Thomas Mulder (VodafoneZiggo): ‘My advice is to take hybrid work seriously’

Thomas Mulder (VodafoneZiggo): ‘My advice is to take hybrid work seriously’
VodafoneZiggo was one of the first companies to formulate a policy for hybrid working. The organization strongly believes in working sometimes from home and sometimes from the office, says CHRO Thomas Mulder. This applies to employees and executives alike. ‘It is not about individual interests but about the team’s interest when it comes to hybrid working.’

The headquarters of telecom and entertainment provider VodafoneZiggo has been located right next to Utrecht Central Station, opposite the main entrance of the Hoog Catharijne shopping centre, since 2018. The location is surprising and dynamic. About 1,400 people work in the building situated above VodafoneZiggo’s flagship store. The entrance of the headquarters looks like a trendy coffee bar. Employees chat in comfortable designer chairs, and there is a barista who provides them with cappuccinos or ginger tea.
For visitors, the reception is different from the usual. They need to scan a QR code which they receive by email in advance. Shortly after, a host/ess greets them. Thanks to the scanned information the identity of the visitor as well as that of the person visited, is known. The host/ess offers coffee; there is no need to inform anyone that the visitor has arrived as, thanks to the scanned QR code, an internal message was already sent to the relevant person, alerting that the visitors arrived.

VodafoneZiggo was one of the first companies to formulate a policy for hybrid working. The organization strongly believes in working sometimes from home and sometimes from the office. ‘It offers significant benefits for organizations, employees, and society,’ says Thomas Mulder, CHRO of VodafoneZiggo. He strongly urges fellow executives to also seize these opportunities. Mulder has been responsible for the company’s over 7,000 employees as the Executive HR Director for five years now. He previously held various HR and business roles within Vodafone.
Inside the office space, hybrid working seems to have been definitively implemented. There are creative, open meeting spaces for both small and larger groups. In homely furnished seating areas, colleagues can comfortably brainstorm together. In soundproof phone booths, they can make calls or work with concentration. Workspaces are flexible; even the board members do not have fixed offices.
In one of the meeting rooms, Mulder tells Jesse van der Plas from the psychological advisory firm LTP how VodafoneZiggo has implemented hybrid working internally, how executives consciously think about organizing their work, and what impact artificial intelligence (AI) will have on the future way of working.

The Dutch Senate recently rejected the bill ‘Work Where You Want.’ This would have made it easier for employees to enforce remote work with employers. What do you think about the fact that this law failed?
‘I look at it in two different ways. First, with hybrid working, we took a significant step forward. It increases efficiency, leads to a better work/life balance for employees, and reduces our ecological footprint because commuting between work and home has been markedly reduced. The benefits for both the employer and the employee are so significant that remote working does not necessarily have to be enshrined in law.
At the same time, there is a deeper purpose behind the law. It is essential for employers and employees to discuss how they will arrange remote working together. How can employees collaborate most effectively? How do you get the best out of your team? How do you maintain the connection with work and the team? How do you ensure that people do not travel unnecessarily? In a society with increasingly digital platforms, it is good to have these discussions.’

During the COVID-19 pandemic, employees demonstrated that they do not necessarily need to be in the office to be productive. Employers seem to be slowly reducing that freedom. How is that at VodafoneZiggo?
‘Working from home is not a right. Nor is it something an individual colleague decides on their own. Agreements need to be made within a team about when and by whom remote work happens. Internally, we have a guideline that everyone works in the office for two days a week.
Teams have to organize the tasks they want to do physically and together in the office on those two days. All managers within the organization face the challenge of achieving this. This way, the days are meaningful, colleagues do not miss out on anything, and the benefits are maximized. We do not want employees to come to the office and then spend the whole day in virtual meetings. The two-days-in-the-office guideline serves another essential purpose: it ensures that people stay connected to the company and have chance encounters with colleagues. The latter is important for creativity and mutual cohesion.’

How does the board handle hybrid working?
‘As a board we are very consciously working on this. We hold our weekly board meeting on Tuesdays. This takes place virtually via Teams. We discuss the less complex matters, share information, and make decisions. It works very efficiently for transactional issues; everyone looks at the same screen and sees the same documents. On Fridays, we are in the office all day. Then we have the complex issues on the agenda, issues that require creativity or involve emotions. After the substantive meeting, we have lunch together and catch up on informal matters. It is also important to us that the employees see us regularly.’

Which issues are discussed physically in the boardroom?
‘First and foremost, these are strategic issues. Once a quarter, we delve into external developments that might impact our business. We decide whether our strategy needs adjustment. We also conduct talent reviews in person. We prefer to discuss such topics in person because the interaction is more dynamic. Also, you want to be able to look people in the eye and see how colleagues react non-verbally to certain discussions.’

