How The Principal is handling coronavirus

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Kara Hoogensen is SVP for Group and Retirement Services at Principal Financial Group. During her career at Principal, she has held a variety of leadership roles, including VP for Group Benefits, CEO of Principal Bank and Principal Securities, Inc., and Managing Director at Principal Funds. She holds a BA from Central College. Kara spoke with Novarica in early April, during the pandemic crisis. This article is reprinted from the Novarica blog with permission.

What’s been the biggest surprise for you about the process of converting your team to working from home?

My biggest surprise, and maybe it shouldn’t have been, has been the resilience that I’ve seen among my team at multiple levels. It’s my front-line employees who are talking with our customers regularly and not missing a beat. It’s my leadership team and their thoughtful approach to managing their teams with care, empathy, and engagement, ensuring employees are safe and well-equipped to do the job we’ve asked them to do. And, of course, the resilience of the technology professionals that I get to work with, as they’ve helped get hardware into the hands of people who needed it to work from home.

How have your previous digital investments enabled you to pivot the model during this time?

Led by our strategy, we’re reaping the benefits of some key investments we’ve made. One example is within our group benefits division—about two years ago, we launched a chatbot capability that dental providers could use to verify coverage for patients. Because we had that in place, we were able to rely on the web and chatbot experience for dental providers and pivot call center resources to help members and claimants.

Another example is in our individual disability business. We did a proof of concept with a third party to enable underwriting based solely on electronic medical records. It proved valuable from a customer experience perspective, as well as in streamlining the process for everyone involved. We planned to roll that out over the course of the year, but we accelerated and broadened that. With the pandemic, medical providers are too busy to do labs and fluids, but the need for income protection hasn’t diminished. So that pilot has become a full deployment in a very condensed timeframe. We’re working with our risk management team to monitor it and maintain guardrails, but we’re very comfortable with it from both an underwriting and a technology perspective.

What are your key priorities for the rest of the year?

Our top priorities are keeping our employees safe and well during this period. As we started to go back and look at the strategic plans that we had for 2020, the vast majority are remaining in place. A handful will discontinue or slow down.One that’s risen to the top in direct response to the current crisis is that we’re aggressively working to see what tools and resources we can put in the hands of advisors and brokers, and our small business customers, to navigate this crisis. For most small businesses, the CEO is also head of HR, and finance, and IT. There’s a set of decisions around how to manage the impact of the crisis and how to maintain cash flow that owners may not feel informed about or well-equipped to make. We’re focused on trying to be a trusted resource to help them navigate that and help them access the right support quickly.

In terms of existing projects, we’re continuing to deploy new quoting capabilities, and we’re also deploying a paid family medical leave solution starting in one state for next year.

How do you think the operating model of your technology teams will change given recent experience?

We were already fairly far along in embracing a software engineering culture and Agile methodology. You can argue that not sitting together makes it harder, but I’m thankful we’re as far along as we are. Our teams have been able to effectively pivot to a remote working model. The key is close ties and strong relationships between technology and business resources. Often, we can’t tell the difference between a “technology professional” and “business lead” because they work so interchangeably with each other. I think that will continue to serve us well going forward.

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