After lockdown was announced phone calls across the Vodafone New Zealand network surged by 70%, including a 100% surge in landline calls (image: Tina Tiller).

Conversation came back: How Covid-19 changed the way we communicate

On March 23 prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced that in 48 hours the country would go into lockdown. New Zealanders had a primal reaction: they called their loved ones. 

The moment New Zealand was faced with lockdown, adversity did what it always does: acted as a catalyst on some base element of the human psyche, urging us to reach out to each other, seeking reassurance and seeking to reassure. When Jacinda Ardern announced that the nation’s 5 million citizens had two days to prepare themselves for the level four lockdown – our fortification against the overseas devastation that was daily dominating the news – it was the spirit of a touchingly archaic element of her speech we seized on. 

“Support one another,” she urged. “Go home tonight and check in on your neighbours. Start a phone tree with your street. Plan how you’ll keep in touch with one another.”

The phone tree, in an age of Facebook community pages, group emails and WhatsApp, seemed an antiquated form of communication, a detail a decreasing number of us remember as yesteryear’s most efficient way to spread news of a rainout through a children’s cricket team. But it was, the data shows, an instinct seized on by a populace in need of quick comfort. In the hours following Ardern’s speech, it was the familiar we reached for: phone calls across the Vodafone New Zealand network surged by 70%, including a 100% surge in landline calls. It was, says Tony Baird, the company’s chief technology officer, a back-to-the-future kind of moment. “Voice became the new social media.” 

It caused, in the hours following Ardern’s address to the nation, unexpected demand across the telecommunications industry. New Zealanders – reaching for their phones in lieu of the physical proximity that was already discouraged, and would soon be disallowed – created havoc on the country’s old public switched telephone network. Vodafone, along with its competitors, had to scramble, and with the help of hastily reinstated 30-year-old technology that had been declining in use for many years – two megabit per second voice circuits to shore up the connections between the Vodafone network and those of the other telecommunications companies servicing the country – to quickly get things back under control.

PM Jacinda Ardern at the press conference announcing the country would move to level four, March 23, 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)

“It took us a bit by surprise,” Baird says of the country’s initial reaction to the announcement of the approaching level four lockdown. Baird has spent his entire professional career in the telecommunications industry, recruited straight from an engineering degree at Auckland University in the late 1980s to work in research and development for a British firm. His career, of course, has coincided with enormous changes in the industry – the rise of the internet, cell phones – with the market more recently orienting itself towards the data-focused services that fuel modern communication. But then, in that moment of crisis, a sort of technological atavism sent us all back to the switchboards.

For Baird, that was a surprise – but also, in many ways, a reinforcement of what makes him passionate about the career he chose. In moments of crisis, it is that connection we crave. It is Baird’s job to oversee the infrastructure and technology that enables those connections.

That initial spike was an early lesson in the specific challenges of this particular crisis. The Christchurch earthquake, for example, saw a similarly massive upswing in mobile activity, but in that instance usage went up across the board – people texting each other to check in, sending photos of the things they’d witnessed, making prolific use of social media to reach out to family and friends, seeking assurance that loved ones were OK. 

But on the afternoon of March 23 – as realisation dawned in 5 million minds about the realities of the collective ordeal we were heading into – we turned to the only physical element of the loved ones outside our immediate bubbles we would soon be able to access: their voices. “People weren’t able to physically interact,” Baird says, “so they wanted to be able to talk. Conversation came back.” 

The way we lived was temporarily changing, and the way we communicated would change along with it. For Baird, facilitating that change became the professional priority. Vodafone was well placed to adapt to these challenges. A combination of good luck and preparation meant Baird had few fears for the technology he oversees, or the people he counts on to maintain it. 

First, the luck that meant the surge in data use, when it came, was no big deal: last year’s Rugby World Cup, and the pressure that All Blacks matches put on the network, meant upgrades – “bigger pipes across the network, bigger pipes between the networks, we had augmented a lot of our radio and wireless capacity for mobile applications, and obviously a big push towards higher capacity broadband, fibre, and wireless connections” – had already been installed.

