Life in lockdown

My view on the COVID-19 crisis, and how SSE Enterprise Telecoms is adjusting to a new way of doing business

It would be an understatement to say that 2020 hasn’t gone quite as we expected. The coronavirus crisis and lockdown has changed the ways we work, connect and collaborate. Homeworking is now the new norm, most offices are temporarily closed, and people are working together by video conference and instant message as a matter of course – a trend that has seen business related app downloads rise by over 90% compared to the 2019 average.

For me, as for everyone, the past few months have introduced an entirely new way of working. I’m now reliant on my computer’s camera and my home broadband connection to get things done and find my days busy with requests for help on homework from my sons, alongside meetings and decisions.

Meanwhile, as the CEO of SSE Enterprise Telecoms, lockdown has given me a lot to think about around how we continue to run a successful, multi-million-pound business. As well as how we protect and enable our people, and continue with our important work in some extremely trying circumstances.

Through it all I’ve seen some incredibly creative, inventive thinking, and a great deal of determination to adjust, carry on and thrive in what’s becoming a new normality for many of us. So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts on how we’re working at the moment, my priorities, and how I’m personally finding new ways to work.

Challenges and solutions

It’s important to start by being honest about some of the more difficult things that COVID-19 has brought about. For me, top of the list is the seismic change in our working environment. Being apart from teams and colleagues has had an impact on the vast majority of people in our business. Ad hoc catch ups and across the desk chats are a huge part of how every business runs (alongside more structured meetings), so finding ways to replicate that has been vital.

Around 85% of our staff were office based until the lockdown came into force, so it was vital to act quickly and decisively, implementing new solutions that would keep our people informed and updated on whatever happened.

In practice, this took the shape of our first telecoms focused company intranet (we’re part of SSE Group but we felt our comms needed to be more specific) – created and launched in just two weeks, which is remarkable by any standards and a credit to those involved. We also rolled out laptops so we could all work remotely and booked in regular calls to keep everyone informed of any developments. Importantly, the business also managed to avoid furloughing by asking people who found themselves less busy than usual to shift their focus to things like bid support or a data cleanse for our transformation projects. The fact that our colleagues’ Great Place to Work (GP2W) scores at end of March were the best we’ve ever had is testament to the fact that we got our comms and engagement about right.

Of course, I’m keenly aware of the impact on health and wellbeing the lockdown and remote working has. So, it was important that we took the lead and provided best practice advice to help our colleagues who may not be used to working from home, as well as communications on coping with isolation and the importance of mental health during this extremely trying period.

Through that, we’ve seen some remarkable ingenuity. Whether its colleagues turning their living rooms and kitchen tables into working spaces, flexibility around working hours and how we conduct meetings on Microsoft Teams and Skype, or the incredible feat of taking our company kick off online – engaging over 500 people in 500 separate locations in the process, rather than all together at the start of the financial year.

All that being said, some of us can’t work remotely by the nature of their jobs. So as much as we’ve tried to help people take the office home, we’ve also invested a lot of time and energy into safeguarding our buildings. Those who are on site will have seen stricter access controls at secure facilities like the NOC (Network Operations Centre), personalised entrances and exits so people can avoid interacting with others, and staff cleaning their own workspace, so cleaners don’t have to come into our buildings during this period. We’re also running COVID tests for our site-based staff twice weekly, which in itself is a huge undertaking.

The reasons behind this are twofold. Firstly, we want to keep everyone who works at SSE Enterprise Telecoms safe and able to work with as few restrictions as possible. But secondly because we’re a provider of critical network infrastructure (CNI), and so have a responsibility to ensure that there’s no change in service levels – regardless of what is happening around us.

Critical customer care

It’s always important to remind ourselves of the value of what we do, and the services we provide. Connectivity and CNI are always important, but perhaps never more so than at the moment, when the working world is dependent on telecommunications services to continue running.

On the client side of things, we’re working hard to keep people informed and taken care of, including setting up a team to manage critical escalations and ensuring that we can deliver on most requirements very quickly. Happily, this has meant that our business has not been too badly affected by the lockdown.

But we are still part of a wider communications and network ecosystem, which was badly affected by the lockdown. The telecoms industry experienced an unprecedented standstill in terms of delivery this spring. With projects stalled, engineers stuck at home, and an urgent need to adapt.

Our focus quite rightly shifted to blue light and CNI work, as we prioritised supporting the response to the pandemic. Meanwhile we maintained and managed other work as best we could, with sufficient structures in place to ramp up delivery as soon as the stricter measures eased.

The upshot of this has been that we’ve been able to deliver several blue light services in days, rather than weeks. And that our CNI projects have continued with only minor delays. We’ve also had engineers still visiting sites where needed, safely working within the pandemic guidelines, and hopefully dispelling some of the scare stories and myths about 5G – which is exactly what we didn’t need at an already difficult time.

Despite the circumstances, we’ve been able to meet our customers’ expectations across the board. Our most recent customer delivery Net Promoter Score (NPS) score was 100%, which is remarkable by any measure. Personally, I put this down to our proactive communication with customers, and our commitment to them which meant we provided certainty in a very difficult time. In practice, this happens through small things like a kept promise to call and confirming an engineer visit and being confident in what we can deliver by breaking it down into manageable steps. Credit must go to everyone who’s contributed, and been so diligent and dedicated to making it happen.

Tomorrow’s world

For all the creativity and intelligence we’ve seen, the future does remain uncertain. With a likely prolonged period away from the office and a heavy reliance on official advice before businesses like ours can make many moves, it’s difficult to say what our next steps will be. Our people’s safety and wellbeing continue to be paramount, so any return to the offices will be preceded by an in-depth planning stage to ensure that our health and safety isn’t compromised.

However, our strategy and the things we’re prioritising as a business are relatively unchanged, both with regard to facilitating the 5G rollout as well as to helping to connect the smart grid, among other things. I’ve been pleased to see so many major bids come through across sectors – from mobile network operators (MNOs) and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to energy and water companies, councils and enterprise businesses. We’ve been increasing staff levels considerably, as the signs we’re seeing suggest that connectivity and communications in the post-Covid world will be even more important than they were before – and that connectivity networks will undoubtedly be properly recognised as critical national infrastructure.

I put our success so far down to our preparation and planning. Whether that’s clear disaster recovery plans or testing our capabilities with a working from home period pre-lockdown – both factors have also helped in how we work with our customers. What will get us through this next stage successfully is the hard work and spirit that our employees continue to show day in, day out.

Thank you for your time as we navigate these unprecedented times. We will continue to monitor the advice from the government. In the meantime, thank you for reading and stay safe.

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