Yellow Folder Interview Series: Julie Watkins – Chief People Officer, UniSuper


Given the challenges we’ve all experienced during 2020 and into 2021, Yellow Folder wanted to reach out to a number of executives to understand how COVID-19 has impacted their businesses, their teams, and their ways of working. In this third interview we spoke with Julie Watkins, who as Chief People Officer at UniSuper, has been instrumental in successfully leading the business through a challenging time.



Question (Yellow Folder): How has COVID-19 impacted your ability to deliver on business objectives?

Answer (Julie Watkins): “From a Fund perspective, 2020 was a strong year. I am mindful it is a different experience for many other sectors and employees. As a super fund, we ‘live and die’ by investment returns and despite the market downturn, we’ve had a positive return on our core super investment product for our members over the past 12 months. This was a fantastic and frankly, unexpected result, and we were fortunate that we didn’t need to reduce headcount or ask people to take a pay cut.

In March last year, just two weeks prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, we finished the technology implementation project to enable remote working, which I was the sponsor. Having the technology in place to enable us to move our entire workforce seamlessly to remote working was crucial, because otherwise it would have been challenging for us to achieve our business objectives.  For an organisation like UniSuper where we have over 450,000 members; and in an average day, process over 1,300 transactions; deal with around 1,000 member enquiries by phone, email or chat and manage over 1,100 online transactions via Member Online, the fact within a week we had all our employees successfully working remotely was an outcome we’re all very proud of.

The university sector that our Fund supports put a pause on new hires, which in turn has impacted us in terms of new funds or super contributions to members’ super accounts. Many members have also had to reduce their salaries or nature of employment. So as a business, we considered what the university sector truly needed and how we could offer support. This led to UniSuper providing manual and customised support for our defined benefits superannuation product, which we wouldn’t normally do. We were also able to respond to the Australian government’s early release policy that enabled members in need to access $10,000 from their UniSuper fund with a 48-hour turnaround time.”

Q: How have you found onboarding new talent remotely?

A: “I am most proud of how we transitioned to onboarding people remotely during this time. We completely threw out our onboarding packs and any approach we’d used previously; even our induction process was revamped.  We spent a lot more time with hiring leaders discussing and coaching them how to best onboard people.  In fact, we onboarded 15% of our workforce during COVID-19 with great success, with many new starters commenting that it was the best, most professional and comprehensive onboarding they’d ever experienced.”

Q: How have you led your team through such a challenging time?

A: “My leadership approach was challenged during COVID-19 and I was reminded of the importance of flexing my style regularly. In the early days, there was a lot of widespread anxiety and concern, so my leadership style became far more directive. Not only for my own team but across the business, because people were looking for some structure and certainty with their role due to there being so much uncertainly outside of work. UniSuper came out as early as we could to declare to our employees that we were not planning to reduce headcount or remuneration.  We also introduced standby leave, with every employee able to use 7.5 hours of stand-by leave a week. We have many employees with children, so this took the pressure off a bit and gave people the opportunity to do perform home-schooling for a couple of hours each day if required. Also allowed employees with other carer responsibilities due to COVID-19 to do this, without needing to access their personal leave.”

Q: Working remotely, what are some of the successes you have had?

A: “Culturally, the level of trust with and between employees has improved. The confidence our leaders feel in having the more challenging conversations has also improved – in 2019, we would never have expected a leader to ask employees about their financial stability, mental health, or  safety, whereas in 2020 and into 2021 we needed to and our leaders stepped into this. With support, coaching and training, leader’s confidence in having these personal discussions with their team members demonstrated real care. We were also extremely productive as a business during this time, so the myths around working from home have well and truly been busted.”

Q: What about the challenges you have had?

A: “There is some anxiety with people returning to work after such a long period working from home. So, the challenge has been to reassure people and support them as much as we can with the transition back.  Also, we haven’t introduced as many new people related initiatives as we would have in a more ‘normal’ 12-month period as the weariness in the last quarter of 2020, especially in Victoria for much outside of the normal day-to-day work was palatable. I am expecting that the experience of COVID-19 will trigger changes for some people; whether it be in relation to their career or personal life and that we may see choices being made.’

Q: What has COVID-19 changed for you permanently?

A: “As a Fund we are clear that we will not be a full remote working organisation, however regular remote working will be here to stay. Continuing to offer our members the option of whether they’d like to seek financial advice remotely or face to face will also remain. We have reduced our printer footprint, are determining what activities can be done centrally rather than in each interstate office and some ‘nice to have spend’ such as on biscuits or fruit are unlikely to return.”

Q: What does the next 12 months look like for you?

A: “The next 12 months will be about re-energising our workforce again, getting people back to the office more regularly and have them experience the benefits of that and more broadly as a Fund, planning for how we remain successful in a more competitive environment.”



The Yellow Folder team would like to thank Julie very much for her insights. Please stay tuned for our next interview with Anjanette Murfet, Chief People and Communications Officer – Accolade Wines, who has been fortunate to work in a business that has experienced a pandemic-driven uplift in demand over the past 12 months.