Amcham: When did your group realize you were experiencing a medical pandemic crisis and what were the first steps taken by management within the group?
Gérard Hoffmann : By February 2020, the pandemic was beginning to develop. The government measures for companies were not yet clarified but we have taken some preventive initiatives within Proximus Luxembourg.
All Proximus employees who have travelled to Asia in the previous 15 days or who have been in contact with people who have travelled to these destinations were asked to contact our designated worker in order to establish quarantine measures. Under the precautionary principle, we had reduced our participation in major commercial events. We made our employees aware of their health status and communicated about the preventive action to be put in place.
Did you make any early mistakes which you had to correct and if so, how?
In this kind of completely new situation for companies as well as for States, I do not know whether we should talk about mistakes in our actions.
As soon as the government took action, we strictly followed it. We have been particularly attentive to the evolution of the pandemic. Through our teams, we were very reactive about the new preventive measures to put in place.
A working group was set up to assess the situation and see how our company could quickly organize itself and anticipate future changes and the best preventive actions for our colleagues.
How have the personnel and management policies and practices within your business group changed because of the circumstances caused by the Corona Virus?
A major change has been the rapid introduction of teleworking, which until this epidemic was not a common practice within Proximus Luxembourg. Very quickly we had to familiarize our employees with the use of our video conferencing tools.
Our meetings and customer meetings have been completely digitized.
Our internal practices within our building have also changed: our coffee corners have closed, our meeting spaces have been closed, the wearing of the mask, the temperature measurement have been imposed for all.
We installed automatic doors and gel dispensers were made available to all.
Some of our internal policies needed to be modulated, in particular the one on leave management. The end of the trips had a real impact on the non- taking of the holidays, and we had to proceed with the implementation of group leave or leave quotas to be taken.
A lot of internal communications have been addressed to our employees about our internal organization, about our new measures.
Have you noticed an increase in stress and mental health related issues among you staff and how have you delt with these?
This point remains rather difficult to analyse. We have incorporated a few points related to the Covid situation into our internal satisfaction survey. We were able to see that some of our employees appeared to be stressed or that teleworking was becoming difficult for some. In order to overcome the problems associated with teleworking, we proposed voluntary return to the site with strict supervision.
How would your judge the current mental health of your staff now and what ongoing things are you doing to provide assistance to enhance employee well-being, happiness and productivity?
As for all the enterprises of the place, it is certain that a strong weariness has settled down. People want a return to the life “before”, the lack of real social contact still weighs on many of us.
The arrival of self-tests is a major step forward for us: we are now considering setting up internal meetings and even small committee events.
To what degree have you integrated remote working into your business practices, what has been your experience with this changed business model, what problems has it caused and what solutions have you undertaken?
Moving to a full flex workforce has been a necessity given COVID-19 but it only accelerates what we have believed for a long time – full-flex is the natural extension of embracing diversity in all its facets. Balancing the apparent freedom of flex for a workforce with the necessity for productivity improvement, not just its maintenance, is the true challenge for leaders in any contemporary business in 2020 and beyond.
In March 2020, we are obliged to close our doors and to organise teleworking for our employees. However, we have a major advantage in that we use the digital tools we sell ourselves. The company is already familiar with these tools, which has facilitated our transition to remote working. These technologies (Webex or Teams, to name but a few) were indispensable in this first phase and enabled us to bounce back.
That said, having the tools and mastering their uses is one thing, knowing their potential and therefore their limits is, I think, another. Because these technologies have their limits. Through this crisis, we are touching them. This unprecedented crisis questions us at the deepest level. It awakens emotions that are difficult to identify behind a screen. And therefore difficult to accept. And to manage. Distancing ourselves is – and remains – a barrier.
However, after a year of working remotely with 70% of employees, the impact on the company’s social life is still noticeable. The first activities to suffer are those of innovation, whose objective is to develop new projects and initiatives. Creativity is born of exchanges, often informal. But the conviviality necessary for inventiveness has completely disappeared from our daily lives! On a private level, more and more employees are expressing the need to return to the office, as they can no longer stand working from home for various reasons. The wealth of a life is to be able to alternate between home, work and entertainment, but having to stay at home all the time, with no opportunity to go out – even to work! – This leads to very obvious morale issues of our teams. As meetings by videoconference are no longer sufficient to make up for the lack of social contact, we have partially reopened our offices since 17 May, in compliance with the health regulations in place.
We encourage a maximum number of returns, within a certain limit that allows us to continue to respect the safety distances. We will also ease the measures for employees who have been vaccinated and for those who were infected with Covid-19 less than three months ago, in order to mobilise more employees. Finally, we are encouraging our teams to vaccinate because we believe that this is the only way out of this situation!
Do you consider the group to have returned to a stable business model and how is the current business model different from the pre Covid business model?
The results of the past year are mixed. At the beginning of the crisis, several corporate customers had to be provided with laptops, which directly benefited Telindus, the Proximus Luxembourg brand dedicated to medium and large companies and public administrations. Digitalisation has become a priority for all sectors. However, in the short term, many companies are still studying their digitalisation projects and are delaying their investments until they have a clearer picture of their budgetary planning. The transitional year of 2021 therefore looks more difficult than the previous one. We will not emerge from this crisis as a winner until there is a real economic recovery. The virus will probably not disappear, but we hope that we will soon be able to coexist with it by accepting it and fighting it with a broader vaccination campaign, which would allow us to return to a certain normality. We could then expect a renewal of investment in digitalisation. Only then will we benefit from the transformations brought about by the pandemic.
