The Future of Work: an interview with John Porter

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John Porter, CEO at Telenet.

This article is part of our special report Connectivity and the workplace of tomorrow.

With the launch of the new Deloitte report ‘The Future of Work is Here’, John Porter, CEO of Telenet, gives his views on how he and the company are looking at the future of work, especially under the impact of the pandemic.

Under the pandemic, the way labour is organised and conducted has changed considerably. Where have you noticed the most significant impacts?

I think one thing that the COVID pandemic period has really laid out there is what you have just described. The fact of the matter is that this situation has accelerated our need to have exceptional infrastructure and to be able to develop applications that can serve the population much better than we have in the past. So, clearly, the classical sort of workforce, if you will, where there is technology, there is business, there is strategy, and then there is everybody working in silos – in other words, the organizational hierarchy under which all the good ideas come from the corner office and then are pushed down into the factory — those days are truly gone. We need to have IP coming out from a lot of different places, new places. Most importantly, we need the technology people to move closer to business and society and we need business and society to move closer to technology. This is causing a number of things. One is to be much more intimate with our customers, to have a much better understanding of their use of data, in a lot of smarter ways. We also need to have people who know how to do that. Another thing we need to do is less offshoring. Companies can’t just throw data governance and data strategies over the transom to India (or even nearshoring in Eastern Europe) — we need to have the capital capabilities right here. So, we really do need to step up.

How has Telenet itself adjusted to the new reality?

As a company, we have completely reorganized around a much more agile operating model, where tribes and squads act much more independently. We bring technology people and business people together around specific business challenges. This means that there is no more handing off the marketing department’s goals down to the factory. Everybody, from day one, is hands on – we believe we can do better for our customers here. And I think secondarily, it is also about running our businesses with more purpose and more focus on people. Whether it is our customers and the digital gap that they are experiencing, or our non-customers, it is our social contract. And, in the same way as Europe has a very high level of social contract between government and society, I think we also need to have that same kind of social contract between business and society. I believe we have an obligation, because we are experts in digital infrastructure and the way people use it, we need to be part of the solution when it comes to bridging the digital gap. But also, it serves us as well as a business, because we can and should be developing talent in many different places. We need people who are not necessarily studying software engineering in graduate school — we need people who are shaped, who can know how customers think, who understand the limits and the opportunity of technology but also understand the business challenge. And so, our needs are changing, as our values are changing. Our purpose becoming more intense. I wouldn’t say that our purpose is changing necessarily, but I think we have a pretty big role to play as we scale up our business, as we think about the future of our business. People are using our product, from the time they wake up till the time they go to sleep — almost no other business has that kind of engagement level. If we are going to be everywhere where our clients are, and our customers are, then we need to be with strong purpose and with strong products that are delivering on a number of fronts. This cannot just be a transactional relationship. It cannot simply be about giving our customers 100 megabits of bandwidth for 40 euros – it has to be a much deeper, a much more intimate relationship with our customers, and society at large.

How has the traditional concept of the ‘office’ changed and how much more of a dependence does this place on high-quality network connectivity?

The office does not represent to place to go, where you plunk yourself in front of a screen and do a bunch of work. We will have to work backwards from there – it is clearly a collaborative space where people can mingle, exchange ideas and brainstorm. It is a place where, as a CEO, I look to nurture that culture, I look to reinforce that purpose, help people understand how the strategy works — that’s very hard to do on a one-to-one or even one-to-many basis. I was just talking to somebody today about it, and even just the ability to kind of dump your bucket with your colleagues, that is important – nobody will set up a Zoom call for that, to simply complain for five minutes. It is those kinds of things that can happen and need to happen. We are organized around collaborative work; the agile operating model is organized around that. It is about standing up, sharing a story – it is about everybody contributing. It can be done virtually, it is being done, but it is a bit soul-destroying after a while, so it is really about creating a space. We have already changed our space, nobody has dedicated workspaces anymore, there aren’t any places where you can just go in, sit down and plunk yourself in front of a screen. And we have also opened up, from a mobility standpoint — having a central location is not that constructive anymore. We will take advantage of shared workspaces in regional areas of Belgium, so people don’t have to have 90-minute commutes one way, which many people do. I think it has really just accelerated everybody’s thinking and I think most importantly for people like myself who have been in business for 40 years, who are a little more levered to the old world. It has really reinforced the values of trust and our shared sense of purpose. I believe that trust and generosity were the real benefactors of the COVID period. Because I do not feel like I need to put a whole lot of rules in place to get my people to want to do the best possible job they can do. I know, and I have seen it, that no matter what they are going to do every day, whether they are doing it in our office or doing at home or they are doing it at Starbucks, I am not really that fussed about it. The colleagues will hold each other accountable, that is for sure. I probably would have got there eventually but it that process has now been accelerated. I do not believe that people, if you hire well of course, will take advantage of a more trusting and fluid way of working.

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