27 May 2021
In this episode with Alex Badenoch from Telstra, we discuss how Telstra is helping customers, businesses, their employees and the country stay connected, what flexibility actually means and whether technology is helping or hindering our wellbeing at work.
Ben Hamer: We've all gotten a little bit fancy with our vocabulary over the last 12 months with buzzwords like hybrid, pivoting and virtual now the norm. But what does it all mean and are these new ways of working as much as a fad as the hacky sack? To tackle these questions and more, I'm joined today by Alex Badenoch, who heads up the Transformation, Communications and people division at Telstra. I speak with Alex about how Telstra is making sure that staying connected isn't just something they're doing for their customers, but their employees as well. We cover off some of their key initiatives, like their move to the onshore call centers, as well as their First Nations contact center. Plus, we touch base on some curly questions like the digital skills gap, what flexibility actually means, and whether technology is helping or hindering our well-being at work. My name is Ben Hamer, and you're listening to season two of Exploring the Future of Work with PwC Australia. Alex, how are you going?
Alex Badenoch: Yeah, good, thanks.
Ben Hamer: Well, let's get straight into it just to kind of set the scene for us. Can you talk a bit about how your industry and organisation was impacted by COVID-19?
Alex Badenoch: Yeah, I think like so many others, the impacts were significant - for us it varied. We have a diverse workforce. We have office based teams who were able to quickly switch to work from home. We've got field staff who are out and about keeping our customers connected. And we've got our retail stores that also needed to stay open, they're an important access point for people across our communities in Australia. So for us, we had to really think about quickly taking that office cohort, getting them set up at home, making sure they were safe, but also creating the capacity for us to really focus our energies on our field workforce and our retail workforce and making sure that we had the right safe procedures in place when we were caring for our people who are out there every day. We also saw very significant severe impacts across our total global workforce. So we have employees in the Philippines, in India, in Hong Kong, pretty much any place you can think of. And in many of those locations, they were impacted sooner. They were impacted more severely and at a scale we didn't see in Australia and in some cases, particularly the Philippines and India today, they have hit infection rates higher than they saw all the way through COVID. So it was a significant challenge then and it remains a significant challenge now.
Ben Hamer: And I just want to unpack something that was quite specific to yourself. In a world where we had to socially isolate, there's never been more of a need to stay connected. So I'm really interested in finding out a little bit more about how you were able to meet the increased demand on the network on one hand, while also balancing the impact that COVID-19 was having on your own workforce.
Alex Badenoch: Yeah, I think for us what became so important was getting very focused and having a clear plan. So we stepped back quickly and we said what is really important right now, not what is everything we're doing, but what matters right now. And what mattered right now was keeping our people safe and keeping our customers connected. And when you have that frame of reference, that really helps you think about what work you should and shouldn't be doing in any given moment. So for for our staff, it was all about being really, really clear that their safety was the number one priority for us, which was the work from home, have the right processes in our stores, enable our field techs to move safely and actually enable them to move, which was a bit tricky in the country at different points in time. For our customers, it ranged from big corporates who hadn't necessarily thought about moving all of their staff to work from home overnight. So, what connections, what capability did they need through to schools. Telstra was involved in making sure that school kids had the connectivity to be able to move to do home education. Even extreme examples that most people probably didn't think about, our prisons no longer had visitation. And so actually being able to have remote visitation for inmates, families or lawyers, everything in our environment changed. And Telstra was pretty much part of the fabric that made that happen overnight.
Ben Hamer: Yeah, absolutely. And it's good to get an appreciation for just how broad the actual impact is there. One of the things you spoke about was around your international workforce and one of the key impacts around the start of 2021. Telstra announced it will bring back call centres to Australia over an 18 month period and that those employees will be able to do their work from home. Can you talk a bit more about the rationale for this and how it's going so far?
Alex Badenoch: Absolutely. I think like every industry, we learnt a lot during COVID about what enables business continuity, but also this opening up of being able to have call centre staff working from home. That was probably a barrier that had been in our heads for a long time. And making that possible means that in Australia we can employ people not only in CBD but actually all over regional Australia. And so our access to talent and capability actually went up overnight for call centres and the voice of our customers in terms of wanting people who were here who understood the local context, it was really clear as well. So we're making that shift to bring voice onshore. So if you're a consumer and you ring us, you'll have your call answered onshore. But equally, our international workforce was really important, and I think that's it's important to balance out that message because our teams in the Philippines and in India are a big part of our high-tech workforce. We have an innovation center in India, which is where a lot of our engineering innovation comes from. Across our international workforces we also cover things like messaging and different capabilities. So business continuity has reinforced the importance of geographic coverage of work from home, work from office coverage, of different types of ways of connecting your customers. So we've learnt from it and we're adapting.
