A look into the impact of COVID-19 on the telecoms industry and how they are planning for the future, featuring Nicola Green, Corporate Affairs Director at O2

Welcome to our ‘Getting Business Back’ series where we are talking to industry leaders from agency and inhouse backgrounds about the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses and the steps they are taking as we move out of the crisis.

Here, we sat down (virtually) with Nicola Green, Corporate Affairs Director at O2. Read on for her thoughts about the impact of COVID-19 and the transformations that she’s seen take  place as a result of the pandemic.

What impact has COVID-19 had on your business and on your sector as a whole? 

For the telecommunications industry, the nation has relied on our network now more than ever. Calls, texts, working from home, connecting with family, ordering your takeaway... everybody has needed to use our devices which is brilliant. Also, you've got the likes of the NHS and emergency services who have absolutely had to rely on mobile tech to do what they need to do. And voice traffic specifically has increased by nearly 60% at peak times. If you think about it, over the years we've seen increases in data, but not voice. What COVID did was massively spike up voice traffic. And calls are now lasting 40% longer. Sometimes you'd call your kid and say, 'Are you on your way home?', and that would be it. Now you're calling your family who perhaps you don't speak to on a regular basis to check in and make sure everyone is okay.

We've also found a real shift of people using our networks, right into suburbia. We've built our networks around big cities, so we've had to totally change our infrastructure to keep the UK talking by strengthening it in the suburbs because people are working at home more. Our network engineers have been working harder than ever to keep things running smoothly.

From our perspective, we are doing everything we can do for customers of course, but we're also doing a lot of other things. For instance, we're making sure that people who are vulnerable still have access to mobile technology and making sure we give extra data to our prepaid customers so that they can talk.

The key things obviously have been our customers and making sure that they can connect, but also our people. We've had a lot of big decisions from a corporate communications function, such as when do we close our stores down. We actually did it a day before the government announced the lockdown because we could feel the tension brewing. It's made a remarkable difference in terms of how it's brought us closer together as an organisation. Whereas before, you had your head office and all your retail staff. Now, I think because we made some really big decisions for our people on the front line, they've actually appreciated the decisions that we made and been extremely grateful, so much so we've seen an increase in our engagement scores purely through this time and that's because of the actions that we took very early on.

From a corporate affairs and communications perspective, I would say the first two to three months of COVID were the busiest I have ever been. At one stage, we were having 20 different calls a day from government when they were sorting out who was going to be the one person that's going to speak to the mobile operators. We were having journalists come down because our network unfortunately did blip a bit on the first day, so we had a lot of press interest in what we were doing to maintain the network. We managed to turn that around really quickly. Also a lot of executive team members wanted to know what we should do about X, Y, and Z. Everything from retail decisions to customers to dealing with government. At that point we were also right in the middle of one of the biggest M&As that's ever going to happen, so I can absolutely rest assured that I've never been busier.

For the team, it's allowed everyone to step up and show their worth. You will see the people who have seen this as a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate the value that they bring on an individual basis.

As a result of COVID-19, organisations have had to move faster than ever before to problem solve and navigate the crisis. How has this pushed your organisation and industry forward positively and which of those measures taken would you like to remain in place post pandemic?  

We are used to making decisions quickly as an industry. We've had unfortunate crises where we've had to deal with things quickly before. For us, what it has done is make the executive team closer and know who needs to own what decisions, while also empowering us to get on with it. Sometimes in day to day decision-making, people like to get involved because it's a crisis. They'll be looking over going, 'Oh, I could do that comms job for you' or 'You should be doing X,Y and Z,' but I think what this has done is absolutely cemented the role that every executive has played in the crisis. Now there is no question about what each person brings to the table. As with any crisis, having that established process and knowing that you can deal with it - and deal with it out of the office - is a really important skill to have.

For us as a business, we saw very early on that there were a lot of vulnerable individuals who felt isolated during lockdown. So we worked with a company called Hubbub on a project called 'Community Calling' where we helped people who'd been in months of isolation and didn't have technology to help them - that could be to apply for a job or keeping in touch with their friends and family. We've actually built that out now as part of our social engagement programme. We worked with the borough of Southwark and gave away 350 handsets and airtime to those people and we are just now seeing some of the benefits coming in.

In lockdown, a lot of people faced real mental health issues, even if they didn't have anything before. That for us demonstrated the social good that technology can bring. Therefore we wanted to make sure that we could put that in the hands of other people. We've worked really hard thinking about our processes and how we make decisions and putting that structure in place, but also the things we've done for our customers, I absolutely see that those measures will continue.

Which of your values/your company’s values have  truly come to life since the beginning of this crisis?  

Our values are bold, open and trusted, and I'd say they've all been brought to life to be honest. They've always been quite intrinsic in our day to day business, and we've had to use all of them in this situation. We've had to make bold choices. We've had to be very open with our employees and retail staff. And over the time we've built that trusted relationship.

