respondents now find the ability to assess and identify employees with key digital skills as very important in terms of building and maintaining an agile workforce. Technology and communications infrastructure tools also score highly as key factors in terms of building a workforce that can thrive in crisis conditions.

Soeteman-Reijnen stresses that culture is key to building an agile workforce, while adding that the pandemic has also resulted in a cultural crisis.

“Covid-19 started as a health crisis in certain regions of Asia,” she says. “However, it became clear quickly that it is not only a physical health crisis, but also a mental health one. It also expanded into an economic crisis, and it has become a social crisis, a humanitarian crisis, but also a cultural one. The cultural aspect of the crisis requires from all of us a [change of] mindset to step up and adapt to the new normality at a faster speed.”

How to manage through a crisis

The Covid-19 crisis has required leaders to step up and crisis-proof their organisations amid an unprecedented environment, but they have also had to support their workforce.

“Covid-19 not only requires leaders to show their [prowess] by doing the right thing for the firms they are working for – in terms of productivity, financial stability or navigating opportunities and risk – but it is also about emotional intelligence,” says Soeteman-Reijnen. “It is about keeping your workforce close to you in times of distress, especially with a number of people working from home and having to face challenging circumstances.”

She adds that lots of difficult decisions need to be taken in the current environment, such as balancing maintaining profitability with reducing costs. However, she highlights that human capital has risen in the priorities of many companies as they strive to better support their employees, and this is leading to higher productivity. On this topic, Soeteman-Reijnen quotes former Campbell Soup Company president and CEO Doug Conant, who said that “to win in the marketplace, companies need to win in the workplace first”.

According to Soeteman-Reijnen, the most important characteristics that leaders must display to build trust in the current circumstances (and beyond) are empathy, curiosity, and willingness to learn and to listen.

Embracing diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Attracting and maintaining a diverse array of employees and fostering an inclusive culture is another key factor in terms of cultivating workforce agility, according to Aon’s Global Covid-19 HR Pulse Survey.

“Diversity is always better, because it actually drives better performance,” says Soeteman-Reijnen. She cites Goldman Sachs’s Womenomics, Europe Moving Ahead report, which reveals that more women in senior roles is associated with the stock price performing better.

Soeteman-Reijnen adds that there has been an increasing number of high-profile initiatives promoting diversity in the workplace in recent months, including the state of California signing a bill that requires locally based public companies to diversify their boards racially, ethnically but also in terms of sexual and gender identity. This means companies are required to have at least one member of the board with a diverse background by the end of 2021, with the number rising in 2022.

However, Soeteman-Reijnen says that while most developed countries are pushing for more diversity, it is also crucial to focus on developing counties, where women might face more challenges in terms of financial inclusion, as a significant number of women have restricted access to telephones and the internet, which can limit their opportunities to make money.

“Making sure that there is the right infrastructure to assist all people is key, but [it is particularly important] for female entrepreneurs for promoting financial inclusion in developing areas,” says Soeteman-Reijnen.

She also highlights the important of gender lens investing, citing a McKinsey report that recently revealed that global GDP has significantly risen as a result of better gender equality throughout workplaces. Indeed, the McKinsey Global Institute report reveals that “in a full-potential scenario in which women play an identical role in labour markets to that of men, as much as $28trn, or 26%, could be added to the global annual GDP by 2025”.

Issues such as workforce or boardroom diversity may slip under the radar as companies throw everything at negotiating their way through the challenges posed by the Covid-19 crisis, but those who maintain their focus on such matters will, according to Soeteman-Reijnen, stand a better chance of emerging from the crisis in stronger shape.