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We’re not a motorboat anymore

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Dariusz Pastuła | People Organization Director at Aon leads us through his vision of 15 years of Aon Krakow Centre

A change always creates a huge impression, yet it’s not the impression of fear or insecurity – it’s excitement. It means we are brave enough.


Becoming

I keep saying that this organization grew very fast – from a corporate mentality perspective. Where we used to be versus where we are now – I always compare it to a teenager. If you imagine a teenager – it’s not a child anymore and not yet a woman or a man – just on the verge of becoming one. Across those first years, we used to be such a teenager, who grew, tested things, and – most of all – you could tell he’s a teenager by how he looked like, what he wore. He used to have a little bit too long legs and arms and seemed out of proportion. What’s more, he wore those hand-me-down kids clothes from a big brother or those too mature ones for adults. That was how we looked like and how we developed. On the one hand, we already were quite big and mature as a company, but on the other hand, our processes – those clothes we wore – didn’t fit.

As we went on changing the processes and had 600, 700, 800 employees, I kept on saying – ‘when you change a process or a portal or add a new benefit, when you plan anything – do not plan it for here and now, think bigger, e.g. for 1500 people.’ Consequently, the implementation of huge processes for 1500 people triggers different challenges than those of a little entity. There are many other examples, e.g. employee services. In a small organization, you’re able to remember everyone by name, people call you on the phone, you usually have the capacity to tackle on-the-spot issues. Then suddenly you decide to implement a big tool as Workday. Employees are reluctant to send emails or use Self Service platform instead of face-to-face talking or calling a colleague. It’s like putting a suit on this teenager – he looks strange, unnatural.

Those were the phases we went through, our becoming. At a certain point, it’s important to realize how fast you can grow to adapt the pace and rhythm of changes to systems and processes you operate.

Change
We became a completely different organization after undertaking several changes, both small and big. Be it merges and acquisitions, transforming into Aon Hewitt or charting routes of big business structures as Alight and Kincentric. We had 1200 employees back then when 300 moved to a new entity, and 900 stayed – we made a step backwards. After that, we grew again, and we got to the same shape and amount. Then we sold a unit again. Now, we announced combining with Willis Towers Watson. Those changes are huge.

From my point of view, in 15 years, transforming from literally 0 to 2200 employees (in a couple of months, after combining with WTW) is one giant change. Many people who have been working at Aon for 15 years would say that a change always creates a huge impression, yet it’s not the impression of fear or insecurity – it’s excitement. It means we are brave enough, used to be and will be. It took courage to announce that nobody would lose a job due to COVID-19, it took courage to decide on temporary salary reductions and then to call them back when we were certain our situation was stable enough. Those changes were just natural. I think that if we weren’t named Aon (‘Oneness’ in Gaelic), our organization’s name would be ‘Change’.

Organizational Culture
Aon as an organization, even though it became swift and agile, it’s not agile enough to perform big changes fast. In small companies – we used to be there – when you have 200, 300 people on board, it’s simple to make a turn – thinking about organizational culture. You know colleagues by their names, it’s easy to approach them face to face, you’re able to react immediately.

Let’s imagine 2 perspectives: a motorboat and a tanker. Aon or Aon Hewitt in Krakow 10 years ago was a motorboat. We had several hundred employees, everyone knew one another, we didn’t have many leaders or managers. This group was very coherent, ambitious, eager and ready for challenges. We could drive fast as a motorboat and turn on full speed. We had the courage, and lack of experience was even triggering this courage; when we fell down, we got up quickly.

Now, although we still have the courage, Aon is more like a tanker – you make a turn, and you wait. Only after a while, you can see it turns. You reduce speed a bit and observe. This is how big organizations act. You are able to take a big turn; however, you need a different approach, more time, space and patience. Then, in the long run, you need a lot of maintenance. We will never be a huge motorboat with 2 thousand people on board; it is simply not possible.

One Place
One Place project was a huge milestone for our organizational culture. Preparing the organization to the Future of Work and Activity-based working paid off. All the moves we undertook, e.g. the overall transition to laptops, nobody at Aon uses desktops anymore. Colleagues need to take laptops home in case something unexpected happens. There are still many corporates where employees work on desktops, and were given laptops only after the lockdown or still work on their private hardware. We were perfectly prepared for that. Another thing – home office. Some people ask me if we still work from home. Yes, we do, and most probably it won’t change till the end of the year. They cannot believe and conclude ‘we are told to come back because nobody trusts us that we work’.

Trust
We’ve been preparing for the current situation for 2-3 years, not knowing it would occur. We let people work from home, tested technological solutions, trained managers to work in a virtual environment, taught trust. Activity-based working relies entirely on trust. Home office means trust.

We’ve been getting ready for the pandemic, but not for long. It was more like ‘do we switch to full remote right now or not just yet’. And one day, on Thursday, I remember – we sat down with John Lyons, and we decided ‘ok, it’s time’. It makes no difference if we do it on Friday, Monday or Thursday, we will do it anyway –  the sooner, the better. We’ll earlier know how it goes. So then we switched to a fully remote environment, and nothing happened. Nothing at all. All systems operated just fine; all colleagues were able to log on, nobody was afraid of working from home. Of course, it was new to some employees, because there were new-joiners or some other colleagues who were not used to the home office, but it was a slight amount. The organization did an excellent job. Then we managed to implement several new technological solutions like Webex Teams or new VPN. Were we ready for that 3 years ago? No – from a technological perspective. Now, 35 thousand employees are working on VPN (at peak moments during a day), and it’s going great. There are 3 or 4 times more virtual meetings than there used to be. It works, and it didn’t happen by accident. We made it work.

What’s ahead?
If in January, I would tell you that Aon Krakow is entering a stabilization phase, that our organization, departments, processes are going to root and grow steadily. And today? We’ve got a completely new road ahead of us. We’ve got solid foundations, and we’ve gone a long way across the past 15 years,  which made us ready for what’s coming. I think that combining with WTW circles another huge milestone, it makes a new beginning. We’re in a really good place right now; we’re ready, experienced and very swift even with over 1300 employees currently on board. I see a bright future towards us.

Integration is a keyword for us for another 2-3 years. It’s a complex process, not a matter of 2-3 months or even 1-2 years. Combining two companies as big as Aon and WTW – with 45 thousand people at WTW and 50 thousand at Aon – is a massive challenge. There are not many companies in the world with around 100 thousand employees. It means years of challenging yet exciting work ahead.

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