As Vodafone's business grew over the past decade it found itself taking up more and more property in the heart of Berkshire market town Newbury.
This higgledy-piggledy property portfolio was the spur to head for greener pastures about a mile outside the town, where the company had the freedom to build new headquarters capable of making the most of mobile technology, and of boosting productivity.
It was an expensive gamble. The headquarters, shortlisted for the British Council for Offices award in October, cost £129m, but Vodafone believes it has paid off.
Some 3,250 of its employees now work in an environment that has revolutionised their working day, with opportunities for a better work/life balance and improved working practices which, in turn, have reduced inefficiencies.
As a mobile operator, it is not surprising that Vodafone's internal strategy to mobilise its workforce was a safe bet, but the going was not always easy.
Management issues and staff scepticism sometimes made it tough going, but the company's experience means it can pass on some useful tips for other firms considering how to use mobile technology.
Making the case for mobile
"We had 52 buildings in Newbury in 1997 when we decided to resolve the legacy of problems created by our property strategy and consolidate," said Richard Lomax, UK property executive at Vodafone. "By the time we were given the go-ahead, the number had reached 64."
After five years of battling with planning permission, Vodafone was able to move into its new premises ð a campus of seven buildings ð in 2002, and cut itself loose from the curse of cable in a busy town.
It scrapped its private branch exchange (PBX) telephone network, and now every employee uses a mobile handset networked to a virtual PBX.
"From an IT point of view, it was a constant project maintaining the cable," explained Lomax. "We had to connect all the buildings to the PBX system, and had 200km of cabling running around Newbury."
Relying on cables in a congested centre meant that Vodafone was at the mercy of mechanical mishaps. "If the gas board or electricity board had to dig up the road, we could lose three buildings and all the computers would go down," said Mike Caldwell, group corporate communications director for Vodafone. "Every couple of months a digger would go into our cabling."
Flooding was another hazard, according to Lomax, who added that problems don't always occur at convenient times. "[Former chief executive] Chris Gent would have some VIPs in and we'd lose a critical link," he said.
Perhaps because of such events, Lomax found he was "pushing at an open door" to make the move to a mobile environment.
The technology picture
All Vodafone headquarters staff rely on their mobile phone as a primary working tool. There are a range of phones they can choose from to allow some individuality, but Lomax explained that "some phones are outside the range of a wireless environment".
With the virtual PBX, all the usual telephony functions, such as transferring calls, are in place. The phones are also equipped with a mini intranet, which includes menus with useful information such as all Vodafone contacts.
An employee requests a name, the phone sends a message to a server, and an SMS message is sent back with the contact's full job title, email address and mobile number. "The only fixed-line phones are for conference calls," said Lomax.
Many staff also have GPRS-connected Blackberry email devices which synchronise with email on laptops so that staff can keep connected outside the office.
Workers also use Vodafone Mobile Connect 3G/GPRS data cards with their laptops to gain high-speed remote access to the company intranet, internet, email and office applications.
And touchdown points in communal areas such as cafes in the buildings allow workers and visitors to readily access information.
But Vodafone has not gone the whole way with wireless technology. The vast majority of workers have laptops, so the capability is there. Only a few developers are stationed at fixed PCs for their specialist needs.
"Wireless local area networks (Lans) are being rolled out in all campus buildings," explained Andy Jones, network architecture manager at Vodafone UK.
"But wireless Lan is a relatively new technology and we didn't have the whole desktop environment enabled when we committed to the headquarter's design. Therefore we do have a mix of cabling and wireless Lan with the potential to go to wireless Lan in the future."
The wireless Lans use the 802.11b standard. Most deployed today use this protocol, but it has been subject to drive-by hackers if left unsecured.
Vodafone has a policy of not revealing what security procedures it uses, but Jones said: "We are extremely careful with security for wireless Lans and have authentication and encryption in place."
Vodafone workers are no longer chained to their desks, but the wireless proposal did not meet with unanimous enthusiasm.
"A number of employees were nervous about moving from their office in the town. They had their own routine, and it meant coming out of their comfort zone," said Lomax.
