Digital thinking and open-plan thinking

Open plan office space for open thinking

Written by Milo Corbett, Smart Pension

How Smart Pension has used the power of digital to embrace change in unexpected ways.

The first time visitors come to our office, they often remark on how it’s all entirely open-plan, and how everyone who works here can see everyone else. It’s not unintentional: in our experience, we’ve found that having an open plan office, where one department almost spills over into another through the working day, has many benefits, chief among them the evolution of a more open plan way of thinking, too.

Naturally many new offices are built the same way – and in saying that, of course we’re not losing sight of the reality that making everything open plan is often the cheapest way for the building to be designed, built and made ready for use, too. However, a knock-on benefit of not having internal walls is the way a business, which may have many different departments, can find both those departments, and the different perspectives of the people within them, brought together. Our own experience is that it has built something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts, an organic accumulation of ideas which is complemented by the way digital itself can empower what you might call ‘lateral business thinking’, too.

It’s an approach which extends not only into how many businesses function, commercially, but also how they interact with suppliers, customers and other stakeholders who aren’t physically located in the same building. Taking our own experience in the pension business as an example, we can point to several ways in which what we do has expanded way beyond what we first envisaged it would be.

It’s natural to think that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to people’s pension planning: different customers won’t always have the same ambitions or aptitudes. Having launched a digital pension platform and a master trust which now has half a million members and £100m in assets under management, the next step has been to use digital to extend that platform to enable members to choose specific funds aligned to their own wishes and their own financial ambitions. In a business context, we’re often told that personalisation is the currency of the digital age: we’ve certainly found out that this extends to finding advantages in not using a ‘broad brush’ approach to either pension savers themselves or indeed the departments within our operations.

There are other areas in which thinking about digital can do has brought opportunities for both us and our customers, beyond what you might call the ‘normal’ growth of our business. A natural evolution was to give a lot of thought with how people interact with their pension on an ongoing basis, beyond just setting it up in the first place. We recently launched our Alexa skill and our next launches are our App and our functionality with Smart Speakers. These are good examples of what we do moving out of single departments: we may have thought, originally, that projects like these might have fallen exclusively within the remit of ‘marketing’, or ‘product development’, or ‘compliance’. In reality, though, they have all come from a combined effort across the business.

When we started out, our focus may have been on the product and the platform, yet looking back we can now see that thinking in an ‘open plan’ and digital way has brought changes in how customers interact with both us and their pension – and how we interact with them –  in ways we couldn’t have imagined. Having the opportunity to offer customers more choices in how to do things can only be good for both them and us. We really didn’t know, when we started out, that we’d soon be able to offer ways of bringing pensions into a saver’s home and to give instant updates and valuations, or indeed how popular these touchpoints would be.

Another example of this progress comes in the form of Smart Rewards, our loyalty programme for both employers and employees. These were never really about what they could do for us, but what we could do to help our customers. True, these have a commercial value for us, but that has come in building our brand, rather than as a revenue stream. The traditional approach would have been the opposite: to gather data and then ‘monetise it’, but for us that now looks outdated. As an example, we work with a Group Life Insurer: we don’t make any money from this arrangement but we offer it because we think it’s important and because the digital nature of our business can make it easy for our members. If it encourages people to save a little bit of money, too, then maybe they’ll use that saving to top up their pension contributions, but we see that as being an ‘add on’ for their own long-term benefit rather than our own in the short term. Crucially, this all came from thinking ‘differently’ and in a non-departmental way, and it’s only through digital that we can make it happen very simply and seamlessly.

Central to all of this thinking are choice and personalisation: our product offering has evolved just as the digital landscape around us has evolved, too. In parallel to how digital does not have set ‘silos’ of information, so these ideas have not come from old-fashioned research and development. Instead, they have come from something more subtle and less measurable. They represent organic growth from persistence of vision, from open thinking across all departments and from understanding how we can use digital-powered opportunities for the greater customer good.

None of that is to say that we’re a charity, of course: anyone setting up a new business knows from their own experience how difficult launching something new can be and how every penny counts. However, as we’ve grown we have attached great value to how we do things, not just what we do – and embracing digital has been essential to that. Yes, digital has enabled us to make our operations smoother and our brand better, and there’s a commercial gain to that, but that’s almost secondary to putting what the customer might need, want, like or benefit from, at the centre of our thinking.

From a branding point of view, you might call this a common tone of action rather than a common tone of voice. But if we can use digital to bring awareness and social good, alongside our core commercial business of pensions, that’s a great thing. Information flows easily around an open plan office and information flows freely when you open things up digitally – and greater good flows across what we can do for our customers as a result of embracing that.


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