The Office Group responds to flexible working boom with Microsoft cloud deployment

Flexible workspace provider rolls out Office 365 after business growth caused email storage capacity crunch

Investing in permanent office space used to be considered a necessary cost of doing business, but the emergence of mobile devices and faster internet connections has changed all that.

This is a trend that has benefited flexible workspace provider The Office Group over the past decade, enabling it to invest in new locations and more staff.

The company allows organisations to rent as much office space as they want for as long as they need it, and hire meeting rooms on a per-hour basis.

Some occupants use the provider’s services for short and fixed periods of time, says the company’s IT manager, Paul Wixon, whereas other firms start out as a one-man-band, acquire more staff and stay much longer than they originally expected.

“It’s quite surprising how many blue-chip companies and FTSE 100 firms use our space, and a common reason for that is because they are embarking on a joint venture with another organisation and need somewhere neutral to meet because it is too political to hold it in one person’s building over the other,” he said.

Overseas firms sounding out the market for UK expansion are also keen adopters of The Office Group’s workspaces, along with entrepreneurs and startups, many of whom have decided to do things differently after the financial crisis.

“After the recession, we saw tons of talented young people become entrepreneurs who were made redundant because organisations started shedding headcount just to balance the books,” said Wixon.

“A lot of them decided to use their redundancy cheques to invest in their own businesses, and ended up coming to us because permanent office space was not an overhead they wanted to deal with.”

Business growth hits IT systems

Since Wixon joined the firm three years ago, the number of sites it operates in London has more than doubled to 23, and it also boasts sites in Leeds and Bristol.

Over the same period, the size of the team the company employs to look after the 10,000 or so workers who make use of its office spaces has risen to about 170.

All this growth started to take its toll on the organisation’s email servers and storage capacity, which were originally provisioned for 50-60 people, said Wixon.

The company was running virtualised servers on NetApp hardware and, as its email systems neared peak storage capacity, it faced the prospect of an expensive, on-premise upgrade project.

However, given its geographically dispersed staff and the costs involved, it made little sense to replace like for like, said Wixon, prompting the company to consider a move to the cloud.

“We have a head office, where everything is focused logically, but our staff are often scattered across multiple locations and are remote working anyway, so the cloud emerged as an ideal solution,” he said.

“The feeling was: why should we have geographic dependencies when freeing businesses from being tied to one location is actually what we do?”

Using cloud to boost business agility

The Office Group eventually decided to adopt Microsoft’s cloud-based productivity suite Office 365, and enlisted its long-standing IT provider, Wirebird, to oversee the rollout.

With Wirebird already responsible for fielding most of the first-, second- and third-line support queries raised by staff, Wixon said it made sense to ask it to handle the Office 365 deployment too.

Weeks before the move, Wirebird upgraded all employees to the latest version of Microsoft Office so they could familiarise themselves with the new look and feel of the applications before the back end was switched over.

Wirebird also began some preliminary work to ensure The Office Group’s systems were equipped to cope with the decommissioning of its existing on-premise Exchange server, including an Active Directory clean-up.

“I foresaw a lot of problems, if I’m honest, because we were planning to rip out an Exchange server, breaking all the dependencies that go with that, and move all that to the cloud, but there was very little upheaval or pain for the business,” said Wixon.

Wirebird managing director Nabeil Samara said the fact that The Office Group staff use a mix of Mac and PC devices could have been a stumbling block for the project, but in practice it caused his team little trouble.

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Once the final costings were in place and the senior management team had agreed for the work to proceed, Samara estimates that the whole project took just “two to three weeks”.

“Compared to some of our clients, I think we were quite lucky that the management team understood the technology aspect of the cloud, because in some cases it can take up to two years to get any kind of buy-in on these types of project because they still consider cloud quite scary,” he said.

This is a view shared by Wixon, who said the powers that be at The Office Group had no such misgivings about moving to the cloud.

“They weren’t scared of the technology or how big a seismic shift it was likely to be, and they loved the concept,” he said. “They just wanted to make sure the execution was rock solid.”

Post-project reflections

The move to Office 365 has been warmly welcomed by the firm’s employees, and there are plans to follow it up with further forays into the cloud.

“I always considered the Office 365 project as a stepping stone to getting the business acquainted with the concept and working slightly differently – and they’ve taken to it like ducks to water,” said Wixon.

“They love the fact they can just grab a laptop or a tablet, run out the door and still have access to all the data and applications they need wherever they go.

“We’re all out and about at meetings, so it’s quite difficult to nail a place down and call it home. Now we have a way of working that supports that.”

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