Perspectives on the new world of remote actuarial work

By Chris Fievoli, FCIA, Staff Actuary, Communications and Public Affairs at the CIA

Among other things, 2020 has been a year of disruptions. Canadians have had to learn to adapt to new working conditions that minimize the amount of personal contact. For actuaries that do a large amount of client work, these new arrangements have presented their fair share of challenges. Surprisingly, they have also created unexpected opportunities. We spoke to some CIA members to get their thoughts about what it was like adjusting to these new realities in the year of the pandemic.

Actuaries that work in reinsurance, specifically on the business development side, rely on frequent contact with client companies as part of the regular activities. According to Heather Ingram, FCIA, Client Manager and Vice-President with Swiss Re, “There is something nice about interacting with someone face to face. You can see their body language and facial expressions. It seems more natural that we interact in that way.”

With the elimination of in-person visits, client contact has had to be conducted remotely, primarily by video conference. This change, Ingram notes, has actually proven to be beneficial in their dealings with out-of-town clients, which were formerly done mostly through traditional phone calls. Being able to connect visually has actually led to better quality interactions. In addition, Ingram has found that she has been able to get to know clients on a different level, as they share experiences on working from home, family situations, and other day-to-day circumstances.

Even though traditional client activities – including conferences and sporting events – have been suspended, Ingram says that they have found ways to think creatively and find other ways to maintain contact. What were formerly in-person programs are now being delivered virtually, and that has brought some unexpected benefits as well. “When it is virtual, you can sometimes connect with more people than would be available in person,” Ingram says. Perhaps unexpectedly, the level of activity has been unchanged during the pandemic, and in some cases it has been busier for reinsurance actuaries. Client companies have had to adapt underwriting procedures and deal with the temporary closure of lab companies in the early days of the shutdown, decisions which required input from their reinsurers.

To gain some perspective from the pension consulting side, we spoke to two CIA members from Willis Towers Watson in Vancouver. Andrew Kwan, FCIA, is Associate Director, Retirement, and Laura Samaroo, FCIA, is Managing Director and Market Leader, Western Canada. As expected, both Kwan and Samaroo saw a reduction in the amount of direct client contact. However, they also saw opportunities to have more frequent interactions. What used to be monthly meetings have been replaced by more frequent weekly chats. “We’ve actually gotten closer and have more touch points,” according to Kwan.

Another unexpected benefit has been the ability to get in touch with clients that had previously been difficult to get a hold of. “It’s actually easier to get meetings with clients, especially if you’re talking about the very senior-level folks, because no one is travelling anymore,” says Samaroo. “There just seems to be more availability.”

“It’s actually easier to get meetings with clients, especially if you’re talking about the very senior-level folks, because no one is travelling anymore.”

Laura Samaroo, FCIA, Managing Director and Market Leader, Western Canada, Willis Towers Watson

Clients have also come to value consultants in these times of uncertainty, as they try to deal with issues such as volatility in pension plans. In terms of working arrangements, the key to success has been flexibility. According to Samaroo, the mindset seems to be “Get your work done. It doesn’t matter exactly when. People seem generally accepting of that.” For Kwan, who has a young daughter, that has meant shifting his work day around to start earlier, and leave room for breaks for family activities through the day. In addition, the work from home arrangements, combined with video conferencing, has led to a new level of connection with clients. “You literally bring people into your home,” Kwan observes, and the fact that everyone is dealing with the pandemic at the same time has given both consultants and clients the opportunity to share hints and tips on dealing with the new arrangements.

Earlier this year, Amelia Burns, FCIA, Actuary and Partner with GML Actuarial Services, led a town hall video meeting with CIA members in the actuarial evidence (AE) field, discussing how 2020 has affected their practice. Like other areas, direct interaction with clients has been limited, but that has not been particularly disruptive, since most communication had previously been done via phone or email. Any face-to-face meetings have been replaced by video conferencing.

In terms of work flow, the beginning of the pandemic actually led to an increase in activity for some AE actuaries. Lawyers found themselves with additional time, which allowed them to clean up any backlogs of cases, which in turn led to more work going to the actuarial consultants. On the other hand, the pandemic may have a ripple effect that won’t be felt for a couple of years, since it can take that long for motor vehicle accident cases to enter the negotiation or trial stage. “There was a good period of time when no one was on the road,” Burns explains. “If there was any material impact on our work, we wouldn’t see that immediately.”

As with other practice areas, conferences and other social events provided valuable networking opportunities, but those have now gone virtual, leaving AE actuaries to determine how to replace those activities. According to Burns, this will be a challenge, since there is no way of knowing what will be a permanent change and what will be temporary. “We’re all sort of in that holding pattern. Everyone is waiting to see how things are going to go and when they’re going to get better.”

In all, the Canadian actuarial profession seems to have demonstrated a good amount of resiliency in 2020, especially when it comes to dealing with the absence of client contact. It will be interesting to see what lessons can be carried forward in 2021, when everything will hopefully return to a normal state of affairs.

This article originally appeared in the CIA (e)Bulletin.

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