On December 8, 2020, we were honored to welcome a select group of guests for a stimulating conversation with Thomas Mulder, CHRO of VodafoneZiggo. As the telecom giant is in the business of bringing people together through technology, we chose to focus on the topic of engagement. In a challenging year dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, Thomas talked candidly about the many challenges his company faced in 2020, but also about the unexpected opportunities they identified and the professional growth they were able to achieve.

Getting ready for change 

Reflecting on the impact of the pandemic, Thomas started by saying that for VodafoneZiggo, the pandemic followed a period of introspection, in which the company looked back on the first three years after its fresh start as a newly merged organization. While they were happy with their performance, the leadership still wanted to make another move forward, improving the presence and character of the brand for both consumers and staff alike. Just as they were coming out of this process, the early signs of the pandemic started to emerge – and VodafoneZiggo realized that the new year would offer up some unexpected challenges as well.

A crisis as an opportunity 

After an early heads-up from a colleague with a background in virology, Thomas began to suspect that the impact of the pandemic would be immense. So VodafoneZiggo began prepping early and by the time the lockdown came in March, they were ready. From working at home and how to communicate about the crisis, to accommodating new schedules for colleagues with young children – plans were made for every aspect of the upcoming period. It’s something Thomas looks back on with a sense of accomplishment. In an unexpected way, the pandemic offered up the first chance for the company to put into practice its ambitions to recalibrate the organization for engagement, making it more relatable and approachable.

Guided by purpose 

Thomas recalled VodafoneZiggo’s purpose: “enjoyment and progress with every connection.” As the pandemic unfolded, they were keenly aware of the importance of that statement. The challenges the company faced were also a reminder that their services really mattered—for individual consumers, but also for larger clients like hospitals. In its internal communication, VodafoneZiggo wanted first and foremost to address the issues that affected its own people, followed by everything that had an impact on the day-to-day lives of their customers, as well as the latest news about the societal effects of the crisis.

Learning from your mistakes 

The company made a point of staying in close contact with its employees, monitoring their development and concerns. This also allowed the leadership, Thomas explained, to learn from their mistakes. For example, the brand initially kept its brick-and-mortar stores open. But feedback from store personnel in the hotspot areas who were concerned about their own safety prompted the company to close down all stores until a plan could be devised and deployed to reopen them in a secure way. In the end, they managed to make that happen in a matter of days.

Innovation in the digital space 

Thomas also reflected on the possibilities offered by digital technology for upholding an organization’s efforts in the field of creativity and innovation. The key to innovation, he said, is that elements from different dimensions come together and spark something new. This is a process that is in part guided by happenstance, like a chance encounter at the coffee machine. While digital tools do allow colleagues to get together, people often do so within the teams or circles they are already a part of. It is difficult to find a viable substitute in the virtual realm for those connections that “just happen.”

The future is hybrid 

Companies in every sector are scrambling to adjust to the new realities of the Covid landscape, but they are also starting to prepare for the new world that will emerge after the pandemic. In particular, Thomas thinks, there will be a renewed emphasis on a hybrid work environment. This includes thinking about what it will take to have such a hybrid professional space be effective and engaging. In a sense, things are relatively easy now, as everyone is working mostly from home. But going forward, the mix of office and home workspaces will become more dynamic, and companies’ culture, planning and coordination will need to adapt to that. This is in part a technological and logistical issue, but Thomas feels that HR must play a crucial role in making this change.

Co-creating a new reality

In the follow-up discussion, attendees contributed their thoughts—e.g., on the CHRO’s role during the disruptive year 2020. Walter van Kuijen stressed the fact that many companies responded to the Covid crisis in the moment, which also presented an opportunity for people in leadership teams to act in a less procedural and more entrepreneurial way. This means that as HR leaders, we now have the chance to co-create tomorrow’s reality, and especially to embed these upcoming changes in the company culture.

Communication is key

Annelies van Zutphen noted that a common thread in the discussion pointed to communication as the key factor in managing HR issues during this period. As a tool for engaging, activating and connecting the people in your organization, an open, layered approach to communication is essential, from the top down to the base. She also noted how the diversity of options for connecting with colleagues and an increased sense of involvement seem to have resulted in more interactions, rather than fewer meetings.

Encouraging creativity and innovation 

On the topic of functional silos and the risk of only connecting digitally with your immediate co-workers, Ron de Mos added that many participants mentioned creative initiatives to promote cross-functional teams and contacts. These include one-on-one virtual get-togethers simply to catch up with a colleague from another team, but also sessions that intentionally included people from other departments, to let them listen in and receive their feedback. All of which encourages freeform innovation and further creative exchanges.

Wrapping things up 

Finally, Ron thanked Thomas for his insights and for sharing his experiences with all of us. He highlighted the fact that after a post-merger integration period of three years, VodafoneZiggo was thrown into the most severe crisis that the world has seen in decades. The company’s preparedness and response were inspiring, as was Thomas’s account of how they handled the many personal challenges faced by employees with effective leadership, a personal touch, and a future-oriented perspective.