I see a home office bathed in spring sunshine through my camera. It is spacious and functional, with documents, books and enough room for a couple of extra desks and chairs. This is the study of Yashish Dahiya, the co-founder and group chief executive officer (CEO) of India’s largest insurance aggregator PolicyBazaar.com.
The 49-year-old is talking to me from Wimbledon, in south London, where he lives with his family. He was based there for the duration of the first lockdown in India in 2020, after which he came to India for a few months. He returned to London in April, before the second surge of covid-19 cases resulted in travel restrictions between the UK and India.
“I was hoping it would be a much longer trip in India, but my family lives in the UK. It was very important that I got back to the UK before the international airline blockade started,” he says. Before covid-19, he spent “70% of his time in India, 10-15% in the UK and the rest elsewhere, on international business travel.”
Now, he runs his business from his London home. According to a February Mint report, Policybazaar is reportedly set to list on the bourses via a ₹4,000 crore initial public offering, which will see it dilute a 15% stake while seeking a valuation of almost $3.5 billion.
Straddling time zones
Not being present in India, where the business is headquartered, “adds a lot of guilt, because you feel like you’re not there. But what I realised when I was there for the two months in Delhi was that almost nobody was in office. So, I think eventually whether you’re working from a home in London or working from work, it doesn’t really matter, from a work perspective. I don’t feel cut off. If anything, the guilt makes you work more.”
His natural body clock aligns itself with office hours in India. “I’m lucky that I’m a very early-riser. I get up at around four o’clock every day, and my calls start at 4:30am. I’m largely done with work by about 2:30 or 3pm. I get the afternoon to myself, for exercise or spending time with the family,” says Dahiya, who is a committed athlete, passionate about running, cycling and swimming.
This discipline and focus help him balance time on calls and meetings with time to think, reflect and look at data. The pandemic has reinforced the need to communicate more, he insists. “We have made town halls more frequent. I make it a point to speak more than before with people, because earlier we could all see each other.”
Dahiya transitioned to group CEO in December 2019, after new recruit Sarbvir Singh took over as CEO of PolicyBazaar.com, now devoting most of his time to strategy, rather than operational matters. The role includes liaising with his direct reports, each of whom is a business leader for a separate unit, working on financial controls, communicating with investors, as well as getting involved on product technology and some key supplier management.
Having a CEO to manage the main business has been a huge help, he says.
“We are able to be more decisive about the future. Just the way we went about setting up our UAE operations, the way we are thinking around our investor and public listing, the way we are thinking about our core strategy pieces around product. I think our product has evolved immensely in the last one year. A lot of that is because we got the bandwidth and the time to focus on it, rather than focusing on just the sales numbers every day,” he says.
With a workforce of close to 10,000 employees, largely in Gurugram, but also spread across Mumbai, Punjab and the UAE, Dahiya is vociferous about the importance of wearing masks.
“My personal view is that this wave has happened because we did not mask up. When I came to Delhi (the firm is headquartered in Gurugram), nobody was wearing a mask. Even inside our office, despite all the conditions that the office had put out, people were flouting the rules. People found it strange that I was wearing a mask with a face shield. As long as people can mask up and keep their social distancing, I don’t think going back to work would be a problem.”
Although he seems optimistic about how soon offices might open, there is no disputing his opinion on masks.
The pandemic impact
Dahiya is not willing to share numbers, but he says “traffic has shot up during covid. We are about educating people on the need for health insurance and life insurance. Covid does that job for us,” he explains.
The demand for insurance is mitigated by economic concerns, to some extent. “Covid can, in some cases, have a debilitating impact on income. There are certain customers who could afford a couple of 1,000 rupees a month, who believe they no longer can afford it. And for the second part of last year, we felt a lot of that. But this year, the story’s been different. The story has been that somehow people have figured out how to live, and people have figured out how to make money. And thus, the sales are really growing fast now. Because the demand was always there,” he says. Possibly, but the real economic toll of the second wave might manifest itself in the coming months too.
There are practical challenges. “We’re right now struggling a bit with the issuance rates. Because if there’s a need for a physical medical, not many people are willing to go to the hospital to get a physical medical done. There are lots of process challenges, both in the credit business as well as the insurance business. But on the whole, it’s been positive for the business,” he insists.
Alongside assisting with provision of oxygen cylinders and encouraging covid-19 survivors to donate plasma through a central co-ordinating team and regular company-wide mailers, the company has initiated a policy for casualties. “If any employee on duty loses their life, on compassionate grounds, we will make sure another member of their family is employed in the company. That’s the least we can do,” Dahiya says. At the time of writing the article, there had been one casualty.
Need for change
The pandemic’s impact on technology has been a global phenomenon and it is no different with PolicyBazaar.
“There is a need to focus on remote fulfilment, to offer services quickly and conveniently to the customers. Remote fulfilment includes examinations, inspections, claims fulfilment.
“Secondly, we need the entire claims process to be completely automated. It’s time to sort out claims experience where a consumer gets auto adjudicated, automated, sharp and quick claims,” he says.
It is ironic. A global CEO can be based in Wimbledon, plan an IPO and run a business with 10,000 people, at a distance. Technology has meant that life can go on, even when it is being taken from us on a daily basis. Perhaps no one knows this better than an insurance aggregator.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.