How coronavirus tested Zurich’s HR credentials

Zurich CHRO David Henderson believes that a people strategy should offer employees stability but when coronavirus hit the ability of his 55,000 strong firm to adapt surprised even him...

Words by Kieran Howells | Design by Matt Bonnar

Words by Kieran Howells

Design by Matt Bonnar


The Zurich Insurance Group is a company with a vast heritage. Formed 149 years ago in 1872, the company has grown steadily to employ over 55,000 employees and serve customers in more than 215 countries. Despite its massive size and broad employee base, it is still considered a top employer by the likes of Glassdoor, Indeed and the Top Employers Institute. It has achieved this status as a leader in its industry by, as it claims, applying a meticulous standard of consideration into any significant initiatives in which it chooses to invest. In short, the company considers itself a pillar of stability and dependence for its employees. Working for Zurich is knowing that change is carefully managed, and consistency is highly valued.

If you’re worried about that [basic job security], you can’t be giving your best

However, no company has escaped impact from the coronavirus pandemic. Heritage brands and prestigious institutions the world over have either put their ability to be agile to the test or suffered the consequences. The pandemic has served as the ultimate trial of internal corporate cultures; many discovered too late that their lack of people investment may well cost them dearly. However, this is not the case for Zurich. Despite valuing a structured method of operation, a theme which you’ll read more about below, Zurich’s HR function has managed to navigate the perils of the pandemic, and the threat it posed to employee wellbeing, and is now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

Zurich, a big company with a big history

Zurich Insurance Group is a financial services company founded in 1872. The company currently employs 55,000 staff globally. As of 2020, the company was listed as the 117th largest public company in the world according to Forbes’ Global 2000 list. It’s also considered a ‘top employer’ by Interbrands. Zurich has customers in over 215 countries across the world. Based in Switzerland, the holding company Zurich Insurance Group Limited (ZURN) is also listed on the SIX Swiss Exchange.

Putting stability to the test

According to Zurich's Chief Human Resources Officer David Henderson, providing employees a stable and structured working environment is a concept that the multinational lives and breathes. “One of the things I’m proudest of in Zurich is our concept of work sustainability,” he says. “If you’re operating in an environment where your basic security about the future of your job, skills development to keep pace with rapid technological advancement and your wellbeing – whether that job is going to be there in two or three years, or whether the company is taking the right steps to invest in your development – if you’re worried about that, you can’t be giving your best. If you’re confident that your organisation is going to do everything possible to maintain job security for you, you’re going to be much more motivated and able to concentrate on doing your job well.”

This emphasis on stability has served its people strategy well for many years, but the word pandemic is hardly synonymous with the concept of stability. Zurich, like all other firms across the world, was thrown into an unmitigated period. Suddenly, changes were thrust upon it, and the company had to decide whether it was to roll with the punches, or ruck against the concept of change. Instead of sticking ardently to its guns, Zurich found a natural aptitude for swift change management. In fact, David discovered in this time that Zurich’s ability to be both agile and manage change at speed surprised even himself.

Zurich realised in the early stages of the pandemic that a turbulent period was ahead, and as such, decided that the best way forward would be to focus on the wellbeing of its people. “It’s been such an extraordinary year and I feel very proud of both my team and Zurich as a whole for what we’ve achieved. It’s been difficult, but I think fundamentally the thing that made the difference is that we said that alongside our customers, the most important thing is the wellbeing and safety of all of our approximately 55,000 employees and we’re going to put that above everything else.”


Sky Key – Zurich Switzerland

Wellbeing in the pandemic

A prime example of this was Zurich’s approach to the concept of furlough. Throughout the entire pandemic, Zurich has been committed to avoiding placing employees on furlough, reducing hours or cutting their job as a result of coronavirus. Instead, workers and, in some cases, entire teams were redeployed into other positions needing assistance. This demonstrates how, whilst unpredictability at the hands of coronavirus may have been unavoidable in the early stages of the pandemic, the company’s response was still one of providing stability wherever possible. To David, employees who feel that their company is a dependable backbone on which they can flourish feel liberated to concentrate their efforts on both their own wellbeing, and the quality of their work – especially in light of the pandemic.

Yet, having to pivot plans in such a short timeframe was still an experience to which Zurich was not accustomed. David admits that he had some trepidations about the extent to which staff would embrace the need for immediate change. Instead of hesitancy, David was pleased to find that the mutual trust between worker and company had only grown in the lockdown. “We always had a high level of trust in our employees, now we trust them in a different way.”

He explained that, in a time when both the company really needed its people to perform their duties to the best of their abilities, and when Zurich’s workers needed their company to understand the complexities of working in an unmitigated global disaster, the hard work both sides had invested in Zurich’s culture paid off. “Suddenly everybody was in charge of their own time and had to work flexibly. No one abused it. We had situations whereby people needed to get childcare arrangements in place so that they could work from home and we had somewhat convoluted policies in place, so we said, 'don’t even look at the policy, just do what you need to do to work from home'. Same with equipment, we just did it all on trust without any overarching policy – this ability to trust people really came through so strongly”.

Zurich CHRO David Henderson on Zurich’s hybrid approach

“Initially in the first three months of the pandemic, when everyone was working remotely, major tech companies announced that they were embracing the model and saying it was here forever. But, the thing I’ve noticed over the last few months is that people are craving the social interactions, the collaboration and the opportunities to be together. Which is why we’re settling on a hybrid model and figuring out the right way to make that work. We’re trying to be precise about fitting the location of work to the nature of work. We don’t think that this completely remote working model is the solution – equally we don’t think that having everyone in the old model of 9-to-5 in the office is the right approach either – so we’re trying to balance that.

