Viewpoint | 06 Nov 2020

Vodafone at the CBI: How we’re ‘building back better’

Helen Lamprell OBE, General Counsel & External Affairs Director, Vodafone UK, spoke at the annual CBI business conference recently and shared her views on how the company is 'building back better' and supporting its customers and employees through the pandemic.

It was a great pleasure to be a guest speaker at the CBI’s annual business conference this week.

The theme of our panel session – Building Back Better: Can Business Be Trusted? – prompted a fascinating discussion about how businesses have changed and adapted during the pandemic, particularly in relation to their treatment of employees and customers.

Tackling inequality

One of the things I found most interesting was that the CBI, the TUC and the businesses on the panel were generally united in their views – not always on every nuance of course – but there was a strong degree of alignment. We agreed that we all need to do our part to tackle inequality and that if there is one silver lining from COVID it is that jobs that were not always as valued as they should be, are now.

I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, who argued that inequality was the burning issue, particularly for women, who’ve not only found themselves “at the front of the queue” when it comes to job losses during the health crisis, but who’ve also picked up the lion’s share of childcare duties and domestic chores in this new working-from-home scenario.

And while it’s not up to us to tell people how they organise their lives, we can help create some balance – for example by implementing substantive paternity leave policies. As businesses we also need to confront head on some of the issues our people face – such as domestic abuse – and, as Vodafone has done, put in place appropriate policies and support to help people with a problem that has been exacerbated by COVID.

For practical help businesses can join EIDA – the Employer’s Initiative on Domestic Abuse.

Walking the walk

We also discussed the swift pivot from office to home working – in Vodafone’s case, in just 11 days. Our retail colleagues switched to serving our customers remotely over webchat very successfully, and we rebalanced our network so that we could keep the UK connected at a time when the country needed us the most. A need that was especially apparent to us given that we support a range of customers, from the NHS111 service to Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service.

So it was good to share how we’ve been putting our money where our mouth is, whether supporting NHS and care home workers with free data or distributing refurbished connected devices to low-income families with the help of our charity partners, to name just two initiatives.

And we have plenty more COVID relief plans in the pipeline.

The human touch

We’ve taken to home working very well and it has led to lots of video conversations we might not have had before – not to mention enjoyable cameo appearances from various pets and offspring! But we also know that people are social animals and crave physical interaction. Online is great, but you still can’t beat face-to-face to create that glue that bonds a really good team.

And we know that across the country, social isolation and lockdown restrictions have adversely affected mental health. Again, I’m proud of the measures we’ve taken as a company to support our colleagues, whether through access to Mental Health First Aiders or free online counselling.

But in future, it’ll be important for us to get the balance right between home and office working, I argued. This is why in future we plan to achieve the best of both worlds – blending flexibility with community. This approach will also allow us to expand the areas we recruit from and directly help us place jobs in communities that need them.

Doing the right thing

Ben Page, CEO of polling firm Ipsos MORI, highlighted that the vast majority of employees say they are happy with the way their companies have responded to the pandemic. And Julian Richer, founder and managing director of hi-fi retailer Richer Sounds, talked eloquently about how joining the Good Business Charter accreditation scheme he set up earlier this year is a way businesses of any size can easily demonstrate their commitment to doing the right things.

Warm words are not enough; people expect businesses to show leadership

Because what our panel, chaired by James Harding, former BBC Head of News and now founder of Tortoise Media, all agreed on, was that the relationship between businesses and their customers and employees has irrevocably changed as a result of the pandemic.

Warm words are not enough; people expect businesses to show leadership, to act on their promises, and be responsible corporate citizens in the communities they serve. I think Vodafone was able to demonstrate its commitment to these principles during the first wave of COVID.

As well as the initiatives I’ve already mentioned, there were many others, including our offer to small businesses of six months free unlimited broadband to help them get through the COVID-19 crisis. The offer, which also included six months of free Microsoft 365 Business Standard, gave a lifeline to businesses who may have struggled over the past months.

‘Rebirth and opportunity’

As we enter a second lockdown, we know times may be even tougher than before. Sadly people will lose their jobs. Deprived areas are becoming more deprived, as Nick Jeffery our CEO recently pointed out in his role as member of the Government-backed Covid Recovery Commission.

As a responsible business performing well enough not to have to furlough anyone, we know we have to do the right thing. And we will continue to take action where our connectivity can make a difference.

It may seem strange to sound an optimistic note when the situation seems so bleak for many, but as Josh Hardie, the CBI’s Deputy Director General, said: “We’ve had massive disruption, but out of disruption comes rebirth and opportunity”.

I strongly agree with this. At Vodafone, we really believe we can help “build back better” and it was great to be part of a panel that seemed united not only on that imperative but also in the belief that businesses really can be a force for good.

More from Helen

Promoting women in the workplace: Lots achieved, lots more to do

Domestic abuse: Are we employers doing enough to protect our colleagues?

Follow @VodafoneUKNews on Twitter.

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