COVID Highlights the Power of Personal Relationships


The most important learnings BT (British Telecommunications) has drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic are that some functions that it never previously thought could be performed from home can work perfectly well and, perhaps more importantly, the need for personal relationships in maintaining engagement, says country general manager Zoltán Szabó.

Zoltán Szabó

“Video is still more personal than sending a mail,” Szabó, the head of BT in Hungary, tells the Budapest Business Journal. That personal approach is important for mental health and wellbeing as well as engagement in overcoming isolation.

In March, some 97% of the firm’s 2,500 employees in Budapest and Debrecen (230 km east of the capital) were ordered to work from home. Most are still there.

“During the summer, when the virus situation was not so bad, we had more people coming into the office, especially those who did not have kids at home, or who were working from home alone and wanted to come back for the contact,” he explains. Everything moved online, but Szabó says BT was anxious to avoid the easy trap of resorting to email.

“When you are in the office, you can email a colleague or wander over to their desk and ask them in person. Now that opportunity was removed,” he says. “One way of trying to support colleagues was to reinforce the use of video calls as much as possible to avoid people feeling alienated.”

Managers have been encouraged to arrange virtual coffee breaks where they do not talk about business, but about how people are doing.

“These are not obligatory; you are free to jump in or jump out depending on what time you have. Personally, I organized meetings for our 200-strong line manager community, to make sure they knew what is going on and what is being discussed within BT.”

Motivational Speakers

Training and coaching sessions were also moved online, and not just covering business matters. Online yoga and fitness sessions were arranged, which people could follow from home.

The “Social Talks” series featuring motivational speakers, which had been held in person pre-COVID, continued in the virtual world with the like of three-time Olympic water polo champion Gergely Kiss. Attendance for these events is actually up, as people can drop in when they have time, which they might not have done in person for fear of causing a disturbance. Questions can be submitted ahead, and the talk itself downloaded for later if you cannot attend live.

As reported online by on October 12, BT has announced its service center staff in the Hungarian capital will relocate to a currently under construction ultra-modern office complex in July 2022 (see BT to relocate operations in capital to Budapest ONE Business Park). Does the success of home office mean BT might revisit its space needs? Absolutely not, insists Szabó.

“In the long run, we do not think there is going to be any change in the amount of space we need. If we have to maintain social distancing for the next one or two years, we can only have half as many people in the office, so you could say we need even more square meters,” he points out.

“I passionately believe in the power of personal relationships. For our own mental health and wellbeing, we need to meet people, to talk with people. We are social animals, it is deep within our DNA,” he insists.

“I cannot imagine an organization of 2,500 people working from home long-term. If we want to have a network of 2,500 freelancers you can have a different view, but then we don’t have buy in to the shared company values. And we have so many fresh graduates joining us who we have to coach and train, and that is much easier to do in person.”

That is not to say that Szabó intends to abandon the idea of home office. “We had offered the possibility before the epidemic one day a week. I can imagine we might make that two days a week in the future, and for those roles where we hadn’t offered it before, but where we have now proved it can work, maybe one day a week.”

Raising Awareness

BT has been heavily involved in raising awareness of its own brand (through posters around the offices and on trams in Debrecen and on the Metro in Budapest), most recently with its “You, Here, Now” campaign targeted at the Generations Y and Z and their desire to live in the present. But it has also been involved in a joint program with many of its competitors to raise awareness of the sector and the type of careers it has to offer.

“I am really happy to say AmCham has made it possible for 25 companies to come together and act with one voice to promote the business service sector. It is a unique cooperation. We believe what we can develop together adds real value in terms of raising industry awareness, and it has been a very successful program.”

Does Szabó have any concerns about the ability of the Hungarian education system to turn out the bright young talents the industry, and BT, needs?

“The appetite for a career at BT is certainly there,” he says, adding that every job is massively oversubscribed. But finding the very best, those with the language skills, the ability to run a project, or solve a complex problem and communicate what they need, is more challenging.

The idea that Hungarians are in an international contest to find the most exciting career is not always understood, he believes.

“Youths in the Netherlands don’t have to be taught about global competition because they have been practicing it for hundreds of years, since they built their first ships and started sailing around the world. That understanding should be more embedded in education here,” Szabó says.

Such skills need to be taught, and not just at university and high school, but from the elementary level, Szabó believes. He is a career ambassador for AmCham, visiting schools to talk about his career and the sort of opportunities that are available, and this spring did something similar at the Future Hungary conference for Hungarian university students studying in the United Kingdom, discussing the sort of career options there are back home.

“We run 20 plus programs with universities and I am very passionate about these because this is about our future, and not just for this company or industry, but for this country.”


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