Philip Jansen, CEO of telco giant BT, has a very personal take on the current Coronavirus crisis, having fallen victim to it himself last month. Jansen had gone away for the weekend with a group of around 20 people, returning home on Sunday evening feeling under the weather. He went to work on Monday as normal, convinced he was fine, but by Thursday was headed into self-isolation.st
Jansen was fortunate in that his symptoms were relatively mild - he was very tired for a couple of days, for example, but not so badly that he wasn’t able to get out of bed. (Others on the weekend outing seemingly fared less well!). Fully-recovered, he’s spent the past few weeks spearheading BT’s response to the pandemic outbreak, a major endeavor given the nature of the firm's business. Once a state-owned monopoly, BT was sold off to the private sector under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but retains a dominant position in terms of the UK’s national infrastructure as much for historical reasons as anything else. As Jansen puts it:
From a very early stage, the Executive Committee took a strong statement of intent, or sort of mantra almost, which was, ‘We are going to stand by our customers, stand by our country and stand by our colleagues’. So those are three principles by which we've made our decisions. Obviously the first one is is crucial because of the nature of what we do in terms of connectivity. not just In the UK, but also around the world. We've got some really important customers, the NHS, for example, in the UK, but also the European Central Bank, for example, and many customers. In the UK, the public sector relies on BT in a massive fashion. So we said at the beginning, we've got to keep our customers connected.
The needs of a wide-ranging customer base such as BT’s inevitably vary a great and as such present particular challenges, according to Jansen:
On one level, the NHS [UK National Health Service] wants us to connect the 18 new [specially-built] Nightingale hospitals as quickly as possible. You've then got your large customers, big corporates who work all over the world - the Unilevers, the Zurichs, the banks - and they want typically to get more remote working [in place] and deliver the ability for their employees to work from home. Of course, that's putting excess demand not just on capacity, but also on quality of connections. You need security. It's not just as simple as spinning up a VPN; it's actually spinning up a network or a virtual network that is secure and can deal with the requirements of individual customers. So we pretty quickly bucketed them into different parts. Some were more straightforward than others, but as you can imagine, if you look at the consumer base, suddenly everyone's at home and their requirements are much higher than they had before.
New demands from home workers
In terms of that sharp rise in home working, this has at times exposed shortcomings with domestic network arrangements that might otherwise go unnoticed:
Often some of the challenges of connectivity or performance are in the house or not on the connection itself. So we’ve stepped up seriously the communication with our customers about how they can get the best out of their connection. Of course, we have many people who want to have faster speeds, but also having the right wi-fi setups in the home and the way in which they establish their own mini network in the home has been really important.
The shift from workplace to home environment and the increased demands made on network capacity in turn have put pressure on BT to be able service customer demands. That’s meant asking a lot of internal staff, says Jansen:
We needed our staff to participate in a way that maybe some of them would would be fearful about, because they needed to come to work. They were nominated as Key Workers very early on in the process. So we've got about 110,000 people, 80,000 or so in the UK, and probably half of them are our Key Workers, probably a bit more actually. We have 30,000 engineers out on the roads every day, who are keeping the network going and [servicing] connections for our customers.
While the demands were, as Jansen describes them, “immense”, BT has come though the early weeks of the crisis really well in the CEO’s estimation:
We could not have come through that without our colleagues and our employees standing up and delivering the kind of services they did in those very difficult circumstances, which were made even more difficult by the fact that very quickly people were told to self isolate if anyone in their household had symptoms, a 14 day isolation. What that meant was 50,000 people are supposed to be at work, but you're down 20%, so you're looking at being 10,000 people down and you've got a spike in demand. The call centers are going ballistic - we answer all the 999 emergency calls in the UK and that was spiking very, very high to the normal levels you get on New Year's Eve - but we're 20% down. So we retrained people very, very fast. People work unbelievably long hours, change their shift patterns.
That type of effort needs to be recognized, says Jansen. In BT’s case a guarantee was made that no-one would lose their job as a result of Coronavirus and that everyone would be paid under all circumstances, whether ill or self-isolating or needing time to care for others. Managers didn’t get a pay increase, but the wider workforce has had a 1.5% rise in line with inflation, as well as being gifted £500 worth of company stock, a gesture that’s cost around £50 million in its own right.