Ben Hamer: And one of the things you just mentioned when you were talking then was this idea around, you know, having a broader talent pool that you can choose from. We no longer have this face to face reliance. We can look at recruiting people from regional areas, potentially different jurisdictions, is that something beyond the call center workforce you're also looking into?
Alex Badenoch: Yeah, look, absolutely. The call center one is sort of an obvious one that we can make a very clear shift on. But we've also said that we want to focus on this idea of choice. And I want to talk about choice being broader than just flexibility, because I think we've learned through COVID that every single one of us actually wants to be able to make different choices about how we work, when we work, and where we work. And it's going to be pretty critical as an employer to actually support that. And I think it's going to be one of the differentiators in terms of employment brand going forward. So for us, one of the shifts is actually saying when we advertise a job, it doesn't have a location connected to it because there's very few jobs that have to be done from a particular location. And I think if you haven't learnt that in the last year, you probably missed what happened. But so it's actually all of our jobs, not just call centers. We believe attracting the best talent means that every single job to the full talent pool is in our interests.
Ben Hamer: Yeah, and I'm keen to just probe a little bit more on what you were just talking about with regard to choice, because one of the things that clients often come to us and ask is “what does flexibility look like when you've got an office worker and someone who can kind of more readily go and work remotely versus someone who might be a frontline worker?” And when you're balancing both of those types of employees in your organisation, so, for example, a Telstra retail worker, what's the narrative around choice for them?
Alex Badenoch: We've redefined our whole flexible workplace policy. We've had a long history of flexibility and pre-COVID our workforce, on average, worked from home two days a week already. So it's actually pretty high and post COVID our people are telling us they expect to want to work from home about three days a week. So that's the sort of shift on average. In averages, it means there are people who work five days a week in the office and people who work five days a week, not in the office. When we talk to people about choice, it's the when, where, how and having that discussion. So if I'm a retail employee, the reality is a lot of my job actually is in the office because I need to be in a store to give service to customers. So is it the hours I work? Is it that I need certain times off because I've got caring responsibilities? There's all sorts of choices. And they don't they're not all about working from home. They're about what I need in my life to support the many needs that make up the whole me, not just the work me. And that's what our policy is focused on. It's one-on-one conversations. So what do you need to make it work for you? But what do we need to make it work for us? Because most relationships are two way and the policy is all about creating that social contract together.
Ben Hamer: So, Alex, speaking of call centres, Telstra's recently opened up its First Nations contact centre. Can you just talk a little bit more about how that came about?
Alex Badenoch: As a supplier to so many customers in Australia, we keep thinking about what are the different needs of our customer segments. And Indigenous customers make up a big part of our customer base. We get about twenty five thousand calls a year from Indigenous customers. So we wanted to make sure that we had a service function that actually understood their needs and was able to support them. So we've set up the Indigenous or the First Nations call centre with people who are of Indigenous heritage, but also who are trained in understanding the needs of that customer base. And it's in many ways what we do for other segments in our customer base, which is to have employees who are either trained or specifically understand their needs so it can be more responsive to them.
Ben Hamer: Alex, is this a unique customer segment?
Alex Badenoch: Yeah, it absolutely is. And it's one that we need to make sure it stays connected and doesn't get left behind because in the world, the way it's evolving, if you're not digitally connected, you're not connected.
Ben Hamer: And it's great because we hear so much in the social discourse around inclusion and around servicing different customer segments. But it's great to have a really tangible example around what you're doing there. I'm now keen to change track a little bit and go into the space of leadership because in our recent report, Changing Places, we flagged that one of the key ingredients around making hybrid working work, is leaders and leadership. And I've dug around a bit, and I know that you've previously written about the five things for leaders to consider in this new world of work. So I'm keen to hear a bit more about your thoughts on this one.
