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In conversation with Ernest Chui of Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board

The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) had a lot to worry about when the pandemic hit, from operating remotely to ensuring it remained well-funded. Its chief financial officer, Ernest Chui, explains how the organization managed through the crisis and how it embraced uncertainty to build resiliency.

When the pandemic hit late last winter, Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) was forced to go remote, like many other organizations, with very little warning. Deemed an essential service, it has to continue operating without interruption. Still, the organization, which oversees the province’s workplace compensation, had to reassess everything, from its financial position to the way it operated to how it assisted its clients. We spoke to Ernest Chui, the WSIB’s chief financial officer, about those trying times and how the board has emerged a more resilient organization. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Deloitte: Going back to March 2020, what was going through your mind when things started shutting down?

Ernest Chui: As a senior management team, we had to act very quickly. As an essential service, we needed to work, regardless of where we were. Whether we had access to the office or not, we had to perform our services—and we didn't have a choice.

Deloitte: Being deemed essential meant you were operating in unchartered waters. Did you run any scenarios or modelling to see if things went sideways, how that might impact you from a financial resiliency standpoint?

We needed to do many more stress-test scenarios, not just by doing financial calculations, but also with more sophisticated modelling where we were using different assumptions and reaching out to experts about their predictions on the economy.

Ernest Chui: It was a constant challenge trying to come up with what we think could happen with so much uncertainty everywhere. Everything was almost a bit of a guess, but we modelled everything out. Fortunately, all the stress-test scenarios were helpful because we projected out to 2025 and 2026 and asked ourselves, what could that look like if the investment changed this way, or if our premium went this way? What if the pandemic went longer than six months or a year?

Deloitte: Given the uncertainty, how did you support your employees?

Ernest Chui: For the WSIB, it was a big culture change for us to work remotely. A small group of people inside the organization worked from home, but the large majority didn’t. We had a pretty good business continuity plan, but I don't think any organization had a plan to tackle something like what we all went through. We did take that playbook out, but we knew it wouldn’t answer all of the questions we had. We had to really engage and collaborate with others, and not just at the leadership table.

We brought staff in to learn more about their needs and then we looked at different options. We had to make quick decisions. For instance, from an IT equipment perspective, we needed to figure out what to do with those employees with desktop computers. Do we want them to bring it home? Do we package them up and send them out? We ended up bringing out unused laptops, and for people on the front line, we packaged up their desktops, and in some cases, we had people drive them to employees.

Focusing on financial resilience and leading with empathy

Deloitte: What about financial resilience—was that something your organization had been thinking about before the pandemic?

Ernest Chui: Let me give you a little backstory. The WSIB was in a very significant underfunded position at one point; $14.1 billion underfunded. In 2010, the Ontario government stepped in and told us we needed to get back to 100% funding. We aggressively tried to get rid of the unfunded liability, and the main reason why we did so is that it would allow the organization to be resilient and help us absorb any major impacts in the future. We were very focused on eliminating that debt because we knew that as an organization, if we didn’t do that, we would be in trouble if anything dramatic were to happen in the economy, from both an investment perspective and an employment perspective.

Deloitte: How do you think your actions contributed to the stability of the businesses you work with?

Ernest Chui: Our actuarial team does a lot of work when we set rates, but this time—understanding the pandemic and what everybody was going through—the recommendation it had was to look at where we are financially as an organization, then look at the claims from the previous year. We then decided this year it probably made the most sense to keep rates stable for our customers, given the disruption and uncertainty they too were under.

Bringing in the board

Deloitte: What about the board? What role did resiliency play in discussions with its members?

Ernest Chui: Resiliency was top of mind for the board members. Even as we made recommendations about the relief packages and deferrals, they were making sure we had that flexibility to do what we needed to do. They looked at it from a governance perspective, and not only from a short-term or long-term perspective: they wanted to make sure that any move we were making didn’t have negative implications further down the road. We did a lot of brainstorming, collaborating, and thinking about creative options. We wanted to hear from different sides of the organization about what we could do and have a very robust discussion about it. Although, having robust discussion virtually is not always easy.

Deloitte: Given that you’ve done a lot of work on business continuity already, did the pandemic impact that work? Did anything change as a result?

Ernest Chui: I think the lesson we learned is that anything can happen and we really need to make sure we ask all the what if questions and come from all the points of view to ask: what is the critical stream of work that needs to be prioritized if something were to happen? We have done some work, but we need to continuously improve and learn from this experience to be able to answer: what happens if we don't have access to our building? What happens if a vendor can’t communicate with us? What if we don’t have the right technology to support our work?

Deloitte: How do you impart that resiliency mindset to your employees?

Ernest Chui: It’s about reminding ourselves of the important work that we do for the people of Ontario. Our purpose is the foundation from which to build the resiliency of the organization. Because, regardless of where we work and how we work, we know at the end of day, we want to take care of our customers. We did that before the pandemic and it helped us to say, “let's continue that good work.” And the fact we all know we are considered an essential service—that helps with the motivation for our staff to change and modernize and transform the way we work.

Resilient beyond the disruption

Deloitte: Are some of the changes you’ve made over the past 12 months permanent changes? And how have those things made you a more resilient organization for the future?

Ernest Chui: I would say confidently that some of the changes are permanent. As an organization we’ve been slow to move from paper to online, the pandemic certainly sped up that transition. That’s permanent. Another thing I believe is that we as an organization now need to be looking at everything we’re doing and challenge the status quo. The pandemic showed us that we can change, and we can change for the better. Looking at continuous improvement and allowing creativity is something that’s now ingrained.

Deloitte: And does all of that make the WSIB a stronger, more resilient organization today?

Ernest Chui: Absolutely. We’re more flexible in what we’re thinking. We’re adapting, we’re transforming, we’re listening, and we’re more focused than we were in the past on what the customer needs. I think we have grown as people and as an organization. We want to make sure that we are going to build a workforce for the future, attracting and retaining the right talent, remaining flexible and creative, and always resilient.

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