Taking the leap: How COVID-19 made telecom firms think differently

How telecoms are transforming to meet pandemic challenges

woman with phone

The unprecedented circumstances of 2020 meant the year was extremely tough for business in general, and the telecom industry is no exception. Telecom firms weathered unprecedented strains on their networks and supported the global shift to remote work, but also saw an estimated 3.4% decline in revenue.

Beyond the disruption, however, the year served as a real eye-opener. The cracks and weaknesses revealed over the course of the pandemic have underlined countless stubborn inefficiencies, fast-tracked change, and pointed to new ways forward.

That sentiment has been echoed by many C-suite leaders in the industry. For them, changing business processes to better respond, engage, and resolve issues when things go wrong is both the key challenge and opportunity of the future.

To find out more about the challenges and opportunities facing the industry, ServiceNow conducted a survey with more than 200 global telecom professionals as part of its Work Survey, a global study on how COVID-19 has impacted the world of work. The survey suggests that telecoms can — and should — make customer experience a key area of competitive advantage.


agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in better ways of working

A clear ability to change rapidly

There’s no doubt that the telecom sector was forced to transition rapidly to new ways of working when the pandemic took hold in early 2020. In fact, it’s staggering how quickly changes have taken place.

In a ‘normal’ scenario, the kind of transformation we’ve seen would take years to complete, with corporate red tape, legacy systems, and traditional thinking slowing down progress.

But for the most part, the shift to new ways of working in 2020 was executed swiftly and smoothly. According to the Work Survey results, 98% of executives and 86% of employees in the telecom sector say their company has transitioned to new ways of working faster than they thought possible.

This change affected employees and customers alike. Some companies have pulled out all the stops for their B2B customers, providing laptops and logins, installing VPNs, and improving connectivity so that work can continue remotely.

Almost all (99%) telecom executives say the crisis has provided an opportunity to rethink how work is done, challenging existing business models and operations. What’s most interesting is that employees in the sector see this positively, with 85% agreeing the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in better ways of working.

Remote working has both benefits and disadvantages

One of the most visible by-products of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the shift to remote working. Among telecom professionals, the general view is that this shift has largely happened very quickly and seamlessly, simply because it had to.

It’s been a positive trend too, according to the Work Survey research, with 94% of telecom employees agreeing they have experienced benefits from remote working. Two-thirds (67%) say the biggest benefit is time saved by not commuting and 55% have a better work-life balance now.

A split in opinion comes when looking at the future. While 67% of telecom employees would prefer to maintain new ways of working after the crisis is over, fewer (56%) telecom executives agree. Close to half would prefer to go back to ‘the way things were’.

So, what is driving this reluctance to accelerate to new ways of working?

Siloed working is a key barrier to new ways of working

One of the biggest issues facing telecom companies is the tendency to work in silos, and this comes across clearly in the Work Survey.

Almost two-thirds (64%) of executives in the industry don’t have an integrated system for workflow management across all business functions, and a striking 72% of EU telecom executives revealed that technical support requests and process tracking still take place offline — with a cyberattack having the potential to disrupt thousands of customers, internet services for millions, and cripple businesses. Telecoms can’t afford to play catch-up with security risks.

With quality service relying on more than one function to respond, engage, and resolve, the onus to integrate these functions has never been greater.

With service experience being the only real differentiator left, manual processes slow down response times, and this results in poor customer and employee experiences. Now more than ever, providers need to find ways to show that they care.

When asked if departments could implement new workflows within 30 days if required, telecom execs were not hugely confident either, with only 45% believing this could happen in IT and 69% in customer service.

Again, the reasons for this lie in the way that many telecom firms have been set up and how little they have moved on. Many systems within telecom businesses are not even web-enabled, and traditional departments such as HR and finance continue to operate largely offline.

The final concern expressed around siloed working by around 44% of EU telecom execs and employees was the expected drop in collaboration between business units. With quality service relying on more than one function to respond, engage, and resolve, the onus to integrate these functions has never been greater.

Silos remain a common and problematic feature of the industry, one that is acting as a significant barrier to long-term adoption of new ways of working and digital transformation.

Barriers to change are preventing large-scale transformation

Regional differences play a big part in preventing large-scale transformation, according to the research. More than half (55%) of telecoms executives say that different employee expectations across regions prevent broad change from happening; 51% say differing regulatory requirements are also holding back change.

With many large telecom businesses operating on a multinational scale, the former data point won’t come as a surprise to many. Indeed, the very local nature of the spread of COVID-19 has shone a particularly bright light on the differences between different operating regions within organisations.

Lockdown and increased remote working have in many ways forced employees and executives to pay more attention to their counterparts in other departments or regions, comparing experiences, and how they are treated.

As for broader regulations, telecom businesses are subject to continual and rapidly changing standards and legislation. The industry is very much led from the top down, and with this approach often comes a reluctance to try things differently or make significant changes to the status quo.

While our research shows clearly the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the telecom industry, it also reveals an environment ripe for change and innovation.

It’s never been a better time for the industry to grab this opportunity with both hands. In fact, 94% of those working in the sector said they expect to see cost savings as a result of the changes this year, and more than half (56%) think these savings should be invested into digital transformation.

To seize the opportunities that come about from new technologies like 5G and SDN, communications service providers (CSPs) need a change in mindset — moving away from thinking in layers toward a more holistic approach.

There are tools on hand to help. ServiceNow is here to place intelligence right at the core of your digital operations, enabling CSPs to become an ecosystem partner in the new normal. We deliver a dynamic platform that helps make the right decisions that bring customers closer to the network, creating experiences and giving you a competitive advantage in the new world of work.