A word so-often used during the COVID-19 crisis has been “unprecedented”. Unprecedented in terms of the impact on the economy; unprecedented in the magnitude of the effect on our social and working lives; unprecedented in the level of uncertainty around how we best come out of this.
What is also unprecedented is the opportunity now for far-reaching reform. As social restrictions begin to relax, Australia has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create and accelerate real change on the key issues that will shape our economy, our society and our future. Issues on which our progress to date has been too slow, too incremental. There is a window now to take significant steps forward which have the potential to dramatically change our future if we have the courage to make bold decisions.
So where should we focus? I see five key areas where there are significant opportunities:
1. Accelerating the digital economy;
2. Reforming telecommunications;
3. Protecting ourselves from cyber risks;
4. Building diversity; and,
5. Driving meaningful action on climate.
Firstly, we need to continue to accelerate the digitisation of the Australian economy. Even before COVID, digital technologies were rapidly changing the way we lived and worked in ways we could never have predicted. The forced isolation and social distancing measures during the pandemic has driven a huge acceleration in digitisation including in activities like tele-health, online learning, remote working and e-commerce. I believe that out of necessity we have achieved in three months what might have taken us five years to progress. As individuals we have been forced to become far more digitally savvy in the space of weeks and across our business we are seeing digital interactions with our customers increase dramatically.
What is important now is not to lose that momentum. Our response as a nation to the COVID lockdowns has seen us fast track a number of policy and regulatory changes, and we should be looking to embed and build on these reforms as we emerge from the restrictions.
A good example is tele-medicine which, during COVID, has emerged as an important channel for medical care at a time when visiting a doctor was often not possible. COVID has been an opportunity for the health sector to shift its mental model on the benefits of tele-health and get a better understanding of how easy, safe and effective the technology is.
An important enabler of this shift has been a change to the Medical Benefits Schedule (MBS). For GPs in particular this type of universal access was never possible and we now consult with doctors, nurses, midwives and other health providers via a phone or video consult as a normal way of providing care. This is a perfect example of a valuable reform that should continue.
There is a huge opportunity to accelerate the digitisation of the economy by systematically removing roadblocks, replacing the need for paper with digital, moving to a cashless society. Many of the technologies already exist and clearly the opportunities are numerous we just need to seize the economic and social opportunities that digitalisation creates. The work of groups like the Business Council of Australia’s where I am chairing the Digital Economy and Telecommunications working group on COVID-19 Economic Recovery are important in this space.
Secondly, we need a long term strategy for telecommunications in Australia. COVID has once again underlined the critical importance of telecommunications networks. They have been the connective tissue during the lockdown period and if the acceleration of the digital economy is crucial to a fast recovery, which I believe it is, then telecommunications is now arguably Australia’s most important infrastructure to this digital recovery. It is also crucial therefore that we have the policies and regulatory framework fit for purpose and pro-investment for the sector.
If ever there was a moment for all of us to feel unconstrained by the shackles of the past, past decisions, past policies, past investments it is now. We sit at the dawn of 5G, the nbn rollout finishes next month, the emergence of edge compute – these are all significant technologies that will play a crucial role in supporting the digitisation of our economy.
How do we accelerate their roll out and remove barriers, what is the technology upgrade path for the nbn now the great milestone of its roll out is within grasp. How do we ensure people in regional and remote Australia can experience the same benefits as people in the major centres particularly at a time when living regionally is a more realistic option for those previously constrained by work to be living in the city. With the acceleration of the digital economy and online service provision how do we ensure our more vulnerable citizens can not just participate, but benefit from these changes?
These are all very big questions but I cannot think of a more important time to be asking them. The success of our telecommunications networks in Australia over the next decade will significantly influence the success of our economy and our nation. And it’s crucial that we have the policies in place to support them.
Thirdly, how do we use this period as an opportunity to improve our structural cyber defences? Even before COVID-19, cyber security was a large and growing area of risk that went to the very heart of the safety and security of the nation, of every family and business.
