Mobile phone giant O2 has released the results of the biggest flexible working initiative of its kind, which shows a big saving for the environment and a significant boost in productivity.
On 8th February 2012, O2 conducted the huge experiment, asking the entire workforce in its head office to work away from the office for the day.
Employees based at O2’s Slough HQ – a quarter of its 12,000-strong workforce – participated in the pilot, operating remotely for the day as the doors were shut and lights turned off at the business’ 200,000 sq ft office.
The pilot aimed to push the boundaries of what is possible through flexible working and has underpinned O2’s contingency plans to manage expected travel disruption and delays during the summer’s Olympic Games.
More than 2,500 people successfully worked away from the office, with only 125 mission-critical staff left in the building. Thanks to newly strengthened networks and upgraded collaboration technology, everyone who needed to get online and communicate was able to do so.
88% of staff said that they were at least as productive as on a normal day at the office, with 36% claiming to have been more productive. 16% of people slept a bit longer than usual and 14% spent additional time with their families. In line with the company’s ambitious three year sustainability plan, the experiment also benefitted the environment, with approximately 12.2t of CO2eq saved.
O2 says it believes the initiative sends a clear signal to its employees, business customers and other UK organisations on the advantages of working flexibly. O2 has converted its understanding of businesses’ needs and objectives into solutions tailored to help organisations address the challenges they face as employees’ work and personal lives become blurred. Joined Up People from O2 helps businesses embrace flexible working with a range of products and managed services.
Persuading thousands of people to stay away from their offices for a day might sound easy enough, but it is much harder than it looks. O2 began communicating with its staff weeks in advance, to give people plenty of notice. What surprised O2 was just how much the staff embraced the idea and concept. And as an additional bonus, the lifestyles of the workforce benefited too.
• O2 employees saved 2,000 hours of commuting time
• The majority (52%) of saved commuting time was spent working
• 14% was spent on family time
• 16% on extra sleeping
• 12% on relaxation (sport, reading, personal emails etc)
• 6% on commuting elsewhere
• 88% of people that took part in the flexible working pilot thought that they were at least as productive as normal
• Over a third (36%) claimed to have been more productive
• Only 125 people needed to work from the office that day - only 109 cars entered the car park (against 1,100 on an average day),
• Only 1 person in the whole of O2 HQ didn’t know anything about the flexible working pilot and consequently arrived for work
Ben Dowd, Business Director for O2 said: “Line managers are used to managing people they can see. Managing them remotely is a completely different thing. Our Pilot on 8th February didn’t solve all of those problems, but it is a good start.
“We can do a lot more to support line managers in charge of remote teams, but we know it’s not going to happen overnight. We're educating people about the whole future of work here and there's still work to be done, but we’re pleased to say this is a fantastic start”.
O2’s flexible working day may have revolved around a single point in time but its results have implications across much bigger timescales.
• O2’s electricity consumption decreased by 12% on February 8th. This was not as dramatic as the 53% decrease in water usage, but a significant number nonetheless
• Approximately 12.2t of CO2eq was saved on the day (for the purposes of comparison, this is equivalent to the CO2 emissions from driving 42,000 miles in a medium-sized diesel car)
• In combination with the reduction in CO2 emissions achieved by the commuting cuts, 2,000 hours of travel time was saved. These numbers represent a very substantial all-round benefit to the environment and to the company’s energy costs. This is the equivalent of an average of 45 minutes per employee
• O2 employees saved nearly £9,000 on the day primarily through reduced commuting costs
• Perhaps inevitably, the sustainability issue around flexible working is more complicated than it might at first appear. Paradoxically, for example, gas usage in the building increased slightly – probably due to the loss of body heat in the building.
Technology was inevitably right at the heart of O2’s flexible working experiment – in particular, ensuring that the network was able to support a huge increase in the number of virtual workers.
O2 upgraded its Virtual Private Network (VPN) technology ahead of time, as well, as its network infrastructure; this was always a planned upgrade ahead of this summer’s Olympic Games. The company also automatically redirected traffic between servers in the north and south of its offices to ensure that the load was spread efficiently and that there were no local bottlenecks.
• A decision was made to accelerate the deployment of the new Microsoft Lync system – a risky move given the short timescales, but one which paid off by delivering a much more stable platform with better audio, video and sharing features.
• The flexible working pilot required a significantly higher use of O2’s internal network, with the reported maximum VPN users being 1,990 on the day against 1,300 on an average day. This represented 80% of the Slough HQ workforce
• The increase of VPN users compared with an average day was approximately 155%, with a reported increase in VPN data of about 110%. The network, however, remained stable, proving the potential for large scale flexible working
• At its peak, there was 162% of normal data traffic passing across the VPN, with no issues
• The IT helpdesk had a normal day with the usual volume of calls
• Instant messaging usage was up 40.8% over a normal working day. 146,876 IMs were sent over the course of the day, peaking at 17,843 IMs an hour at 3pm
• Lync Meetings hosted increased by 29%, with 406 meetings organised compared to 313 on a normal day
• Lync Meeting attendance increased by 25%, with 1,356 Lync meeting participants compared to 1,077 on a normal day
• Over 400 people attended training sessions in the run up to the flexible working day
Ben Dowd continued: “The success of O2’s experiment extends much further than just allowing some of the workforce to stay at home and work. It proves that with the right thinking and planning, even the largest organisations can protect themselves from the most severe disruptions to their business.
“It shows that given the right preparation and communication, conservative presenteeism-based attitudes to work can be changed, with great benefits for both managers and staff. It shows that businesses really can make significant and lasting reductions to their environmental impact, in a multitude of areas.
“Above all though, it demonstrates that the principles underlying flexible working really are the principles that will build the future of work, and determine the way that people, technology and buildings interact in the decades and centuries ahead. O2 is using these principles now, to build tomorrow’s businesses today.”
It is hoped that the pilot will also showcase the wider economic business case for flexible working in helping to drive efficiency, productivity and innovation. O2 has previously saved over £3 million in overheads through such measures.
These learnings will be applied in line with the company’s ambitious three year sustainability plan, in which O2 pledges to help over 125,000 business employees work flexibly, and collectively save over 500,000 miles of travel and over 160,000 thousand tonnes of carbon emissions.
The initiative marks the latest phase in O2’s flexible working journey, following in the footsteps of previous efforts. These include O2’s Tomorrow’s Workspace initiative, which saw the business consolidate its operations into a single campus in Slough. By enabling the workforce to be more mobile, O2 achieved a 53 per cent reduction in its carbon footprint and despite having the same number of people HQ is now operating with 550 fewer desks.
Ben Dowd summarised the day,” Four weeks of intense preparation across the business – everywhere from HR and internal comms to IT and property services – laid the ground for an almost completely empty building and a widely distributed workforce. And thanks to this rigorous planning, the experiment was an astonishing success – not just in terms of the productivity of the workforce, but as a demonstration of the power of flexible working to forge lasting operational, cultural and environmental change within modern organisations.”
Flexible working has become an increasingly important aspect of British business culture, with a growing number of organisations and employees adopting a more flexible approach to working life as new technologies make it increasingly easy to conduct business from beyond the confines of the office. But figures from O2 suggest businesses’ policies and practices are typically narrow in their focus.