A mobile workforce also lends itself to a more fluid, flatter organisational structure, which met with some resistance from senior managers.
"We had to break down hierarchical issues that had grown up. Senior managers had their own office, which some were reluctant to give up, but an open-plan environment to enhance communication meant getting rid of physical barriers," explained Lomax.
And some were concerned about getting to grips with the new technology. "Senior managers were the most sceptical, perhaps because they tend to be older and not as technically-minded as the younger workers," said Lomax.
Caldwell recalls that the initial cultural shift was tricky. "The day we moved in there were some people complaining they would never get used to it, but very quickly people adapted to the new processes," he said.
Increasing mobility has proved especially beneficial to personal assistants. "The traditional secretary sits outside the boss's office and guards the phone," said Caldwell.
"Now they can leave their desks, greet visitors, have a coffee, maybe even be at home and still work. One of my team had an unexpected family crisis today, but is answering her phone from home as if she was at work."
Preparing people for what to expect and offering training was crucial in overcoming the fear factor. "A key contributor to any success is to manage communications prior to the move," said Lomax.
"We made presentations to team leaders and identified 'super users' in each team who could cascade knowledge down to workers. If there was a problem, the super user would help out, but we also set up helpdesks to deal with queries and put information on the intranet."
Post-move surveys reveal no hankering after the old ways. "The flexibility of a wireless office and the mobility it brings gives people the ability to work in different ways," explained Lomax.
"There are break-out spaces where meetings can take place with laptops and notepads out. People can even sunbathe with their laptop while they work."
But it is not a case of come or go as you please. A flexible working policy is in place, but Caldwell warned that it needs careful managing.
"We encourage home working, but it is down to individual management teams and departments," he said. "It's not always possible. If you are operating a call centre, you need a certain amount of people on hand."
Home working is sanctioned on a casual, part-time and full-time basis, and this flexibility means that Vodafone can attract workers from a bigger pool of talent.
For example, Caldwell said that there is an employee who works in Newbury but lives in Manchester. The work/life balance has swung in favour of living, but not at the expense of efficiency.
"Becoming mobile has made us more productive," claimed Lomax. "The campus is an enabling environment. There is the view that the Vodafone Live! service could not have been achieved without moving to the campus."
Communication and creativity have flourished since the move, according to Lomax. "When we operated out of Newbury, there were problems with communication as teams had to be split up. For every minute of every day, a senior manager was travelling to a meeting, which was a huge cost," he said.
Internal research into mobile phone usage patterns shows that employees now make calls between buildings on the campus, and on the way to meetings to make optimum use of their time.
Increasing mobility with the new headquarters has also brought Vodafone closer to the ideal of the paperless office.
'FollowMe' printing means that workers do not have to wait for information they need from a print job before going to a meeting in another building on the campus.
They can access the service over a wireless Lan or fixed cabling, sending a document from their PC to the printer in the building where the meeting is scheduled. Only when they approach the printer with their close proximity ID card will the document be printed.
"We have fewer fax and photocopying machines with FollowMe printing. Prior to the move, the number of machines accumulated, as each department owned machines and personal stationery stores were built up in an uncontrolled way," said Lomax.
"We have taken private printers off the floor, and we top up stationery stocks to pre-determined levels overnight. We have decreased paper consumption tenfold."
Vodafone had the luxury of rolling out its new mobile strategy on a green field site, but Lomax maintained that, even if the company had been denied planning permission, it had a plan B and even C.
"It's wrong to say that we couldn't have done it if we hadn'?t moved here," he said. "We could have developed some of the buildings in our business park to accommodate mobile working, but what we have done is the optimum solution for Vodafone."
Caldwell suggested that the wireless solution is ideal for start-ups. "If you're a start-up, you should do it," he said.
But he recommends established companies adopting trials "with 10 or 20 staff rather than committing to a grand scale immediately".
For Vodafone, its Newbury headquarters are a blueprint for future office upgrades. The concept has been exported to its Cairo office, and other countries are keen to adopt wireless technology.
"We have no agenda," said Lomax. "But people have seen what we do and how we do it, and want to work in a wireless way."
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