COVID-19 has amplified that risk because so many of us are now working and studying from home and so many of the things we used to do within the traditional firewalls of enterprises, governments and education institutions are now being completed from home over VPN’s. With this focus on the national picture, Telstra recently announced a Cleaner Pipes initiative to further reduce instances of customer data being compromised through malware, ransomware and phishing.
The Australian Government deserves real credit for the leadership it has shown on cyber security including the development of Australia’s 2020 Cyber Security Strategy. With robust cyber security critical for national security as well as our economic growth and international competitiveness that work will only become more important as Australia continues to digitise post-COVID. I am pleased to be working with the government as chair of the Industry Advisory Panel to the strategy and we look forward to the key initiatives emanating from this work – they could not arrive at a more important time.
Fourthly, we need to seize this opportunity to build diversity. This is something our community has struggled to move the needle on for years despite huge efforts from groups like the Male Champions of Change. Telstra has long held the view that diversity adds enormous value to our organisation and one of the most important things we did some years ago was change our approach to flexible working. We started from the premise that most roles in the company could be done flexibly if we gave our people the tools and connectivity they needed to make working away from the office as seamless as being in the office. This has allowed people to choose when and if they came into the office and what worked best for them in avoiding peak periods and being able to do things like school pick-ups and drop-offs. This is particularly important for the participation of women in the workforce.
I am convinced we are a better organisation for it and I am convinced it put us in a better position when, over the course of single weekend, we had to move 25,000 of our Australian office-based staff to working from home during COVID. Even before COVID our office based staff were working from home on average 2.4 days per week.
We have also expanded new initiatives like our Agents@Home program where in just three weeks we expanded our trial to now allow more than 1500 contact centre staff to work remotely. This is enabling us to recruit outside of traditional urban areas. The speed with which these types of solutions have been developed during a pandemic has required bold thinking – as a company (and as a nation) looking to build diversity it is the type of agile thinking that will be required going forwards.
One of the key learnings from COVID has also been that the ability to work from home is not only important for organisations from a talent attraction, retention and cultural perspective it is actually one of the most important risk management and business continuity strategies we can have.
And fifthly, meaningful action on climate change. I think for many of us the COVID-19 period has provided something unexpected and deeply personal; a chance to experience firsthand a world that is somehow quieter, clearer, less frenetic and also a chance to reflect on the fragility of our world. It’s been a visceral experience.
In that context, if ever there was a moment for bolder and more significant action on climate change it is now. In a recent speech on responsible business I said climate change would be the defining challenge of the 2020s. If anything COVID has only strengthened that view. The science is clear and now our own experiences are proving it. Climate change, driven by greenhouse gas emissions, is creating risks that impact our economy, our environment, our communities and each of us individually.
Against that background, Telstra announced a significant acceleration in our response to reducing our impact on the climate earlier this year. As an organisation we are proud of these commitments in the context of the climate challenge we are facing. Changing the current trajectory on climate change – and meeting the defining challenge of the 2020s – will require bold and creative action along with decisive leadership and determination. The time for that is now.
A window of opportunity
Finally, there is also an important broader point to be made about the role and ongoing responsibility of business, particularly big business. The pandemic has seen a remarkable period of national cooperation, where many differences and agendas have been put aside for the common good. At Telstra our actions have included recruiting additional staff to putting on hold any further job reductions; from bringing forward $500 million of capex spend to providing relief for small business and consumer customers; from providing extra paid leave to shifting the majority of our workforce to full work from home arrangements. The point is it is impossible today to view business as independent from society and society rightly holds us more accountable than ever before for our actions. What we do and how we act matters.
COVID-19 has driven unprecedented disruption but has also created an unprecedented opportunity for far-reaching reform. The question for Australia now is what type of historical moment will this turn out to be? I for one am looking forward to a kinder, cleaner, more empathetic and prosperous world and I believe we have the opportunity to create it if we can continue to make bold decisions in the way in which we have during COVID. If we do our future generations will thank us.