Alex Badenoch: Sure. So when I think about the five, the first one is about leaders actually stepping back and really rethinking the role of leaders in the organisation and the importance that you play either in setting clear performance goals or actually just caring for the health and wellbeing of your people. The second, particularly for us, is about pushing the boundaries or challenging some of the assumptions around agile and agile ways of working. I think historically people have felt that agile works when you're co-located and you can have your stand ups, you're all together. We've had to reimagine that and move to a virtual world of agile. And I think we've discovered that it works. In fact, it even works better if you get it right. Third, conversations around mental health and wellbeing as leaders. I think often people find those uncomfortable and during COVID they became essential. Fourth, all around choice and flexibility. It is those principles that have defined our organisation for a long time. But they've now become a core part of the market, a core part of the way employers need to to behave and leaders need to get comfortable with it and find a way for flexibility to work for them and their teams. And last but not least, can't go past tools and technology. As a leader, you need to make sure you set your people up with the right tools, the right technology, so that they can work effectively in a hybrid world and translate easily between home office or any location.
Ben Hamer: And I think hearing you talk as well, it reminds me of some research we published at the end of last year in our Thinking Beyond Report, where we saw that 51 per cent of people felt that culture had improved. There was a whole cohort of people who felt that they had a greater sense of purpose and connection to the organisation and the strategy. And so to me, it says that a lot of what you were just talking about was happening during the COVID lockdown, because in times of crisis, we are more empathetic. We care, we check in, we're more communicative. So now the challenge is how do we not lose all of that? How do we not just revert back to the way things were that keep some of those really great points around connection and to help redefine leadership?
Alex Badenoch: I think that's why I feel quite passionately about it. It isn't about return to workplace. It's not, there shouldn't be a dialogue about going back. There should be a dialogue about reimagining it and taking the things that, to be honest, we probably should have known before COVID, but that we learn and became so important and making sure they stick and that they become an enduring part of all organisations and experiences.
Ben Hamer: I'm keen to ask a question that's potentially a loaded question, but with COVID and with remote working, do you think that the reliance on technology to enable the work that we're doing is potentially widening Australia's skills gap?
Alex Badenoch: It has that potential. I think it is something we've got to be really conscious of. And a good example, actually, was the move to remote learning. We all assume, or many of us assume in the world I live in because I live in a world where I have more technology devices in my home than I wish I did. There's no one in my house that doesn't know how to navigate sort of based on digital requirements, etc. So moving to work to learn from home was fine. You know, the kids all logged on, did what they needed to do. I was sitting there connected to the screen and the world functioned. There are a lot of Australians who didn't have actually the hard way. So they didn't even have the base tools they needed to to connect. And they certainly didn't have the skills and the know-how. And if you're a kid whose parent is not digitally literate, that moment was a pretty tough one. And I think it is something in Australia we need to be really conscious of because you could get the impression that we all have equal access. We don't. And so, again, corporates government education, we've all got to be in the game to, one, create that base sort of supply of tools and tech because you can't access it if you don't have it, and then actually invest in that base skilling and make sure we're really thinking in all industries, in all socio-economic groups, in all regions of our country, how do we create that access?
Ben Hamer: Yeah, and I think from what I'm hearing, it's absolutely becoming a social issue now around digital access and equity, but a real obligation on individual employees to think about what they're doing about their own digital upskilling agenda.
Alex Badenoch: Yeah, it's a really important point because as an employer, I think we've got a really key obligation to make that learning accessible and to invest. But I can't make you do it. You know, each of us has to have our own drive and really be thinking about keeping our skills, our capability fresh, because I think about when I entered the workforce and mobile phones really weren't a thing, internet wasn't really a thing, we still typed out faxes, we still had paper in trays, all that kind of stuff. And you have to keep moving. I've had to keep moving. And pace of change through my career was a lot slower than it will be for the next generation. That's the other thing that we can see. You know, the amount of change we see in a year these days feels like equivalent to what we saw in 10 years previously. So I think just having that hard wired into your head and always thinking about what's the next skill I need, what's coming next and taking some personal accountability for that is critical.
Ben Hamer: I mean, look, one time I got 50 likes on Instagram and I felt like a digital influencer, but I'm hearing it's maybe a bit more than that. So keeping on the theme of technology, you talked about how you've got a lot of tech and connectivity in your own house and the evolution of smart products. But the difficulty is being able to switch off sometimes. And we're hearing a lot of calls around that as people seem to be working longer hours and there's worries about burnout and whatnot in the workplace. What do you think about this and the role that tech plays as either a barrier or an enabler?