The strength of our company lies in the diversity of our customer base. As we are not dependent on a single sector, the impact on our activities will be the same as that experienced by the Luxembourg economy as a whole. I remain resolutely optimistic.
What are your views concerning the government’s actions related to the pandemic? What things would you have preferred to have been done differently?
I would like to congratulate the state of mind observed during the crisis: a capacity for rapid reaction, a willingness to innovate and experiment, as well as national mobilisation.
This pandemic took the whole world by surprise and we must congratulate our government on its responsiveness, which was able to make available very quickly the equipment needed to protect citizens and therefore our employees (masks, gel). The fragile balance between preserving the economy and reducing the number of infections was maintained.
As management how do you feel about the short term (one year) and long term (5 years) future business environment within Luxembourg. Do you have any concerns or recommendations?
The post-Covid-19 world will be more digital than ever. The world’s major powers are now engaged in a merciless technological race with a view to economic recovery. Europe, and Luxembourg in particular, must now rise to the challenge. Economic recovery will inevitably involve major investments in digital technology. If Luxembourg wants to preserve its attractiveness and competitiveness, it must position itself at the heart of this digital economy. In the context of a post-Covid-19 recovery, it is now essential to continue the efforts already undertaken in the field of digitalisation, through an ambitious plan. It must be established at the government level and translated to the level of the organisations. We are in a race to digitise, which today involves substantial resources on an international scale.
Getting the economy back on its feet will inevitably require a major mobilisation of public resources for strategic investments. The European Commission’s recovery plan is both green and digital. In particular, it provides for 20% of the €750 billion mobilised to be allocated to the challenges inherent in the digital transformation of society. Actions in this direction must now be taken at the level of each Member State. The government must play a key role in leading the digitalisation of the economy and society by defining strategic projects in this area. We are starting to see things, but we are still waiting for a clear and structured plan, reflecting a vision of the digital Luxembourg of tomorrow.
The priority, more than ever, must be innovation.
If Luxembourg’s ambition is to present itself as a nation conducive to digital players, it is important that the country becomes digital itself. By setting an example, by initiating the digital transformation itself, the Luxembourg State can draw many players in its wake.
This is a crucial issue. If we consider the European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index, which annually evaluates the digital performance of the Member States, Luxembourg is lagging behind in terms of integrating technologies into the heart of businesses. The Grand Duchy ranks 19th in the index. The reasons for this under-performance, despite the country’s high level of connectivity, lie in a crucial lack of ICT and digital expertise, and in the fact that some decision-makers attach too little importance to the digitalisation of their organisation.
If companies are invited to innovate and digitalise their processes, they will only be able to move forward if they have the right profiles: functional experts, business analysts, developers, engineers, data scientists, user experience experts, or machine learning specialists. However, these are sorely lacking in Luxembourg, as in many other European countries.
Has the pandemic situation accelerated a digital transformation within your company and, if so, in what way, and what still needs to be done?
Over the past ten years, Telindus has positioned itself as one of the leaders in the private cloud in Luxembourg. We are now adding the dimension of the public cloud offered by the large American service providers present in Europe and which Telindus resells. Both areas are growing and we do not see a preference for either one, except for a trend towards the private cloud for certain critical applications. In both cases, we are observing this growing interest on the part of companies and are currently providing pre-sales services to advise them on the infrastructure through which their digitalisation will be deployed.
By deploying teleworking on a large scale, companies have also created vulnerabilities. A sharp increase in cyber attacks was reported in 2020 and this trend looks set to continue in 2021. At Telindus, this has naturally resulted in a significant increase in demand for cybersecurity, to the extent that the company has reached its limits in terms of staff availability. As a large cybersecurity provider, we did a lot, but we could have done more. This is a real challenge for our teams, who are beginning to get tired of the workload.
Unfortunately, Proximus Luxembourg cannot rely on recruitment to solve this problem. It is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit in the Greater Region and this is probably the biggest upheaval caused by the crisis. Many cross-border commuters realise that their pace of life does not suit them and are looking for a job close to their place of living. One solution could be to increase the share of telework in new contracts, but this would require a Europe-wide agreement which is unlikely to be reached. We should therefore change our recruitment approaches, either by looking for workers further away or by encouraging border workers to become residents.
Do you have any observations and recommendation you would like to pass along to your employees and their families?
Our new remote working mode has not affected our ambitions for our Telindus and Tango brands. Our agility in proposing solutions adapted to our customers’ new needs has led to some. Not to mention the almost perfect transition to remote working for all, which is an achievement in itself.
I would like to thank our employees for their cooperation and perseverance. We can sincerely congratulate ourselves on the many projects and successes achieved in this context. This would not have been possible without our determination and agility.
Thank you for the great teamwork and for maintaining our commitment and enthusiasm.
And from Amcham Mr Hoffmann, thank you very much for the interview!