O2 UK's CEO talks trends for big business in 2021

CXO Interviews

Mark Evans, CEO, O2 UK, shares his thoughts about some of the big trends in the coming year.

I’ll spare you another analysis of the last 12 months. Suffice to say, it’s been a roller coaster ride. Now the vaccine roll-out has begun in the UK, it is time to look ahead. As a leader of a big business I can say for certain that next year will be tough, but it will also be transformational. Here are some of the themes I’m anticipating.  

1)    More casualties
This is a hard reality to swallow. We’ve already experienced the devastating closure of many small and local businesses up and down the UK, and the shocking collapse of big high street names as the longevity of lockdowns take their toll. We haven’t seen the last and some industries will never look the same again.

The cruelty of the situation is that winners and losers are determined by circumstance and business models. As consumers, we can support the brands we love and that treat us well, which includes shopping local. To stand the best chance of success, retail businesses must adapt to ensure in-store doesn’t become irrelevant and customers have an integrated on and offline experience. As businesses, we can innovate and diversify wherever possible, and work together to support one another.

2)    Significant urban-rural migration
The enforced requirement to ‘work from home where possible’ has changed the face of global business and proven the effectiveness of remote working. As a result, an increasing number of people are quitting urban areas in favour of more rural ones.

I expect to see this trend continue well into 2021 and beyond and, in turn, increasing pressure will be placed on rural infrastructure. This exodus to the countryside will put pressure on leaders to put rural Britain first for a change. As well as constantly investing in hard-to-reach connectivity, O2 is working with its fellow operators, the UK Government and Ofcom to deliver the The Shared Rural Network (SRN). This will ensure the best possible mobile connectivity for everyone, in all parts of the UK.

3)    Technology will define business transformation
Connectivity was heavily relied upon this year as working from home became standard. As the effects of the pandemic persist, quick-fix solutions will make way for longer term commitments to technology.

It is incredibly timely that this trend will be underpinned by the arrival of the industrial 5G network, which promises a host of improvements across a range of verticals. At O2, we are supporting key sectors to realise the benefit of 5G-powered solutions. Projects include 5G-ENCODE, which is exploring 5G use-cases for advanced manufacturing, and 5PRING, the UK’s first 5G commercial application accelerator.

4)    Flexible working will hit the spotlight
Closely linked to remote working is flexible working, where employees can alter their start and finish times among other things. COVID-19 hit fast-forward on the flexible working agenda, leaving many organisations struggling to keep up. I predict that, of those organisations whose business models can support flexible working, the ones that do so will be more likely to succeed in a pivotal year.

Earlier in 2020, we commissioned a research paper that found flexibility to be the most important workplace benefit. For employers, supporting employees with the resources needed to continue to work flexibly, even when offices can reopen, will be critical.

5)    ‘Green’ will become the priority it deserves to be
I foresee organisations of all sizes stating their sustainability commitments in 2021. A growing social consciousness, combined with the Government’s ten point green plan which has focused minds, have taken sustainability from nice-to-have to business necessity. I predict that as a society we’ll move more to reporting action and calling out inaction over simply announcing ambition.

We plan to cut carbon emissions from our entire business and network by 2025, while working with supply chain partners to reduce emissions by 30% in the next five years. In August, we also published a report setting out our vision for how connected solutions themselves could power a green revolution. Our findings showed that 5G-powered smart connected solutions could save up to 269 megatonnes of CO2 from key sectors by 2035.

6)    Giving back will be expected
Brands will increasingly take it upon themselves to positively contribute to societal issues, and they’ll be wise to. Customers are favouring ethics and action that aligns to their own beliefs. COVID-19 has created a surge of expectation that organisations give back to communities and causes: doing the right thing has never been more important. Expect the sentiment of Christmas ads to run and run.

Throughout 2020, we’ve made it our business to support our customers in these challenging circumstances, especially those who are most vulnerable. We have run initiatives such as Community Calling, which seeks to tackle isolation through mobile connectivity, and offered financial flexibility to those who need it. It’s a responsibility we take seriously and one we are proud to offer.

All for one
For those businesses fortunate enough to ride the COVID-19 wave, 2021 will be another year of change, only this time more considered. This year has been an incredibly challenging one on many fronts, but it has reminded us of the power of collaboration.

When businesses, communities, government and industry come together around a shared goal or purpose they can achieve more. As we head into the new year with a vaccine rolling out and some semblance of normality on the horizon, we owe it to the nation to raise standards wherever possible, take suitable responsibility and not waste the lessons learnt from this global event.