CW500: Managing the mobile workforce (part 1)

Mobile working has transformed Colt Telecommunications beyond recognition over the past three years

Three years ago, telecommunications company Colt Technology Services introduced a bring-your-own-computer (BYOC) scheme for its 5,000 employees.

The decision has transformed the company almost beyond recognition, according to its chief information officer Chris Hewertson

“Colt feels very different today to how it did three years ago,” he told IT leaders at Computer Weekly’s 500 Club.

Working from home, videoconferencing, hot desking and virtual teams are now the norm at Colt. And staff are bringing their own devices into work in increasing numbers.

Walk around Colt and you will see iMacs, Macbooks and iPads everywhere. Colt hasn't bought a single one, but you will see hundreds in the organisation,” he said.

Colt began work on its bring your own computer programme when it became clear that an IT upgrade was well overdue. Although Colt had invested heavily in IT technology to support its customers, it had neglected to upgrade its own IT infrastructure.

“We reached a perfect storm of having to upgrade all our systems at the same time,” said Hewertson.

Watch videos about Colt's BYOC scheme

Driving business change

But the project was less of an IT project, and more of a business change project, said Hewertson. And it needed employee buy-in from the start.

“We understood that the technology we rolled out would create a change in organisational culture. And we needed to address that before we did it, otherwise we would have problems,” he said.

That meant both informal discussions with staff and, in countries such as Germany, formal consultations with the works councils.

The first step was to introduce a flexible working scheme throughout the organisation. Controversially, Hewertson decided to go ahead with flexible working before the supporting technology was fully ready.

“A lot of people said, surely we need the technology before we can do this. And I got a lot of push back,” said Hewertson.

In the event, the scheme, which allowed employees to work up to two days a week from home, proved popular.

“You give people the opportunity to work flexibility, and they will work flexibly. As soon as we started doing it, they did,” he said.

Inviting staff to bring their own devices

The bring-your-own-computer scheme, which allows employees to register their own devices to use at work, followed. And if they agree to return their Colt-issued laptops, they can qualify for payments towards the cost of supporting their own device.

As far as possible, Hewertson has taken the IT department out of the BYOC process. If an employee wants to use a personal device at work, they talk to their own manager, not IT. And it is the manager, rather than the IT department, who decides whether the computer is suitable.

“We don’t want to be the policeman in this,” he said.

Image goes hereChris Hewertson, CIO, Colt: "Walk around Colt and you will see iMacs, Macbooks and iPads everywhere. Colt hasn't bought a single one, but you will see hundreds in the organisation"

Keeping security simple

Hewertson is agnostic about which devices employees use. Employees use VMware to access virtual Windows desktops. It requires two-factor authentication, so it is totally secure, he said.

And the employee Wi-Fi network is logically separate from Colt’s corporate network, which means there is little risk of losing corporate data.

“We have no filtering, and if you want to access it there is a relatively straightforward username and password. We don’t want to make it too difficult for our employees to access it,” said Hewertson.

Developing a business case for BYOC

Identifying hard business benefits was crucial to winning backing for the BYOC scheme, said Hewertson. “We built individual business cases for each of the upgrades we needed to do – network, Wi-Fi, EDI,” he said.

But each project had its own additional features bolted on to take the company closer to the bring-your-own-computer vision.

“We got buy-in from the leadership team,” he said.

Although soft benefits, such as improved productivity, are important, they are not enough to win the chief finance officer's backing, warned Hewertson.

“You can spend a long time putting business cases together based on employee satisfaction and improved productivity, but when you present that to your CFO, he will turn straight to the financials,” he said.

“I am not saying you shouldn’t do it – you should do it. It's extremely important to justify what you are doing for the employees – but they don’t get the business case approved."

Lessons in implementing BYOD

The project was a major learning curve for Hewertson and his team. After work began, the company’s expectations were high. But after six months, with still no BYOC in place, employees began to feel restless, so Colt started releasing things early.

The first step was a dedicated Wi-Fi network for employees. Colt had already upgraded its corporate Wi-Fi to allow access for guests. So a dedicated channel for employees was a simple step. “That revolutionised the way employees use workplace devices, and it was very easy to do,” he said.

Hewertson’s second big win was “follow-me” printing, which allows staff to print to the nearest printer, wherever they happen to be working. “If you want people to like you, if your reputation in IT is low, introduce follow-me printing,” he said.

The move helped to change the perception of IT, from the part of the organisation that likes to say no, to one that genuinely has the employees' interests at heart.

“We really have changed employees' attitudes about IT. The department is now seen as enabling IT rather than as something that gets in the way,” he said.

More from the CW500 Club

Colt spent a long time trying to segment workers into different user groups, from office-based workers to fully mobile workers, and those in between, before abandoning the idea.

“In the end, we realised it was pointless. We just wanted to treat everybody the same, so why not enable this for everybody – and that is the approach we are taking,” he said.

