While there's been plenty of reports in regards to how service providers' networks have withstood the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, there hasn't been a lot of focus on how carriers pivoted internally to keep their employees safe and their customers connected to the services they rely on.
As a global service provider, the red warning lights started flashing in late January for Verizon, according to Verizon's Christy Pambianchi, executive vice president and chief human resources officer. Pambianchi said Verizon started to see the impact of the coronavirus in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan as schools in those countries closed and other measures were implemented.
"I would say in regards to Europe and the United States, we really started discussing it the first week of March," she said. "We started to see the impact in Europe and I think it was Portugal that the first case was reported. There were a couple of big events planned over there, and we had a lot of employees that were supposed to be traveling to that region.
"We began to realize that the pandemic wasn't going to be contained in Asia, and that it was likely going to hit the U.S. and Europe in short order."
Gearing up for WFH
Verizon's core crisis response team started preparing for the coronavirus' impact during the first week of March. On March 11, Verizon's leaders were briefed that most of the company's employees, which total 135,000, would need to start working from home. On March 16, Verizon let its employees know about the work from home (WFH) plans.
"By Monday, March 16, we had anybody we thought could work from home set up to work from home," Pambianchi said. "On March 23, we went from having 4,000 employees working from home to about 115,000."
Granted, as a communications service provider, Verizon was well suited to set-up its employees to work from home, but Pambianchi said Verizon initially thought it might have a shot at getting 50% of its employees set up.
"With the creativity and the partnership of our leaders, and obviously everybody understanding the seriousness and the way the situation evolved, we had to really challenge our orthodoxies and get incredibly creative," she said.
While there were technology hurdles, such as getting thousands of call center employees set up to WFH, the biggest challenge was more cultural. Customer care teams needed to have their desktop tools organized for WFH by Verizon's internal IT department while workflows needed to be distributed quickly.
In general, according to Pambianchi, there's a preconceived notion about what tasks can be done in an office and what work could be done at home by distributed teams.
"Those preconceived notions might have been the hardest thing because the technology to enable distributed networking and collaboration from home is all there," she said. "The workplace tools—video conferencing, team chats, sharing documents— to be able to collaborate is all there. I think it was really moving to the position of 'We're going to have to activate all of the tools to enable this because we have to.'
"I'm always impressed by the power of what we can accomplish as human beings and as groups of people when we really have a common goal."
While keeping its employees safe, Pambianchi said Verizon felt a strong sense of duty to keep its services running without any hiccups because customers needed them more than ever during the COVID-19 crisis.
"There's been a fair amount of innovation that we've had to do ourselves over the last few weeks," Pambianchi said. "The first week or two was probably pretty ugly in terms of our performance, and how we were operating compared to our regular work environment that we'd optimized for. But people have turned their efforts to: 'Okay, how do we continue to optimize?'"
Verizon's previous WFH constructs included having a dedicated workspace or being a primary caregiver that needed to be at home.
Verizon had to rethink its norms in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
"We threw all those rules out the window and said 'Yeah, we're in a global pandemic. This is a crisis,'" she said. "'We need to keep people safe. We need to keep running our business and we're going to figure out how to enable how you to work from home.'
"But we realized at the same time you might have kids at home. You might have a elderly person you're taking care of. We said 'No matter what you can give, we want you to stay participating in the work.' I think breaking the paradigm and really forcing our own mental shift, is actually a lot harder than using the technology, and leveraging our networks and collaboration tools because those actually exist."
Keeping employees engaged
In order to continue "mindful activities," Verizon has been conducting virtual workouts for employees who are no longer able to train at its facilities. Pambianchi said her HR team, which has 2,000 employees, regularly conducts video conferences where everyone is required to have their cameras on so they can make eye contact with each other.
With 50% of its retail footprint closed, Verizon's 15,000 retail employees have shifted to other duties such as calling customers or helping with teleconferencing services.
Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg and his executive team conduct daily broadcasts with employees as well as adding daily updates on its external webpage. Pambianchi said all of Verizon's employees are encouraged to share personal work challenges and the innovations they've come up with during the time of the coronavirus. Verizon has also virtualized training for onboarding new employees.
"I think we're pretty excited about what we're learning," she said.
What's next for a post-COVID-19 world?
Pambianchi said going forward, some of Verizon's employees may continue to be home based, but they'll have facilities where the teams can meet in person to collaborate. The employees that are more comfortable in office environments will return, but Verizon will carry forward the innovations and lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis.
Figuring out when employees can return to work won't be as cut and dried as cities or states that see the pandemic pass because Verizon will see different parts of its footprint in different stages.
Pambianchi said Verizon is gauging its response to COVID-19 across three stages. The first stage is regions that are initial phase of the crisis where shelter in place and social distancing measures are still in place to flatten the curve to reduce the loss of human life.
"In parts of Europe and the U.S., we're in this modified state and its unclear how long we'll have to operate in this state," she said. "We're focused on this as our new normal, and how do we optimize that? How do we continue to perform? How do we keep our employees safe and customers connected?
"In any given time, across the world we may be in the third state where various governments are reopening. At Verizon, we have to have the mindset that we are reopening in one region of the world while another, like the Southern Hemisphere, is just entering the crisis phase."
Like other service providers, Verizon will also have to contend with some businesses verticals being severely impacted by the coronavirus while at the same time dealing with massive increases in demand in other sectors.
"It's important as a company to be nimble and to be innovative," Pambianchi said. "We've been talking for the last 12 months about how do we continue to evolve our muscle to do both? This is a really great test. We had to do both. I think we're pretty excited about what we're learning."