As the UK is in the midst of a merciless recession, with the cost-of-living crisis raging, businesses are scrambling to cut costs, maintain market share and find a way to get through the economic misery.
The telecoms sector is no exception. Time for City A.M. to catch up with Jo Bertram, managing director of Virgin Media O2 Business, to hear her insights on navigating the uncertain economic climate, and the £31bn mega merger that dazzled the Square Mile.
Bertram also discusses advice for businesses considering an M&A, the value of diversity and a changing business landscape, tech as the mobiliser for UK economic recovery.
Can you tell us a bit more about your experience helping take Virgin Media O2 through its £31bn merger? What were some major takeaways you had from the experience?
The merger is one of the most exciting things I’ve worked on in my career so far, but also one of the most challenging, thanks to the circumstances we faced. It was during the global Covid-19 pandemic, and we were all working from home, so it was impossible for us to all get round a table together as you normally would. I had also just come back from maternity leave, and was juggling family commitments with my responsibilities at work. However, it did act as a poignant reminder of the importance of technology and connectivity.
“The pandemic has been called the great leveller, as it levelled the playing field for many aspects of the business world.”Jo Bertram
Suddenly, geographical location was less important; everyone was remote, relying on video calls and collaboration tools, and all trying to navigate the “new normal” together. It really did put us in lockstep with our customers and partners.
Without the technology available to us, there’s no way the process could have gone as smoothly as it did, and this would be my main takeaway. I will never take the technology that makes collaboration possible for granted ever again!
Of course, while all this was going on, we still had to support our B2B customers as they went through their own transformations and challenges. We’re proud to call the likes of NHS England, Network Rail and Sainsbury’s our customers, all of whom needed reliable service to continue to heal, transport and feed our nation during the most challenging of times.
You’ve talked in the past about tech being central to the government’s levelling up agenda, could you share some thoughts on what work you think still needs to be done?
Whenever people talk to me about levelling up or economic recovery around the UK, better connectivity is one of the first topics that comes up. The pandemic showed us all how important good connectivity is. Without it, work would have stopped, families wouldn’t have been able to speak to one another, and critical information couldn’t have been delivered. Covid-19 accelerated digital transformation. But now, as we look to the long term, the challenge for networks, businesses and government alike is to continue this transformation, so the UK can reap the economic benefits.
“The key is going to be partnerships and collaborations between government and businesses to level up communities from a connectivity perspective.”Jo Bertram
For example, a project led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority saw us partner with them to connect more than 1,500 public sites to full fibre broadband. It has already delivered economic benefits worth £11.8m in year one, and has helped reduce digital exclusion. In order for the country to truly level up, these sorts of partnerships will be invaluable.
Based on your experience, what advice would you offer to other business leaders navigating a major merger, especially in a hybrid working world? What are the main considerations that they should bear in mind?
Always remember that customer satisfaction is at the core of maintaining a successful business. When navigating a merger, it’s imperative to keep the customers’ experience front and centre to ensure that things remain as disruption-free as possible. During our merger, we made sure that our customers would see the value of the merger as quickly as possible, rather than having to deal with a period of potential service disruption while systems were being integrated etc.
“It’s important to acknowledge and address the different cultures of the two companies joining together.”Jo Bertram
This will make it easier to thoughtfully and deliberately create a unified company culture that celebrates the various strengths that each organisation brings to the table. Specifically, it will provide the newly merged company an opportunity to craft their specific approach to retaining and attracting new talent, with a focus on diversity and inclusivity.
Lastly, it’s important to recognise that whilst a merger is an extremely exciting and rewarding company milestone, it is also incredibly complex and ambiguous at times. Planning is essential in order to minimise the ambiguity and complexity. Being clear on your organisational priorities, structures and short-term plans can provide clarity to all of your internal and external stakeholders as you execute the merger.
Can you tell us a bit about how you build a diverse and inclusive workplace, particularly when you consider hybrid working?
I think the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce are clear for all to see, and it’s widely accepted that a solid DE&I strategy is now table stakes for businesses. However, putting it into action is another thing. Thankfully, I’m lucky enough to work for an organisation that truly champions DE&I, I am also an exec sponsor for the programme, and allows everyone to bring their authentic self into the workplace.
At Virgin Media O2, we launched ‘All In’, our first ever combined DE&I strategy. After the merger, we knew we’d need to create something new which reflected the values of both organisations, but was built specifically for the new entity. I firmly believe DE&I cannot be a copy and paste job. It needs to be tailored to each organisation.The role of hybrid work is also key.
According to research, hybrid working could bring nearly four million people back into the workplace who’d otherwise be unable to, such as parents, carers and people with disabilities. That is huge in terms of a potential productivity boost! It’s great that technology is able to level the playing field in this way.
As a successful woman in a senior leadership position, what advice would you offer to other women looking to replicate your success?
I always advise people to look for opportunities that genuinely interest and excite you, in an environment that you feel happy in, rather than just taking a job or opportunity that you think will look good on the CV. It’s in that environment that you will be at your best.
“If you focus on driving impact in your current role instead of worrying too much about future progression, the opportunities will come naturally.”Jo Bertram
Careers these days are also not linear – think about climbing a mountain not a ladder, sometimes you will have to go sideways or take a detour, or even go back down a bit before you climb higher.
How has the way that technology impacts your usual workday changed throughout your career?
We have seen enormous digital transformation, spurred on largely by working through various lockdowns. However, the progress hasn’t stopped! We are constantly looking to innovate, whether that’s for us as a business, or for our customers.
Just this summer, we switched on the UK’s first 5G hospital in South London. The private 5G network will enable staff there to benefit from a number of innovations, including artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and the Internet of Things. Essentially, it’s a fantastic test-bed for what the future of healthcare could look like, and we’re proud to support our partner, The South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.
Innovations such as this are going to be the future. A doctor in Newcastle could give a clinician working in South London guidance through a headset, thanks to 5G. But it could also be used in many other scenarios across various industries, and it’s likely we’ll see these emerging technologies continue to change the face of the business world.
Technology has been invaluable to me when striving to balance my work and personal life. I went on maternity leave for five months in January 2020 (and then again in May 2022). When I returned from my first maternity leave, the Covid-19 pandemic had begun, and the merger had been announced. Being able to work remotely enabled me to transition back into work smoothly after a prolonged period away. I heavily relied on technology to keep connected with my O2 Business colleagues as I jumped back into the planning for the joint venture.