We made Mark [Evans, our CEO,] extremely accessible. We managed to do a live internal TV show every Monday at 9 am. Mark would address everybody and it kept us tight and kept everyone in the loop. It meant that we could open our stores on the day we were legally allowed to in June, while a lot of our competitors were a couple of weeks later, mainly because we had that constant dialogue with our people. We didn't furlough any members of staff, but it gave our retail staff a connection back into the organisation. We had our highest ever engagement through that and it worked it really well.

Bold, open and trusted have been absolutely crucial in every decision that we've made and I think that's when you know your values are right.

Internal communications  has never been more business critical. How has your business engaged with its employees and what changes in culture has it resulted in? 

Internal communications has been crucial in everything that we've done, especially in times like this when it's so business critical. We have 6,700 employees and we didn't furlough anybody. I think it did bring us closer together. We had retail staff who were doing online training for customers about how to use their mobile phone, because there were a lot of older people who were gifted phones but didn't know how to use them. And we did the workplace livestreams and Q&As with Mark that I mentioned.

Our engagement score jumped 14.4 points during the pandemic. I take great pride in that - I've never seen that kind of jump. The most important thing now is maintaining that which is why I'm conscious that there is going to be a new normal. I don't want us to slip back into the way we were before. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but I think we have to adapt to this new situation and make sure we live those values day in and day out again and in every decision that we make. And we need to build on that trust as much as we can because now is the time.

Let's be clear, we are not immune to this situation. Our technology has been crucial, but we are still facing challenges. We haven't got the roaming money that we usually get when people go on holiday. A lot of people aren't buying new phones, because they are concerned about their jobs. So we need our people to be on their best game to help us through this situation and being honest with them is crucial.

What  challenges  have you faced leading people remotely and how have you had to adapt your style?  

Personally, I love being around people. I get a lot of energy from others so I've found it quite tough at times. I do think that technology like Teams and Zoom have made remote working slightly easier because you can look into the eyes of your colleagues and discuss various things. I have had to put in new structure to make sure that we are up to date on everything. I start every day now with an 8:30 am call and, because we were dealing with a lot of things going on at once, we were discussing what had to be done today, whereas now it's moved into more long-term thinking. We still have our strategy planning days but that daily check in has been crucial. We all therefore know as a team what we need to deliver and it's allowed us to still get the energy from each other and build on each other's ideas to do the best work we possibly can.

I've worked hard to build a corporate affairs team that is totally integrated and it's given us huge amounts of efficiencies from messaging to actually financial efficiencies. I didn't want to lose that by working remotely. People could have easily slipped into little siloes and do the work they need to do without stepping back and seeing that bigger picture.

We've had some fun as well. During the lockdown period, we were doing quizzes and playing 'whose house is this?', so we had an awful lot of fun which I think helped us stay as tight as we can. 

As companies move from reacting to mitigating the impact of the outbreak, what is your strategy to move forward over the coming months? 

We had a campaigning communications strategy before which was all about 'Mobile Britain'. We've actually changed to that to be 'Rebuilding Britain'. We believe that we have a strong role to play in helping the UK get back on its feet. During the pandemic, we doubled our network capacity to meet demand and we've allowed for a higher bar for connectivity service and support for all of our customers. It's really important that we play a crucial role to the whole of the UK economy to help us come through this. I think this is where you get your COVID legacy. If organisations do it well and secure that legacy, I do think it will mean that your business will survive going forwards.

We're lucky. We've been through a process where we've demonstrated the real need for what we offer. We just now need to demonstrate that we have a role to play in helping to rebuild again and helping the UK to be as successful if not more successful than we were before we came into the pandemic.

What do you feel are the major communications challenges once the recovery begins? 

We have something called the 'Senior Leadership Team' at O2 which is over 40 people. It is important and we have been doing Teams calls with them but at some point we do need to get them together. At the moment, with the current guidelines, it's been quite hard to do that. We need to think about how to do it in a clever way and government guidance may change perhaps in October but bringing people together for the right moments is important in how you run your business.

If you think about how we've done internal communications for a long period of time, a lot of it's been face to face. We've always said that is the best, so I don't think we should forget that completely, but we do need to start thinking differently about how we do it. We've been lucky in the channels that we have at O2 have meant that we can do things quite creatively, but we still need to think about how we bring 40+ people together to have that connection.

From an external side, we almost have to convince customers to spend again in order to keep the economy moving in the right direction. That's what some of my external work is looking at in the 'Rebuilding Britain' campaign, but I appreciate the circumstances that a lot of individuals find themselves in.

We have a fundamental role to play, but it's two fold: one is making sure our business is still effective, even if you haven't got face to face communication; and two is instilling confidence back into our consumers that we will come out of this stronger and this will be the making of us.

The biggest thing that we are also thinking about is the potential of another lockdown. I read different reports every day but we need to be ready and I think we'd be much more resilient if we were to go into another lockdown. I personally think that is a really important thing for communicators to think about -- it's the worst case scenario but it could very well happen. What should you be doing now to make sure you can deal with that? One of the things we are looking at as an organisation is our online capability and making sure that is as efficient as possible so that we could potentially continue to sell. Not that we couldn't before but to make the experience slightly better.

Posted on 24.09.2020

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