It’s important for organizations to remember that their workforces are individuals, he adds:
Clearly the way in which we are all living right now, it is so different to what we've experienced before. I think everybody is pausing for breath and thinking through what the implications are, both personally and corporately. Personally, I've tried - and I've again articulated this to all our colleagues - to say with how difficult and challenging [things are] personally, mental wellbeing is so important. It's a real challenge. We've done so much stuff to try and support our employees with getting through what is a very, very difficult challenge of being stuck in one place, isolated, not able to go outside for very long, and not having the interactions that we are so used to and need as human individuals. I personally have made sure that I've taken my own advice on that. So I'm going out every single day, I exercise every single day, and all the things you'd expect to make sure that I don't find myself sitting in a bunker, all day, non-stop, doing these kind of video conferences.
What happens next?
Longer term, the question is what happens to BT qua company once the crisis is eventually over? What will be the lasting impact of the current crisis and how can the current ‘pain’ be learned from to positive effect? Jansen has some thoughts :
From a corporate point of view, things have calmed down a little bit now. The initial 4 week period was full-on crisis, a 7:30am start for a crisis team meeting every morning. We are now seeing a more steady state and therefore, we are beginning to get our head up a little bit to think about what BT could do in the future and how it might change. We have got a lot of ideas...very big things on what we could do differently for our customers, because their demands are going to change dramatically. What we're seeing right now will not go away. People's new demands will will be built on what they're experiencing today. What that means for our colleagues working from home and being more distributed and networking in a different way is very important.
My aim is to invest more heavily on the back of this crisis. My aim is to look for opportunities for the company and think long term for all our stakeholders, to see whether or not we can grab new opportunities out of what has been a really, really difficult situation. Business has to help work our way out of what is a public health crisis and therefore we need economic activity to grow as fast as we possibly can. That's one of the things that I think is a responsibility of corporates, but also the individual leaders who are who are at the helm of those companies.
The challenge when having this ‘what happens next?’ debate is the ongoing uncertainty about when - if ever - ‘normal’ does become the norm again. It’s down to preparing for eventualities in Jansen’s opinion:
No-one knows know where this will go and therefore you won't see any companies giving any sort of outlook statement in the next few weeks or months because it's just impossible. So what one has to do is one has to plan very, very thoughtfully and that's what we're doing at BT. We've taken a number of assumptions and basically got a planning assumption, number one, which is a three month lockdown, and number two which is a six month lockdown. And then there are three variants of recovery off the back of that. One is very quick, one's medium and one's slow. So what you've got is two main options. a three month lockdown, a six month lockdown - and I'm not suspecting we will be in a six month lockdown, but you've got to have some planning assumption - and then we've got three speeds for recovery. That's our planning stuff in terms of how that balance the day-to-day versus the longer term.
And expect the unexpected is another bit of sound advice:
One cannot afford to be complacent because no-one knows what's around the corner here. As ever, when you have crises, new events happen and they always happen at the wrong time in multiple occasions. Would you believe it, right now we've got a group of people who believe that Coronavirus is caused by 5G. We have had 40 incidents where people have attacked, either physically or verbally, our staff. We've had Openreach engineers being driven at by people who swerve away at the last minute. We've even had one Openreach engineer stabbed and put in hospital. It's always the way when you're in a crisis - you get more and more things going wrong.
That has resource implications for Jansen’s role as CEO:
I can't afford to spend too much time trying to think through what's going to happen in six-to-nine months. I've just put a specific team on it and I’ve said, 'You guys, I don't want you worrying about the day-to-day. I will lead that with my team'. You put together a specific team to start listing out the opportunities and the list of things that we might consider and when I'm ready, I'm going to come and look at them. But I'm not quite ready yet.
Being able to rely on that sort of teamwork has been one of the big learnings of the crisis to date, he argues:
I think the things that I've learned are just things that I've always known, which is, in really difficult times, stay calm, think carefully, focus, prioritise like fury, work out what's important, what's not important, don't waste time and then get the team to take responsibility. I have to say, my executive team have performed....What we have seen is extremely high performing teams. That's a lesson - that when people are up against it, you get this genuine unifying effect anyway, but it's extremely powerful…the power of people, the power of teams with a common cause, is amazing.