Cindy Tong – General Counsel and Head of Compliance, Axa Asia
In what has been a highly unusual 12 months, how have you managed to retain some semblance of normality? What tools or strategies have you found particularly useful?
It’s been a very unusual year. We’ve been working from home on and off since Chinese New Year, as I believe has been the case for most companies. We went through a series of discussions to decide whether we should work from home, or have 50% of the team in the office at any given time. We also had to work out how to keep the team together when you’re not face to face with them. We managed to overcome that challenge quite quickly as an organisation. We switched to using MS Teams to allow us to continue having face-to-face contact, so we never felt too far from the team as a result. Also, in terms of dealing with my counterparts in the organisation, the technology has allowed us to continue interacting despite sitting in our respective homes.
Personally, I don’t believe in working from home 100% of the time- it’s very important to interact with your team and it’s usually the more personal conversations that don’t happen when we aren’t in the office. Some conversations have to be had face-to-face, particularly the difficult ones. We still use a lot of Whatsapp and one-to-one calls. We also have a team chat group and also use the Chat function on MS Teams so, whilst we’re not always physically in the office, we’re relying on all other means to stay connected and maintain some normality that way. We’re a regional team anyway so, even under normal circumstances, we spend a lot of time on calls with our counterparts in Indonesia, Thailand, Australia, etc.
“Digitalisation will carry on, it won’t turn back. Lawyers will also need to ensure they understand the new technology”
What are the key challenges your business has faced in the last 12 months and how has your Legal team helped to overcome them?
In Insurance generally, there are certain types of products that require face-to-face selling. Agents are accustomed to seeing people face-to-face before a sale can be completed, particularly for more complex products. Under the current circumstances, lots of companies are speeding up their efforts to digitalise. Regulators in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand and elsewhere, almost immediately started to look at hybrid arrangements where agents can talk to customers but without sitting across from each other. The legal team has played an important role in overcoming legal hurdles to make that possible.
Legal has also supported heavily on employment-related issues that have arisen as a result of the pandemic. There were employment issues that needed to be considered when people first started working from home. Some expats, for example, wanted to leave and others were stuck elsewhere. We worked very closely with our HR team, looking at tax implications as well as employment-related issues. We’ve also relied on external counsel support. Lots of law firms put out seminars and papers on how to handle the employment angle. Discussions with external providers, in addition to those with our HR and management teams, were very helpful.
In a time of remote working and endless Zoom calls, what advice would you give to those managing Legal teams through this pandemic?
We have continued to do a lot of group calls and share best practices. Unfortunately, we haven’t had coffee gatherings yet, but in the periods where we have been back together in the office, the firm has been very good at organising activities to help boost morale- everything from wellness activities, to delivering face masks to people individually, ensuring everyone was provided for and no one feels alone- that you’re still connected. Furthermore, even when the office had reopened, people still had the option of working from home two days per week, allowing them the flexibility to spend time with family. People appreciate that and it changes the way we work quite radically. It started from the top; the CEO spends time working from home, as do I. It really helps to encourage others to do the same and creates a culture where there is more flexibility and more trust. This, coupled with other initiatives when we’re back in the office (e.g. flu shots for staff and their families during Wellness week, exercise sessions with a coaches from Pure), show that we care about people’s wellness. It all helps to keep people motivated and connected, and it keeps things fun!
What trends do you expect to see in the Insurance industry this year, and what will that mean for Legal?
With vaccines coming out, I’m hoping there will be some normality returning. Digitalisation will carry on, it won’t turn back. Lawyers will also need to ensure they understand the new technology. Legal tends not to adopt technology as much as other areas of the business, and that has to change. At AXA, we are looking to adopt more tech, and we have a Group Digital Team focusing on what that will look like for Legal. People from key entities will speak about what’s going on in their jurisdiction, and identify ways they can mutually support each other and share ideas. This sort of support group is very important amongst lawyers as we continue with our focus on digitalisation. Product-wise, we are working on a big project to review T&Cs in policies to ensure things are simpler. In Europe, there have been issues around business interruption coverage, so that needs to be explored further here. With digitalisation, simplification of contracts etc. is all the more important; you wouldn’t want customers having to review 60 pages of terms.
What are you priorities and objectives for the year?
- Continuing to support the business. At AXA, we’re pivoting more towards health, so that will be a big focus.
- We’ve acquired 50% of a JV with a Chinese partner. China is a very important market for us in Asia, so a big priority for 2021.
- Continuing to grow and manage the team and build a strong legal and compliance family in Asia to support the business- that’s a continued process!
If you had to give one piece of advice to other in-house lawyers as they embark on 2021, what would it be?
Being prepared and adopting an agile mindset will be key as legal will need to adapt along with the business. Also, it’s very important not to stop learning. We’re focused on training lawyers on soft skills, and coaching to ensure teams stay motivated.
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