Alex Badenoch: Look, it can be both. And again, there's sort of a balance between employer responsibility and personal responsibility, because as an employer, I actually can't control what you choose to do in your own home from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep. But I can create that conversation in the workplace. And it is one of the things certainly in the last year we've talked a lot to our people about is are they thinking about the routine they set themselves and exploring with people what that might look like? The other thing we've done from an employer point of view is just really little things like picking a couple of days a week and saying ‘from this time to this time, there's no meetings’. We're not saying there's no work if you need to do things, you do them, but there's no meetings, give you just a break from being on that screen because it is actually genuinely quite exhausting. Most of us actually are not wired to want to look at ourselves for twenty four hours a day. It's just, you know, you're constantly worried, is my hair right? Do I look as good as I want to look? All that kind of stuff. So it is important to create the breaks as an employer to create the conversation. But then I would say to all people, own up for yourself. Think about what rythm what kadence works for you and then control it. You had to do that when you came into the office as well.
Ben Hamer: Comes back to that theme of choice, doesn't it?
Alex Badenoch: Absolutely
Ben Hamer: Yeah, and now for some quickfire questions. When you hear the term future of work, what one word springs to mind?
Alex Badenoch: Reimagined.
Ben Hamer: If you could make one change to today's workforce, what would it be?
Alex Badenoch: Accelerate the changes that leaders need to make.
Ben Hamer: What's the biggest opportunity for organisations in your industry over the next five years when it comes to the future of work?
Alex Badenoch: To truly embrace flexibility and choice to unlock every individual's potential.
Ben Hamer: What's the biggest lesson that you've learned as a leader from the COVID-19 period?
Alex Badenoch: The power and the importance of shared experiences.
Ben Hamer: And yes or no. Is the office dead?
Alex Badenoch: No.
Ben Hamer: Done. That's pretty definitive. Well, I think we're looking to finish up now. So I've got one final question for you, Alex. Can you get the crystal ball out for me and paint a picture for what the future of work will look like in five years time?
Alex Badenoch: The first thing is go back to choice, which actually means embrace a lack of certainty. The sort of fluidity of what I need one week to the next should be able to change because my life's not static. And so when I think about what it's going to look like, I think it's going to be ever changing, ever evolving. I think that office and home and wherever you are has a role to play in work. You asked me earlier, is the role of the office dead it's not because offices should become places of community. They should be places where I come to connect, to collaborate, to celebrate, to be with people. And I don't think that's going to disappear. I don't know how many days a week it's going to be. I don't know how many hours. I don't know exactly what configuration. But I know those things are still just basic human needs that are going to survive COVID. You know it’s going to keep happening. But equally, I know that for many, many people, that ability to eliminate commute time to be home when kids come home from school to fit or walk into their day, whatever it is, also is highly valued now and is okay. And it's going to be a blend of those things and it's not going to look the same probably for any two people.
Ben Hamer: And what advice would you give for leaders of organisations then who say that they're almost paralyzed by this whole idea of well, without certainty there's a kind of a result inaction. So they either want to know the answer so they can move to it. And in the absence of that, they'll do nothing. What's your thoughts around how do we actually try still and maintain progress without knowing what the end actually looks like?
Alex Badenoch: It's an interesting thing right from the beginning of this whole process. I've wondered what problem people were trying to solve when they want certainty around office or not office. The first thing is what problem are you trying to solve? Because if your people are working and productive and engaged, why is this a big issue one way or the other? So the first step is as a leader, do you have a problem to solve? And I think many people don't. And if you have a problem to solve, is telling people to come back into an office or not telling people to come to an office or saying it's three days or two days or whatever number of days, is that going to solve the problem? Because probably it's not. If your people aren't being productive, maybe it's that you're not being clear about the work they should do. If your people aren't engaged, maybe it's about the fact that you're not investing in the relationship and office or no office isn't going to solve it. So first question for most leaders is, what problem are you trying to solve? So my advice is stop trying to come up with a set of rules, actually create the pathway to have a conversation and have individual agreements and you'll solve the certainty problem.
Ben Hamer: That's fantastic. And some great tips there. So, Alex, that brings us to the end of our chat. So thank you so much for your time. And I'm really excited to see the impact that you keep having in your various roles as well.
Alex Badenoch: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.
Ben Hamer: Thanks for joining us and listening to this episode head on over to pwc.com.au/changingplaces where you find our latest report, Changing Places: How Hybrid Working is Rewriting the Rulebook. This podcast miniseries uncovers insights from industry experts so that together we can design a future of work that works for everyone. To make sure you don't miss a single episode, subscribe to this podcast series via Apple podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcast from. My name is Ben Hamer and you've been listening to Exploring the Future of Work with PwC Australia. Thanks for joining us and goodbye for now.
Dr Ben Hamer
Lead, Future of Work, PwC Australia
Tel: +61 437 159 517