I = Interviewer N = Neil
I So, Neil, why did BT decide to introduce Options 2000?
N Well, we started looking at flexible working back in 1993. And subsequent staff surveys showed that 96 per cent of our office-based staff wanted to work at home two or three days a week. We thought about how we could respond to this and soon realised that flexible working was very much a win-win-win situation. It's a win for technology, using our own products and practicing what we preach. And of course, it reduces BT's office space and cuts costs. But I think the real driver for change was accepting that our people wanted to work differently.
I Right. And how many of them will actually end up working from home?
N Our target's 10,000 by the end of the year.
N Yes, that's out of about 55,000 office-based staff.
I And what effect has this had on company structure?
N Well, the company's been organised around business units for some time now. It used to be very much departmentalised, with work being done in series, you know, passed from one department to the next. But product life cycles are a lot shorter nowadays for the Internet, say, it's less than 6 months even. So people come together for a specific purpose and then go off to join new projects when the job's done.
I So, these organisational changes must have had quite an effect on BT's culture.
N Well, as I said, we've been developing a project-oriented culture. So, people now are paid for what they actually do and not for sitting at a desk from nine to five. But the really fundamental change is that we've become a lot more collaborative, both internally and in our dealings with partners and clients. And people are, of course, now getting used to working on several teams at once, which means they tend to get a lot more variety in their work as well.
I Yes. And how about the technology? How do you help your teleworkers cope with it?
N Well, people working from home have, I suppose, had to become more independent about coping with technology. But our corporate intranet is the largest in Europe and we've invested a lot of time and money in making sure there's enough on-line support for anyone using it. Oh, and there is some training available, of course.
I And what's been the impact so far?
N Well, it's difficult to say whether productivity's risen or not. But surveys show that since people have had access to work 24 hours a day, they've been working a lot longer days. In fact, we've just implemented a new training programme to help managers recognise this and deal with the situation. Because although some people might produce their best work under this kind of pressure, it's certainly not the case for everyone.
I Was that one of the challenges when implementing the programme?
N Yes, as was getting the general concept over. We've also had to adapt to the diversity of our flexible workers. It's not unusual, say, for 400 of them to be on the intranet at midnight.
I Midnight? N Yes. I So, what happens when these people need stationery or when their computer crashes?
N We've had to develop 24-hours, 365-day-a-year support services. I'd say that was probably our toughest challenge, actually.
I And how have people adapted to working in these virtual teams?
N Well, so far, very well. New teams usually meet at the start of a project. Of course, you can always find out about the other team members on the company intranet even before you meet them. After the first meeting, most communication is then done by e-mail, so we've had to work out guidelines on how to use e-mail, so we've had to work out guidelines on how to use e-mail more effectively. At the start we experienced some difficulties with people circulating far too much irrelevant information. And, of course, there's always one or two people who resist any form of change whatsoever.
I And finally, how do you see the future of the office itself?
N Well, I think flexible working's bound to increase but there'll always be a place for the office. There'll always be a need for face-to-face contact because even teams working remotely still need to get together every now and again to refocus. Being tied to the desk, however, is history. In future, mobile personal information systems will have all the tools we need for our jobs. The days of putting bits of paper in drawers are definitely numbered, I'm afraid.