Star Interview

Aviva’s employee-centric approach to customer success

HR Grapevine  caught up with Danny Harmer, Chief People Officer at Aviva, to find out why the insurance giant has taken an employee-centric approach…

Words by Sophie Parrott | Design by Lucy Bick

Words by Sophie Parrott

Design by Lucy Bick


Employee centricity is, quite literally, about putting employees at the centre of organisational strategy. It’s a concept that the experts, backed by stats, suggest benefits both the business and individuals. In fact, a recent Gallup study which found that companies with happier staff – it follows that happy staff are likely at the centre of the business plans – drive better financials whilst engaged staff create, as Morrison Management studies found, more satisfied customers. These two outcomes, amongst all the other myriad benefits that a focus on employees is meant to drive, are seemingly incorporated into Aviva’s people-come-business strategy. According to Danny Harmer, Chief People Officer at Aviva – an insurance provider with 18million customers across its core markets of UK, Ireland and Canada – it starts with treating staff in the same way that they treat customers.

This is why, throughout the pandemic particularly, the firm has strived to keep staff central in its thinking – by spearheading a wellbeing programme, putting on an array of social activities and supporting working parents during this time. By putting staff at the core of this thinking and looking after them, Harmer alludes that this allows employees to provide the best possible service to customers. She says: “Everyone at Aviva knows that Aviva cares about them and that we are giving them the support and the space to look after our customers and it just runs through. If you are not being looked after at work, it is very hard to look after the business and the customers of the business…If you want people to be great with customers, the organisation has to be great with them.”

Everyone at Aviva knows that Aviva cares about them

Tailoring support to the pandemic

One challenge about keeping employees central to business plans was when the UK was plunged into a national lockdown last year and a large portion of employees were forced to work from home. Like many employers, the vast majority of Aviva’s UK workforce moved to homeworking when the pandemic hit in March 2020 and this meant that the insurance firm had to innovate and come up with ways to support and engage staff from afar in order to continue driving great business outcomes.

With isolation being a challenge for many amid the pandemic – during the peak of the November 2020 lockdown ONS data found that eight per cent of adults were “always or often lonely” – one of the ways to keep staff at the centre of company culture Aviva came up with a package of social activities to keep staff connected. This was dubbed the ‘Winter of Happiness’ programme and was designed to help staff particularly through the winter months and helped to put employees at the centre of what the business did. “What we just wanted to do was sprinkle a bit of happiness for people during a really difficult time where they couldn’t just kind of engage in some of the little joys of life,” Harmer explains.

Taking wellbeing remote

One part of this initiative was the ‘Big Aviva Family Quiz’, which was streamed on YouTube, where staff and their families could get involved. “So, if [an employee lives] on their own and their family lives somewhere else, they could form a group with them and join the quiz live on YouTube. We had lots of people dial in for that,” she explains. Aside from organising family quizzes, the firm hosted an ‘Aviva Bake Off’. Aviva’s CPO adds: “Amazingly, [one of our employee’s son’s] was on Junior Bake Off and he did a live bake off the day before Valentine’s Day…it was unbelievable, [he was] answering questions and chatting and baking.” But this is not all. Aviva has had a variety of other activities on offer to keep staff happy and engaged. A webinar hosted by a well-known fitness guru, a livestreamed Q&A session with three rugby internationals hosted by Aviva’s CEO, comparing sport and performance, and a ‘Wellbeing Day’ were among other things that Aviva has put on to support employees during this time. “So, we’ve done activities that just bring people together,” Harmer adds.


  • The very first Aviva company was founded almost 325 years ago when the Hand in Hand Fire Office was established in 1696.
  • The insurer has 16,000 employees in the UK
  • An insurance provider with 18million customers across its core markets of UK, Ireland and Canada
  • Aviva was the joint first Living Hours UK employer, meaning we can guarantee employees a stable minimum number of working hours each week
  • Core values: Care, Commitment, Community & Confidence
  • Glassdoor rating: 3.7/ 5

We recognise how tough it has been for parents to juggle their job with caring and home schooling

Assurance for working parents

Supporting employee wellbeing and keeping staff connected and engaged has clearly been a priority for Aviva during this time, in order to keep employees at the heart of plans, but the insurance firm hasn’t rested on its laurels. In fact, it appears that the organisation has continuously thought of ways to make life easier for staff and put them at the heart of the business as new pandemic-related challenges cropped up in real-time. One of the major challenges during lockdown has been juggling work, childcare and home-schooling for working parents. 2020 data from Cleo’s The State of Working Parents Study found that parents were losing two full days each week due to childcare responsibilities. While the news of the schools re-opening in England in early March was likely welcome news for many, it is possible that this change could have sparked anxiety for working parents and their children. So, to help ease this transition, Aviva offered parents and carers to take some time out of their working day to help their children settle on their first day back at school. "We recognise how tough it has been for parents to juggle their job with caring and home schooling. After such a long time at home, we wanted to help children – and parents too – who may feel a bit anxious about that first day and the change to their routine it brings. So, on the day their children go back, we’re letting parents start a bit later, finish a bit earlier or just ‘dip out’ for an hour or so to be there. It’s a small way we can help,” Harmer said in a separate interview. If, as Aviva has done, employers put support mechanisms in place to help staff – in this case working parents this is employee-centric.

A seal of approval

One day, as a leadership team, Harmer and other senior colleagues sat down to talk about the ‘Winter of Happiness’ programme.

Harmer says that the team discussed what they were doing for it, what had already been done and how employees were feeling about it.

One of Aviva’s CEO’s, Lindsey Rix, who runs the UK Savings and Retirement business, said that her dad had been in a supermarket in Norwich and overheard someone saying, ‘Aviva is doing great stuff [for their staff]’.

“It made me so proud,” Harmer explains.

New company values

Supporting staff, in terms of their wellbeing and with matters in their personal life such as returning children to school are some practical examples of what Aviva has done to care for staff. Aside from showing staff that they care, its responsible nature to employees is embedded into its company values. In fact, just before the Zoom interview took place, Harmer explained that the insurance behemoth rolled out new values to its people which are ‘Care’, ‘Community’, ‘Commitment’ and ‘Confidence’. According to Aviva’s people lead, the ‘Care’ value is about how they look after everyone – including people inside and outside the company as well as the wider community. “...We have this fun little survey that we are doing where [staff] can work out which value they identify with most. Over 50% of our people fall into the ‘Care’ value. If you think about it, that is what our people do with our customers,” Harmer explains. When customers contact the Aviva team, it is likely that they are experiencing a problem and need to make a claim, therefore this caring nature plays an important role. She adds: “Before lockdown, I visited one of our sites... and listened in to calls where our people are talking to someone who is bereaved or seriously ill or a family member is seriously ill. You listen to how [our staff] handle that and you understand why we know that our people are at the heart of what we do at Aviva.”

You listen to how [our staff] handle that and you understand why we know that our people are at the heart of what we do at Aviva

‘I want to have their hearts’

Throughout the pandemic, it is clear that Aviva has rolled out multiple initiatives and schemes not just to keep staff engaged and connected, but to help them feel supported throughout this time. Whether it is the prospect of social activities outside of working hours or providing extra support to helping working parents manage the back-to-school transition, there are many things that Aviva has done. Once normal life resumes, work teams are able to go back to the pub, and everyone is able to reflect on the struggles of the pandemic, Harmer says she wants staff to positively reflect on how Aviva treated them during this difficult. “I want to have their hearts about how we looked out for them,” Harmer concludes.