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Independent view – Fiona Sharp

I was recently invited for a guided tour around an insurance company in Holland. I hasten to add that this is not my normal holiday pastime but it seemed impolite not to accept.

Owned by Rabobank, Interpolis is one of the biggest Dutch financial institutions – smaller than Aegon and slightly bigger than ABN Amro (incidentally, its Irish arm supplies SimplyBiz with PI insurance). It has spent the last four years radically changing its working practices and the Interpolis head office is now regarded as a world leader in efficiencies.

The Dutch, by nature, are very organised but this was innovation at its best.

Interpolis operates an opendesk concept. No one has their own workstation, not even the chief executive although I did think that was a bit mean. This encourages employees to be disciplined and organised to clear their desks at the end of the working day and reduce clutter.

The office is paperless in the true sense of the word. I did not spot one piece of A4 on six floors.

We run a paperless office at Finance4Women/M2 Financial (in theory) but I still find myself lovingly clutching client files.

Each Interpolis employee is equipped with their own cellphone and laptop and is qualified to answer queries across all disciplines. This means that if a client or Dutch IFA equivalent has a question or claim, they are allocated just one Interpolis representative with a direct line to deal with their issues. I longed for this as I was passed from pillar to post over 20 minutes by the Pru upon my return to work.

Because each employee is mobile, meetings can be carried out anywhere in the building. There are funky highbacked lounge chairs that drown out external sound, there are mushroom-shaped wendy houses where team meetings can be held and everywhere you look there is some form of modern art.

If you feel peckish, you can meet in one of the many small canteens (one big canteen is deemed to be unproductive space). One is decorated like the inside of a French chateau (blue damask chairs and lace curtains) and another like a Swiss chalet (wooden furniture and yellow flowers). It reminded me of a Big Brother House but without the Machiavellian undertones.

Wherever you go in the building, you can pick up your emails/client files from a central server via random workstations and every furniture item can be adjusted from a comfort or health and safety perspective.

The whole Interpolis philosophy is one of trust and integrity (novel concept for an insurance company I know but it seems to work). It trusts its clients and its staff. There are no clocking on/off procedures and when you pay for your lunch or coffee, you do so by computer with your Switch card.

As an employee, you are measured on productivity and case turn-around times and if you are dishonest or underperform, you are sacked.

Oddly enough, productivity had increased dramatically because their employees love working there (no, I am really not making this up). They have become one of the main employers in Holland and their profits have started to soar after the initial downturn, taking into account the conversion costs.

Interpolis has no reason to cut costs further by farming out their call centres to other countries. It has the ideal infrastructure to offer its clients and introducers the very best service. The downside is that it has had to invest heavily to do it rather than just sticking its finger in the dyke to hold back the flood.

I asked Jack Buckens, a charming Interpolis official, how the changes affected client premiums. He explained that there had been no radical increase in premiums because the company had simplified procedures through technology.

A staggering 80 per cent of client claims (mainly general insurance to be fair) are settled within 10 minutes. This is because clients do not have to complete any paperwork to get their money. Interpolis staff reduce the impact of fraud because they are trained to ask the relevant questions, weeding out any potential misclaimants.

Irrespective of this innovation, however, the Dutch are still suffering from the same perennial problems that we have in the UK – a widening savings gap, a burgeoning state system and a requirement for proper financial planning to be available to all members of the community.

Interpolis has proved so far that with the right technology and employee attitudes, it is possible to work smarter, not harder, and I for one will be trying to take a very small leaf out of its book.

Fiona Sharp is senior adviser at Finance4Women

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