Working out how to provide technical support for employees' home computers proved to be another challenge. “We spent months trying to figure out how to do this. We engaged PwC, we spent about £45,000 in legal fees figuring out lease agreements and loan options,” he said.

It was decided that it was simply too complicated to roll out a consistent scheme across the whole of Europe, so Colt adopted a much simpler option. Instead, each employee can qualify for €1,000 towards support costs if they agree to hand their company-issued laptop back and to use their home laptop at work, he said.

Take risks

If he were to do the project again, Hewertson said he would spend less time evaluating which technologies to use. The IT team, for example, spent four or five months evaluating VMware and Citrix.

Looking back, he recognised that it should simply have picked one at the start of the process, taking a risk that it was the right one.

Both companies are in an arms race. At any one time, one technology might be superior to the other, but the other will quickly catch up.

Colt chose VMware, but Citrix would have worked just as well, said Hewertson.

“This technology is so fast moving. You can spend so long deciding which one to use that you just stop making progress. Pick one, move ahead, accept that sometimes you are going to make mistakes,” he said.

But it is important to explain to senior management that is the approach you are taking, said Hewertson.

“It's not a traditional project. It's not the kind of project where you can say I am going to do all these things for the next two years, and they are all going to work. It does not work that way,” he said.

It is just as important to sell the idea to the employees. Colt consulted widely, but was caught by surprise when the works council in Germany objected to it rolling out the Mobile Iron mobile device management (MDM) software on iPhones.

“This is an example of where we had not engaged with the works council effectively. We thought we had, and we thought we had done the right thing,” he said.

 Workers in Germany have a legal right not to have software that tracks your location. “We have had to remove it,” he said, "at least until the issues are resolved."

You give people the opportunity to work flexibility, and they will work flexibly

Chris Hewertson, CIO, Colt

Remote working proving popular

Today Colt has 2,000 employees using virtual desktop infrastructure who are free to use their own devices at work. Most of them do, according to Hewertson, though he does not keep count.

But he is surprised by just how few employees have signed up to receive the €1,000 support contribution from Colt. “There are about 70 – a much lower number than we expected,” he said.

Why so few? The answer is that Colt had underestimated the effort it takes to carry a laptop home each night.

“We thought people would do that because it’s a benefit – use your own device, here is €1,000, give your device back – but they won’t because they don’t want to carry their own device to and from the office,” he said.

In practice, it is more of a use-your-own-device scheme, with many people choosing to use their own devices from home or on the move, rather than in the office.

“We have hundreds more people weekend working at Colt than ever before because it's more attractive for them to do it. In the past, they had to lug a very large laptop home. Now they don’t have to do that,” said Hewertson.

The scheme has proved particularly popular with the employees responsible for digging the roads and laying cable for Colt. In the past, it tended to be the senior executives and office workers that benefited from new technology. But the BYOC programme applied to everyone, regardless of status.

“From their perspective, they were very frustrated, as a user group, because they wanted to use a lot of mobile tools that we would not let them use,” said Hewertson.

But by going down a virtual desktop route, Colt has created a secure environment, which means cable installers can use any application they like. “That has really helped them,” said Hewertson. “Once they saw the benefits they loved it.”

Boosting business continuity

One unexpected benefit of the programme is that moving to virtual desktops has given Colt better business continuity.

During the Olympics, for example, the company encouraged its London-based employees to work from home. And they were able to do so with minimal support from the IT team.

“With minimal effort we enabled Colt UK to work from home. That was with almost no IT support, no incidents for the helpdesk,” he said.

BYOC has also improved the security of Colt's infrastructure, according to Hewertson. “Ironically, implementing bring-your-own-computer has probably enhanced our security. By locking out the perimeter and introducing two-factor authentication, we have improved our perimeter security no end, ” he said.

Future plans for staff mobility

Colt plans to extend its BYOC scheme to include mobile phones. It is carrying out trials with iPads, and plans to introduce iPhones into the scheme first.

There are still some issues with security on Android phones, said Hewertson. Although mobile device management software is getting better, organisations are concerned that corporate data may not be as secure when employees use Android devices.

“We will be doing that probably this year, but we are reticent about Android,” he said.

The company is also looking at improving user access controls to allow employees to connect their devices to Colt’s physical network in a secure way.

Part of the motivation for that is that as more users bring in their own devices, Colt is beginning to experience capacity issues with its Wi-Fi networks.

And Hewertson plans to replace desktop phones with PC-based soft-phones that will allow voice calls and desktop video.

Advances by VMware and Citrix should make the project possible again within six months, he said.

Ultimately, Hewertson would like to replace its Windows 7 operating system. “Why do we need that great big operating system any more? We just haven’t found a way around it yet, but we will do,” he said.

In the meantime, demand for BYOC will only increase. “It's become viral. We are under pressure to deliver. People are so much more aware of what’s out there and they are saying, we want some of this,” he said.

  • Click here to read more from the CW500 Club on managing mobile devices


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