Key COVID initiatives

As David previously stated, Zurich defined its actions when the pandemic struck by a commitment to serving its people. “We looked at physical, mental, social and financial wellbeing. We said, 'okay, how do we bring this to life for our teams'?” he notes. An outcome of this approach is Zurich’s hospitalisation benefit policy, which provides additional support to Zurich’s employees in the event of hospitalisation from COVID-19, and was introduced early in the pandemic. In the space of 10 days, the concept was conceived, scrutinised, worked into a functional initiative and rolled out – a far cry from Zurich’s traditional approach, which David states would normally take three to six months to bring a product to market.

If your confident that your organisation is going to do their’re going to be much more motivated and able to concentrate on doing your job well

In addition to hospitalisation benefits, Zurich introduced a raft of training for both employees and managers to help them focus on their own health and wellbeing practices. Understanding that employees who were used to both physical working environments and, as previously mentioned, stability in their working lives, the company realised that whilst remote, employees may well be struggling to reconcile with this new working life. So, it launched an online source for all employees called ‘Zurich never Stops’, that turned into an internal movement, including an internal webinar series featuring weekly experts in mental health, staying active, nutrition and other key areas. It also underwrote costs associated with receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, and fundamentally altered practices to ensure that workers had access to their benefits quickly.


Stability through ‘lift and shift’

It’s obvious that this theme of stability within Zurich is a pivotal area of its culture. Yet, consistency across a 55,000-person employee base is no easy task. The sheer volume of the workforce that Zurich’s HR team has to service is not lost on David. “Zurich is a global company. We have 55,000 employees. We have businesses in every region in most countries around the world. We cannot just apply a one-size fits all approach,” he says. This means that all initiatives need to both pass a rigorous viability process in each region, whilst also still feeling to employees like a ‘Zurich’ approach. This is achieved through what David calls a ‘lift and shift’ model. When something is tested in one of the brand’s many regions of operation, it’s then carefully scrutinised, and if it passes the testing phase, other regions are considered according to the needs specified by their regional leaders.

“Having a core purpose and agreed behaviours, along with consistency with things like performance management, is so important to us. There’s a distinctly Zurich way of doing things, but how that lands is very much a matter for local management. I’ve been a big proponent of a model we call the ‘lift and shift model’ where we test and validate ideas, but only roll out the ones that we see could work globally,” he adds.


Sky Key – Zurich Switzerland


‘Lift and shift’ in practice

A prime example of this approach is Zurich’s progressive methodology to work-life balance management – again an issue that has risen in HR’s priorities due to the pandemic. Within the UK, the company now offers roles across its functions and seniority levels on a part-time basis. The trial was created to improve diversity, catering individuals who may not be able to fulfil full-time hours, and the results have been drastically positive. As a result of the trial’s success, it will now be applied elsewhere.

We hear what people have to say in these groups and consider how we can best bring their ideas to life

“We started to see a tremendous improvement in the number of female candidates for senior roles because they were able to work around their own life commitments,” says David. “Seeing how impactful this small but mighty change has been in terms of promoting diversity and inclusion, we’re now looking to expand that model across many more of our markets and are sharing it with our HR community. This is an example of what I’m keen to see within the group; more bottom-up ideation, less top-down mandating of ideas,” says David.


Mount Key – Zurich Sydney

Cooperation and ‘listen and act’ initiatives

The successful trial within the UK appears that it was only possible because of the HR strategy that Zurich had in place. As David says, the company promotes as much consideration and cooperation from employees as possible in order to truly fulfil the needs of staff. Zurich calls these ‘listen and act’ initiatives. “We do a lot of listening groups and sounding board groups with our employees. They absolutely feel empowered to define their own future. We hear what people have to say in these groups and consider how we can best bring their ideas to life. To follow through, I’m now going into a set of discussions with all of our country CEOs over the next few weeks to discuss those principles and how they bring them forward in their own markets. That’s a perfect example of how we do our research and really connect with our people on their own initiative.”


Mount Key – Zurich Sydney / Zurich’s new headquarters in Switzerland, opening September 2021

The new normal doesn’t mean going backwards

It’s clear that much has changed over the past 12 months, and whilst Zurich isn’t going to renege on its promise of stability, David and his team have instead found that, going forward, and as a result of the pandemic, the firm actually has more to work with. Yes, policies are still going through rigorous processes before being rolled out - Instability is still an unwelcome factor at Zurich - but discovering that the company could think fast and make successes of agile projects isn’t a lesson David plans on forgetting any time soon. The same applies for his deeper understanding of the levels of trust that exist within Zurich’s teams.

We’re very much focussed on doing the right thing for our employees. We continue to live by that principal moving forward. We don’t want to go back on the trust benefits that we’ve managed to build on over the last months

In essence, the moral compass of Zurich has guided David and the HR team through this turbulent time. The positive feedback he’s received has reinforced his simple mission – to ‘do the right thing’ for his people. “We’re very much focussed on doing the right thing for our employees. We continue to live by that principal moving forward. We don’t want to go back on the trust benefits that we’ve managed to build on over the last months,” he concludes.