What does hybrid working mean for leadership?
‘We were in fact already before the COVID-19 pandemic working on developing a leadership style that fits well with hybrid working. The focus was on agile working at that time. For leaders, it is important to set clear goals in advance. Employees have a lot of freedom but are also responsible for the results. With hybrid working, this principle remains the same.’

Are there people who appear in the office less than two days per week and prefer to work from home?
‘It is rather the other way around. We find that people really want to work here. Especially young people prefer to work here, possibly because they live in smaller homes. Thanks to data analysis, we know that people who are in the office more often have more open networks. They make new contacts more frequently and gain more knowledge. Conversely, people who work from home for longer periods tend to have more closed networks. These colleagues become estranged from the company. That is why we encourage colleagues to come to work regularly.’

Is coming to the office mandatory?
‘We have formulated a guideline that people should be present in the office for a minimum of two days. We do not track individual attendance. However, if we notice on a departmental level that absenteeism is increasing, engagement is decreasing, and employees are not coming in as often, we will do something about it. However, it is not very strict. Take our developers, for example. It works better for them to be in the office as a team for five days when they are planning the development of specific software. After that, they prefer to do the programming at home. You can demand that these colleagues come here, but if they are deeply engrossed in programming with a big headset on, it is pointless.
Additionally, we also have a rule that we do not plan hybrid meetings—meaning half of the participants are in the office, and the other half participates from home. We want it to be a level playing field for all participants; that is very important. Whether it happens consciously or unconsciously, people who are virtually present always miss something that colleagues share when they are physically together. If a meeting takes place virtually, we want everyone to have their own screen. This way, everyone has their own chat function, and documents can be shared efficiently.’

You measure a lot. What insights does this provide?
‘Every quarter, we measure our employees’ engagement. Recently, we started looking at whether there is a correlation between people’s physical presence and the dynamics within the teams. With these insights, we try to enhance collaboration within the teams if necessary. Once a quarter, employees discuss their personal development with their manager. Such a conversation is very open and without consequences. During those conversations, we deal extensively with how collaboration and remote work are experienced.’

What advice would you give to fellow executives regarding hybrid working?
‘I recommend having a very serious conversation about how this can be better implemented. It is not about individual interests but about the team’s interest. The benefits of hybrid working are enormous for the company, the employee, and society; we should make sure we seize this opportunity.’

How is VodafoneZiggo responding to the rise of artificial intelligence (AI)?
‘The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a tremendous transformation. This came on top of the ongoing digital and agility transformation. Now we are at the beginning of the AI revolution. Within our company, we are currently investigating how we can apply AI and what impact the technology will have in the next two to three years.
Work will change; that is for sure. At the same time, we realize that our services can be further improved. Thanks to AI, we can already solve disruptions in our network and also reset modems very effectively. However, personal contact remains essential, but technology is of benefit here too. That is why we also arranged our reception with QR codes. Our employees now have more time to welcome visitors.’

Are there HR applications that VodafoneZiggo is experimenting with?
‘We developed an AI bot that employees can ask questions to about their employment conditions. If they want to know how many vacation days they are entitled to, the bot responds with what the collective labour agreement specifies. In future, we will take it a step further by giving the AI tool access to the system. This way, the employee can find out how many vacation days they still have in a year. The goal is ultimately for colleagues to be able to indicate when they want to take vacation with assistance of the tool, and have this recorded. This would benefit HR professionals greatly as they will optimise time spent on vacation day administration. It is a test case; once we have mastered this, we can apply it in other areas.
AI will become more mainstream. There are already many AI applications in software packages. For example, we offer Office 365 to our business customers. It now includes the AI-driven Copilot, which has many handy features. Users who log into a virtual meeting ten minutes late can get a summary of what has already been discussed. It is possible to automatically generate minutes of a meeting. There is also a feature that warns you if you unconsciously use language that discriminates against or excludes people.’

How is your HR team addressing the impact of AI on future work?
‘It means that you must especially develop knowledge and skills that are needed for a future where AI is dominant. We are actively working on that. Our employees have unlimited access to a Netflix-like platform that offers more than 10,000 courses and training programs. These can be taken online or in person, internally or from an external provider. We assist employees with so-called learning journeys, telling them which courses, training sessions, or programs they need to take to progress to a certain position. We are working on improving those journeys. This way, we prepare employees for a different way of working and ensure their skills remain relevant.’

Interview by Jesse van der Plas, Director Online at LTP. Published in Management Scope 09 2023.

This article was last changed on 24-10-2023