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O2: Huge home-working trial reveals hike in productivity

Date: 20 July 2012

O2 has released the results of the pilot scheme it ran earlier this year, where as part of its preparation for Olympic-driven disruption, 2500 staff worked away from the office for a day. Paul Barker reports

Shutting down your entire headquarters for the day to see if it's possible for 2500 people to operate remotely sounds like a crazy idea, but that's exactly what mobile phone brand O2 tried earlier this year.

For one day, its Slough base swapped the bustle of a full office for a skeleton staff of 125 "mission-critical" employees to see how the business coped, with management investigating the impact of flexible working, in part to develop a contingency plan ahead of any travel issues around the London Olympics that are now just days away.

The figures involved are mind-boggling. According to O2, more than 2500 people saved a total 2000 hours of commuting time, totaling £9000 in fuel savings, with 109 cars entering the car park rather than the normal 1100, while the firm saved 12.2 tonnes of CO2 though reduced travel and cut electricity usage by 12%.

Flexible or home working is something many companies have shied away from, but O2's results, produced from analysis by consultancy Environmental Resources Management, found that 88% of employees felt that they were at least as productive as normal, with 36% claiming to be more productive. In fact, 52% of the 2000 hours saved on commuting time was spent working, so O2 gained more than 1000 hours of work from its employees, who also spent 16% of the time they would have been commuting sleeping, and a further 14% with their family.

"Line managers are used to managing people they can see; managing them remotely is a completely different thing," explains O2 director of business Ben Dowd. "We're educating people about the whole future of work here, and there's still more to be done, but we're pleased to say this is a fantastic start."

O2 claims UK business policies and practices regarding flexible working are "typically narrow in their focus", and Dowd describes the experiment as a "demonstration of the power of flexible working to forge lasting operational, cultural and environmental change within modern organisations".

But changing the entire functionality of a company, even for a day, requires a massive amount of planning. "One of our main priorities was making sure everyone felt comfortable with the technology needed to work flexibly," explains Dowd. "We laid the groundwork early and kept our employees updated throughout, so by the time the day came round, everyone was fully prepared and excited about the prospect of working remotely."

Dowd also says that fully embracing flexible working is the only way to make it succeed, and avoid a situation where employees feel like they are 'on duty' at home because they can access emails and systems at times when they would have logged off for the day if in the office. "Rather than being 'always on', we need to transform the way we work so that businesses and employees alike can reap the benefits of increased productivity and general wellbeing," he says.

The technical challenges are also not to be underestimated. O2 found that at peak, 162% of the normal level of data was passing through its internal network, and at average it was 110%, proving the worth of the upgrades to its systems, while the number of users was up by 155% over an average day.

But the experiment appears to prove that changing the way a business approaches travel, and the potential to reduce the mileage covered by its fleet, can have a massive impact on productivity and a company's environmental consequence, without denting productivity.

"The success of O2's experiment extends much further than just allowing some of the workforce to stay at home and work," states Dowd. "It proves that with the right thinking and planning, even the largest organisations can protect themselves from the most severe disruptions to their business.

"We hope our flexible working day acts as a useful case study to other businesses when considering how to manage this summer's disruptions," he continues. "Planning was crucial to ensure the smooth running of the day, as well as ensuring employees were kept in the loop with developments."