Virgin cuts travel costs by 20% after rolling out unified communications

Employees saving 15 minutes a day as Virgin Media turns to social media, web conferencing and video

Virgin Media claims to have cut its travel and expenses costs by 20% after introducing technology allowing employees to communicate and collaborate more effectively from the office or on the move.

The company, which supplies broadband, TV and phone services, has invested in video conferencing and instant messaging technologies to link employees across Virgin’s 200 UK offices.

Virgin Media, which had a turnover of £1bn in 2013, says the move is saving employees up to five hours a week in travelling time.

The result is that employees are more engaged and have a better work/life balance, said Colin Miles, director of IT Infrastructure & Enterprise Services.

“People were having to work longer hours to maintain the same productivity, or productivity was dropping because people could not work the extra hours," he said. "Now we have found that people are more engaged through having the ability to conduct a lot more meetings remotely."

Virgin began looking for technology to improve its internal communications more than three years ago, when it faced an expanding business and geographically dispersed workforce.

“Travel and expenses costs were growing, because of project meetings. People’s work life balance was affected because they were away from home, and there was low productivity because there was a lot of dead time,” said Miles, speaking ahead of a presentation at a major HR Technology conference.

The IT team chose technology from Cisco (see box), which at the time was the only technology capable of offering the social media and video capabilities Virgin Media needed.

The company trialled the scheme with more than 1,000 employees to secure backing for a full scale roll-out from the Virgin Media board.

Adoption teams

The first state of the project went live in the first quarter of 2012.

Encouraging employees to take up the new technology, including Cisco’s Unified Communications software, WebEx video conferencing software and WebEx social media, was one of the most challenging aspects of the project, said Miles.

Virgin brought in external experts to help the IT team explain the benefits of the technology to the rest of the business. “All our IT teams in the past spoke in ones and zeros,” says Miles.

The company also set up “adoption teams” to visit staff across different areas of the business, listen to their needs and explain how the new technology could help them complete their work.

“We really have gone out into the business, looked at how the teams collaborate today, and have come up with new ways of working, ” he said. “It really answered the question of what is in it for me.”

Cultural Changes

The collaboration technology has meant employees feel much more part of a team, even when they are based in distant offices, said Miles.

WebEx has also allowed line managers to move from a command and control style of management, to measuring employees on their output.

“Teams are able to see exactly where they are on a project and managers are able to track progress and updates,” he says. Virgin Media has rolled out unified communications technology, including computers fitted with "softphones", to 5,000 employees with the rest to follow next year.

“We want to provide people with the opportunity to collaborate, make voice calls, video calls or text through a single environment” said Miles.

Managing documents

WebEx Social allows the company to manage its documents, ensuring that there is only one version of each in use throughout the organisation.

Previously, the company had stored information on shared drives, local PCs and Microsoft’s Sharepoint software, making it difficult to keep track of important files, said Miles.

Employees can also search WebEx to find employees with particular expertise in the organisation. In the past, they would have leave whatever document they were working on, go on to the intranet to find a number and click on the number to call.

On average, employees are saving 15 minutes a day because they don’t have to spend time searching for phone numbers. Calls can be made by a single click, says Miles.

Next Steps

The next step is to encourage employees to create videos to capture important project information. Most employees hate writing documentation, particularly when they are under time pressure.

But videos, combined with screen capture tools, provide a simpler way to capture and share knowledge across the organisations, says Miles.

“Because they can see the speaker, they maintain a level of engagement at a much higher level,” he said.

Today, all 14,000 Virgin employees in the UK have the ability to join virtual meetings through WebEx and  WebEx Social, and around half are able to initiate meetings. Between 40% and 60% of employees have taken up social media, but this is excepted to grow to 75% by 2015, says Miles.

To date, Virgin has rolled out unified communications technology to 5,000 staff and aims to cover all 14,000 next year.
Each PC will be equipped with a softphone so employees can make calls, send text messages or take part in video conferences.

Lessons

One important lesson to come out of the project is the need to ensure technology is as simple to use as consumer technology.

“We did not execute that as well as we could have done the initial pilot before it went big. It made the effort of getting people back on the platform harder, after they had had a bad experience,” he says.

Secondly, bringing in external experts to work on the project, has had a ripple effect, on the ability of the IT team to communicate effectively in non-technical language.

“IT people are now speaking in a much more human way, a much more relaxed and engaging way, ” he says.


Colin Miles is speaking at the HR Tech Europe in Amsterdam on 23 and 24 October 2014. Computer Weekly readers can register using code M2F1 and receive a two-for-one discount.

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