Starting a Post-COVID Recovery Revolution

Retail

Telenor Hungary’s Czech CEO Jan Hanus gives a rare and exclusive interview to the Budapest Business Journal on his company’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and how he sees the future recovery.

Jan Hanus, CEO of Telenor Hungary.

BBJ: How has Telenor coped with the COVID crisis?  

Jan Hanus: I guess we were pretty lucky, since we spent some meaningful time defining our core values prior to the crisis, and one of those values is to give guidance on how to approach unpredictable situations. That helped us a lot, so at the very beginning of the COVID crisis we had a clear guidance. “People First” was the first value, and it helped us decide that, after basic health precautions, we need to start coronavirus measures by creating existential security. At the beginning of the crisis, we outlined three main contingencies that the coronavirus may have on the company: normal, bad, and worst. There was one thing in common in the three plans: no lay-offs. Because we believe that employees are always the greatest asset of a company, and in the new situation, recognizing the new opportunities created by the crisis, they will help us win in the market. So, I wanted to take a big question mark out of people’s minds: “Will I have a job tomorrow?”. Yes, you will.

Then we quickly decided to protect our people, get out of the HQ and move to home office, protect our customers by wearing masks in the retail stores, etc. So, from that perspective it was really smooth and much faster than I ever expected. It helped strengthen the unity of our employees and the position of the brand as such, because, since we are a rather exposed company, our activities were visible.

Of course, there was a struggle in retail stores, because the footfall has inevitably dropped quite substantially and we had to invest in and really speed up the shift from retail to digital. But again, it got full focus and support from our team, which has done an amazing job. In a few weeks, we implemented tools and features that would otherwise have taken a few months.

Another super-quick change in our operation was that we moved the whole call center to home office. In the quarantine period, we realized a 20% increase in incoming calls and cases. Under home office, we managed to protect the team and serve our customers, who also experienced uncertainties and were more sensitive than usual, but we took care of them from this aspect, too.

BBJ: We hear a lot that "the world will never be the same again" and we will need to embrace a "new normal". How do you view this?

JH: People have a natural tendency to return to the old routine, especially when the vaccine for COVID comes and people feel safer. There will be a higher ratio of digital sales and digital services, but I don’t see that as a key driver on the customers’ side. Where I see a potential driver of change is the behavior of the big companies. I think many of us see this situation as an opportunity to do things differently; now is the time to do something revolutionary and in the upcoming months there will be a stronger shift towards more digital and less physical services.

The other area where I expect change is the way of working. Telenor has functions many, if not all, of us can perform very well from home office, without seeing each other every day. That is an element which is very interesting because home office is less costly than a headquarter regime, so it sounds good from a cost perspective. And it’s also a win-win situation because employees appreciate very much that they don’t have to come to the HQ every day.

Full HO mode was a new situation not only for employees, but also for the managers. It required a higher level of trust. At the beginning of mass home office, a lot of questions emerged, followed by real resolutions which will stay with us for a long time. We have already announced that we will not insist on returning to the previous regime, and we are happy to offer better work-life balance to our HQ employees.

BBJ: How does Telenor see the Hungarian and global economic recovery?

JH: It’s yet to be seen whether the second and third waves of COVID are coming or not. Hopefully, governments globally took the learnings from this phase. The lockdowns and closing a lot of stores were not a good choice, it is almost killing a lot of industries. We should rather focus on very basic health- and safety-related measures. Basic hygiene, social distancing and mask-wearing are the three most important measures, I believe. So, hopefully, whatever wave might come, it’s not going to be such a disaster from an economic perspective.

I’m a Czech citizen, so I had a chance to compare the Czech and the Hungarian approaches. Hungary did pretty well, understanding that economic help is really the name of the game. For me, it’s better that the company I’m leading is situated in Hungary, honestly speaking.

When you look at it from a helicopter perspective, nothing was ruined. I mean the assets are still there and the money is still there in the economy, and there is a huge push and willingness to get back to normal as soon as possible. And I’m sure the government also took the learnings from the previous crisis more than 10 years ago, so the recovery will come much faster.

BBJ: There have been calls internationally for governments to ensure a "green industrial revolution" is at the heart of any recovery plan. What is your take on this?

JH: The top priority is basic recovery and as some very big industries were affected, I think going green will not resonate as a goal for those steps and programs. But my perception is that green and the positive moves towards green will go hand-in-hand. I’d perceive it not as a goal but as a side effect, a positive bonus that’s going to happen, rather than a top priority. Digital is green as such, so the overall shift to home office, online shopping, etc. are green in themselves, because it means less traveling and less energy consumption.

And whatever we as Telenor do, we support those green moves. You know we have a smart building which is consuming a very limited amount of energy, and we support home office like crazy. Those are the moves that can help the overall situation and help society get closer to that direction.

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