There had also been significant foresight; Vodafone had taken steps to protect itself against the worst of what Covid-19 might throw in its path. In the weeks preceding the lockdown announcement, the company had tested every site for work-from-home capability, scaling up security, and ensuring that up to 4000 people could log in remotely at any one time. Before even the alert-level system was unveiled, on March 21, the company was putting that flexibility to use. 

“I put some people into the remote data centres, I put some people into the main office, and some people worked from home. We went into a rotational split.” Baird was already working from home on the afternoon of Ardern’s address to the nation – not that he was worried enough to feel compelled to watch it live. “We were pretty well set. It wasn’t a big change.”

Still, it instituted a series of “incredibly long days” for Baird. Securing official recognition as critical infrastructure, which meant crews were able to head out to repair any physical damage to the network, was the first important step after the lockdown was announced. The other major change that needed to occur – and quickly – was to figure out how to keep the call centres operational, updating what Baird called an “old-fashioned” set up: “People still sit at a terminal, they have a big desktop, they have a headset on – how could you take that from being at work to being at home?” 

The answer was to join the nationwide rush for laptops. “We had to go and secure 300 laptops very very quickly,” he says. Employees worked around the clock to configure them for Vodafone’s needs, allowing call centre personnel to answer queries from home. 

Online security tools needed to be considered – and while Vodafone was well-prepared with a range of internal protection measures long in place, its cybersecurity teams were in high demand as business customers quickly realised that a home office environment posed many more risks than a traditional corporate centre.

“Voice became the new social media,” says Tony Baird, Vodafone’s chief technology officer.

Physical Vodafone stores were closed too, of course, but 95% of the workers who had previously kept them running were adroitly redeployed in work-from-home roles, helping, in large part, with the huge surge in consumer queries that flooded in when lockdown began, and communication technology became even more indispensable than usual. Internally, too, enormous changes had to take place – the company saw a 688% increase in the number of video calls between staff. “Who would have thought video conferencing would get so big over the past few weeks? It’s… just been phenomenal,” says Baird.

My own video conference with Baird took place the day the country moved into level two, facilitated by a Vodafone staff member who was working from the Auckland office for the first time in weeks. Baird, however, was still working from home, his ears cushioned in headphones. He still makes time for a daily bike ride with his five-year-old twin sons. (Another daughter, completing a PhD in Sydney, arrived home just after the borders had closed, and was cloistered in self-isolation)

We collectively grew accustomed to other things, too. Conversation came back in those first hurried hours – and then it remained. A week after the beginning of lockdown, voice calls were running at 60% higher than pre-level four levels, as businesses adjusted to the forced decentralisation that cosseted employees in spare bedrooms and living-room corners throughout the country. But it wasn’t just water-cooler chat that was redirected down the phone lines: weekend calling remained much higher – an 87% increase in Christchurch, 77% in Auckland – while, nationwide, texting dropped 25% on pre-lockdown levels. When physical intimacy was denied us, we cherished the next best thing: the immediacy of voice.

For the corporate world, Baird figured, many of those forced changes would continue. “It’s going to be a massive transformation for our industry because people will now realise that… you don’t need to commute, you can work from home quite productively.” Most larger corporations, he imagined, would in time jettison the large headquarter office buildings in favour of something sleeker and more efficient: “A nice slick place where people can come together and interact and collaborate and innovate… So you come together – you ideate, you incubate – and it’s all open-plan. You do that once or twice a week and the rest of the time you’ll be working from home.”

For that, of course, we’ll need the services of companies like Vodafone to provide the technology, and the expertise of people like Baird to make sure it all works as intended. For Baird that would be yet another reminder of the reason he loves his work – its ability to transform lives and livelihoods by optimising that fundamental thing it took adversity to remind us of, that human connection is key, and we’ll take it any way it comes.



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