COVID-19 Business in Action Interview Series: AT&T

April 23, 2020

The unprecedented spread of COVID-19 has brought a great deal of uncertainty to our world, with communities, businesses, and governments taking drastic measures to adapt to this new reality. As the coronavirus situation continues to unfold, one thing is clear: the business community is on the frontlines of the fight against the pandemic, demonstrating unparalleled agility and innovation to help our country navigate this health and economic crisis as fast and effectively as possible. 

We sat down with business leaders driving the global corporate response to COVID-19 to learn more about their efforts, how they are navigating this uncharted territory, and what advice they have for others. First up in our COVID-19 Business in Action interview series is Anne H. Chow, Chief Executive Officer of AT&T Business.

Q1: Thank you for participating in our COVID-19 Business in Action interview series. Can you tell us a little about your efforts at AT&T to address the impacts of COVID-19? 

I’ve been asked a lot lately what we’re doing in response to the COVID-19 situation. My answer: whether we’re talking globally or nationally, we were built for this. From our teams to our network to our services and support, AT&T is all about ensuring communications and connections – especially in the most critical of times.  

For us, the health of our employees is a top priority. AT&T has significantly reduced the number of retail stores operating, and those that are open ensure that we’re able to serve FirstNet first responders, healthcare workers, government users and other customers. Additionally, we have about 130K employees working from home. But 90K of our frontline employees – whose work serving customers cannot be done from home – are out in the field. These employees are in jobs considered essential by U.S. Department of Homeland Security because they are on the front lines providing critical connectivity to hospitals, first responders, government and other vital businesses. 

Given the crucial role they play in this crisis, we’re also focused on keeping police, fire, emergency services and healthcare professionals connected over FirstNet. On the frontlines in quarantine zones, military bases, pop-up clinics, hospitals, and more, our goal is to provide a reliable, dedicated lane of connectivity. 

As education is now online, we’re placing a big emphasis on supporting grade schools all the way to higher education to keep students connected. It’s about supporting both the educators as well as parents and students with the right tools and services to accomplish what they previously could do in the classroom, while in their homes. 

And for small businesses, we’ve pledged to waive late payments and won’t disconnect consumers because of inability to pay caused by the COVID-19 economic hardship through May 13, 2020. We also encourage employees to give to foundations that support restaurant and bar workers. And, we’ve provided $1.2 million in contributions to start-ups focused on education for underserved communities. 

Regardless of industry, the common thread is the connection to people. Take a moment to think what this current situation would be like if we were unable to provide vital connectivity for first responders, doctors, essential workers at grocery stores and other businesses. What if we couldn’t stay connected as teams, as partners, as customers, and as a community? The answer to that question makes you realize the crucial role that communications and connectivity solutions play for businesses and society-at-large.

Q2: How is the coronavirus pandemic different than other disasters or crises you’ve responded to? Do you have any lessons learned or best practices you’d like to share with the larger business community as they navigate their response? 

This pandemic is unique in that this isn’t a localized response to one area from a geographic perspective or one specific period of time. We’ve never had every community across the country – and around the globe – preparing for or amidst an outbreak simultaneously: schools completely online, hospitals preparing for an influx of patients, businesses moving employees from an office to a home setting. Our services and infrastructure were built for this, our teams were prepared, and our network is performing very well. 

As businesses navigate their response, my number one piece of advice is to stay hyper focused on communication. I’d encourage you to adhere to the distancing guidelines. Not social distancing, but physical distancing. Strengthen your social connections – both professionally and personally as well. Communicate MORE!

Now, more than ever, connections are needed. Relationships with your customers, partners, clients and teams are as important as ever. I’m proud to be part of a company that enables these relationships to exist and even thrive, despite physical separation.

Q3: How can business leaders make sure their efforts support long-term recovery and are not just a band-aid?  

It’s important to note that as this pandemic unfolds, so do business needs and priorities. This situation has shown that the environment around us can change quickly and contingency planning is key. As you think about both your current and long-term response, I believe the three most important areas to focus on are: people, customers and preparing for the “next normal.” 

The business environment will rebound, and people will be leading this revival. It’s essential to stay hyper focused on taking care of your employees – they are the heartbeat of your organization. They are your greatest strength, and it’s because of their hard work and dedication that you’re able to care for your customers in their greatest time of need.

While we don’t know for certain what exactly that looks like, now is the time to think and plan for what the next normal might hold for your business. It’s a time to get laser focused on what’s most important. 

Q4: A lot of CSR departments are shifting their resources to deal with the impacts of COVID-19. What do you think this will mean for the companies’ broader CSR efforts? How can they continue the momentum on other important areas as well?

Our AT&T Corporate Social Responsibility purpose is to “drive human progress and business value by advancing the environmental and social conditions of the world.” It helps to have an articulated purpose in a time like this. Companies with an established CSR practice are better equipped to respond because they’re purpose-driven. 

As an integral part of this purpose, we have had a long history of focusing on education and reskilling to help our own employees and develop the future workforce needed for economic prosperity. In light of COVID-19, we stayed true to this focus with an increased emphasis on remote learning tools by establishing a $10 million Distance Learning and Family Connections Fund. Through the fund, we’ve made contributions to organizations like Khan Academy and Caribu, helping us address a critical need brought by the pandemic while remaining true to our long-term CSR strategy.

Our people have always been at the heart of our efforts, and that remains unchanged as well. Through our existing  AT&T Believes initiative, a localized effort to create positive change in our communities, we’re focusing on feeding the front line of COVID-19 response, including first responders, doctors and nurses. We’re doing this through collaborations with World Central Kitchen and other organizations helping create a network of expertise in food security, disaster response and community engagement to deploy the resources needed to reach the most vulnerable populations across the country.

While in-person volunteerism efforts are sidelined during “shelter-in-place” orders, our employees still want to help. We’ve developed virtual volunteerism efforts and implemented a series of employee giving efforts with robust matching to help them be a part of “Believe” even while working at home.

Q5: How do you think this crisis will change the way we communicate as individuals and organizations? And how can businesses prepare for this new reality to better serve their employees, customers, and communities in the aftermath of COVID-19? 

This pandemic has made us realize the criticality of communication and connection. I believe we will be even more open to using technology, whether it’s for distance learning, remote work or telemedicine for example. I also think we’re going to think more deeply about how we communicate and collaborate. This pandemic has shown us that there is room in our lives to make changes, everything from how we visit our doctors to simply picking up the phone again. As recently as a month ago, you might have thought – why are they calling me instead of texting? This is no longer the case. We’ve seen call volumes increase since the beginning of March.

People are changing how they communicate and relying on technology in new ways. And as result, I believe technology will play a more profound role than it did before the crisis. Businesses large and small need to think about what they want their next normal to look like, and now is the time to start making those plans.

I’m personally very much looking forward to being part of what happens next as we continue to serve our customers – across all industries and sectors – in their operations, innovations, and transformations.