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When we ditched our conventional office-based business model and adopted an uncharted and largely mobile way of working, the process revolutionised the company. Along the way, we learned hard lessons about the practical and cultural realities involved.

In 2008 Vodafone was already a successful telecoms multinational with 80,000 employees worldwide and an annual turnover of €45bn. But we knew we needed to change radically.

First and perhaps foremost, staff were unhappy with the company’s own IT set-up. Surveys showed that this was making it hard for them to interact with customers and collaborate effectively with other parts of the business. Many employees were also concerned about Vodafone’s long-hours culture and lack of flexibility. As a result, the company was losing key people and struggling to attract sufficiently skilled replacements to work at its UK head office in Newbury, Berkshire. It was clear that the situation was unsustainable and the business needed to become a more attractive employer.

There was also a pressing logistics issue: over 1,800 employees were jostling for space at Newbury and there was no room for growth. And then came the global downturn, prompting the company to save £2bn in costs.

We were not alone: the mobility market as a whole was starting to change rapidly. With the mainstream introduction of smartphones and the emergence of tablet technology, the concept of mobile working was gathering momentum. Cloud computing was also becoming a potential game changer for business: suddenly, firms of any size could, with the right IT, compete against global corporations without breaking the bank.

Focusing on the future

We recognised that several different but related opportunities were presenting themselves and it started seeking the best ways to take them. It held discussions across the organisation based on one question: “What will the world be like three to five years from now?” From these conversations, a vision for our future emerged: perform any function, from any location, on any device – and do so seamlessly. This envisaged a wireless future in which mobility would be the normal way of doing business. The wholesale adoption of flexible working would support this, meaning that all employees would be empowered to determine when, where and how they would work.

All decisions implemented thereafter would need to take us closer to achieving this vision. The changes were to be made in stages, so that no step was ever too big. These were guided by four principles:

  • Mobility will be at the heart of the transformation.
  • Users can choose their devices.
  • The point of convergence will be in the cloud.
  • The cloud will enable Vodafone’s businesses to streamline their operations.

Evolving with the technology

We quickly decided that our vision would best be realised by using a unified communications (UC) platform hosted in a private cloud. But the technology was only one piece of the puzzle. The real challenge was encouraging users – and the IT team – to embrace it.

Users needed training at every stage to make the most of mobile broadband access, instant messaging, video conferencing, online collaboration tools, file sharing and shared work space. They had to learn to use their new-found mobility and, in particular, to shed the old habit of using telephones only for phone calls.

The IT team had to make a bigger transition: from having total control to operating a more open model in which users chose and controlled their own devices. It would have to support a wider number of devices than ever. It needed to do a lot of work to converge services and also had to implement a more flexible security policy.

UC brings together all points of contact – phone, voicemail, email, conferencing, fax and instant messaging – on a single device. Employees are always able to pick up messages, they can respond faster and they are delivering a more seamless service overall. It enables smarter working and reduces the time it takes to make decisions. For example, it takes four days to make a pricing change when it used to take three months.

Achieving cultural change

Bringing people along is the biggest challenge for a change programme. They need a strong case to persuade them, including a clear view of where change is going to take them, illustrations of the benefits and an explanation of the consequences of maintaining the status quo.

Typically, change was adopted readily at the top and bottom of the organisation. But in the middle there remained a “concrete layer” of managers who were resistant. One described it as “letting go of the steering wheel while you’re driving”.

As the change programme evolved, the team managing the transition worked hard to drive change through the concrete layer. Instead of focusing on the technology, the team considered how it could be used and the possible benefits. A case in point was video conferencing. This would enable collaboration without the need for physical meeting space and achieve significant cost savings in the process. But, in the beginning at least, the technology was not being used much, especially by middle managers, even though their travel budgets had been cut. The main obstacles? Middle managers couldn’t email while video conferencing without being seen – and no one wanted to appear distracted during a meeting. And a significant number of people didn’t know how to use advanced features, such as how to share documents in conference mode, and they were avoiding training.

The solution was to run ten-minute tutorials at the start of senior management meetings. There was some resistance, but after a few sessions managers were using advanced features. This encouraged those further down the organisation to find out more for themselves. Ultimately, the use of video conferencing increased by 500 per cent.

Re-engineering business processes

As part of the transformation, business processes have had to be aligned with the new ways of working. Flexible working and company-wide mobility mean that employees at all levels have to share desk space. Those looking to secure a space for a day can book it, but the system does not permit block bookings that would monopolise a space.

Our head office – which was splitting at the seams to accommodate 1,800 employees – now supports over 2,600 people, because this shift away from personal desk space has been successful. The change has also had an impact on property management. With staff hot-desking and working remotely, there have been other benefits. The consolidation of offices into smaller, more energy-efficient premises has helped to cut energy costs. These were £1.7m lower in 2010-11 than in 2006-07, bringing cumulative savings of almost £4.4m over five years.

In the same period, the decrease in work travel has brought a 45 per cent decrease in carbon dioxide emissions. This translates to a saving of over 24,000 tonnes of CO2 every year – equivalent to the annual emissions of 4,000 average UK households. The cumulative saving on travel costs over five years has been £40.7m.

Mistakes along the way

Implementing any company-wide change programme is a big undertaking and is never as smooth as people might like. Our experience of introducing the UC programme was no exception. Mistakes were made and lessons were learned. For example, savings that were identified early on were immediately sent back to the bottom line. These savings would have been better reinvested in the programme.

Second, there was an initial underinvestment in training, which was compounded when employees claimed that they didn’t need or want it. Ultimately, training was key to effective change. The trick was finding the right way to train at the right time.

Third, it should have been recognised from the start that the senior management team’s backing would be crucial. This is true in any such programme: wait too long to secure backing from the top and the whole plan can stumble. Indeed, once the top managers were fully on board, the transformation gained irresistible momentum.

Reaping the benefits

The journey to UC has taken three years to complete. Along the way we’ve learned the practical, cultural and operational implications of change. New working methods were instituted, with less commuting, fewer face-to-face meetings and a much reduced requirement for office space.

The organisation has also made conspicuous productivity gains: research indicated an improvement of about 15 per cent. Meanwhile, flexible working has improved employees’ work/life balance.

The organisation has also made conspicuous productivity gains: research indicated an improvement of about 15 per cent. Meanwhile, flexible working has improved employees’ work/life balance.

Our staff engagement scores mean that we can now claim to be a world-class employer. Staff turnover has been reduced and the company can attract and retain top talent from beyond the commutable vicinity of the head office. Moreover, flexibility and openness to change have become culturally embedded.

We have become more resilient to business interruptions, too. For example, when the head office was flooded and had to be evacuated, our level of customer support was unaffected.

Our vision of the future has become a reality and the journey from there to here is one from which any forward-looking organisation can learn. There’s no question that it’s been a journey well worth taking.