Embracing Remote Work: Unlocking the Potential of a Connected Workforce

The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the way we work, prompting organisations worldwide to explore remote work arrangements. This shift presented both challenges and opportunities for businesses to adapt their operations and harness the benefits of a connected and diverse workforce.

In this article, we look at the experiences of Richard Maynard, Head of Business Customer Care, Billing & Collections at Vodafone UK, as he navigates the difficulties and successes of managing a remote team and shares valuable insights into how Vodafone has successfully embraced this new work paradigm.

What was the setup pre-pandemic?

Before the COVID pandemic, my team was based out of four main contact centres located in Newark, Stoke, Manchester and Glasgow. Each site had its own teams and leadership, and I would typically spend most of my week travelling to one or two of these locations on a rotating basis to ensure smooth operations. I also believe it is important to be visible and actively engaged with the team, so I wanted to spend valuable time collaborating and working together towards our shared goals. This not only strengthened our working relationships but also fostered a sense of unity and enhanced overall team performance.

The main challenge with this setup was creating a sense of unity and connectedness among the teams. They were spread across different geographies, and we needed to figure out a way for them to work together as a single cohesive unit.

What were the processes you had to go through to get people set up at home?

When the pandemic hit, we were well-prepared, having planned for the epidemic and our response since December 2019. This allowed us to take immediate action, telling everyone who could work from home to do so. Within a 14-day period, we reorganised our office setup, providing laptops and the necessary software for audio calls to facilitate remote work.

We built a booking system for our agents to collect office equipment to improve their home working set-up, and offered dongles to resolve connectivity issues. We also placed a strong emphasis on our teams' well-being. We provided education and guidance on remote work practices, and to show our appreciation for their dedication and resilience, we sent them thank-you packages and over time, we developed a more structured "office in a box" to allow our people to order and recreate their office space at home using the essential elements of their office space.

Recognising the impact on recruitment, onboarding and training, we swiftly moved these processes to a virtual format, ensuring a seamless and effective experience for new hires. We also enhanced our mental health support services, providing additional resources and assistance to prioritise our employees' well-being during these challenging times. Through this journey, we have demonstrated our commitment to our people, our customers, and the wider community. By aligning with Vodafone's core values and priorities, we have not only successfully navigated the pandemic but also ensured that we played a crucial role in keeping the UK connected.

How did the team respond to the technical challenges of working from home (WFH)?

Initially, the advisors who had different broadband capabilities were provided with mobile dongles to ensure they could work effectively. Over time, many of them improved their broadband connections themselves.

In the early stages, there were some issues with VPNs due to sudden increase in demand, but these problems were quickly resolved. Latency and system accessibility were also not major concerns while working remotely. Although occasional broadband outages affected a small percentage of the team, widespread distribution of our people ensured that there were always enough agents with stable connectivity to maintain business continuity.

The pandemic forced you to move your teams to a WFH model. Why have you chosen not to go back to the office?

We’ve decided to continue with remote work even after the pandemic because we recognise the numerous benefits it offers in terms of recruitment, team dynamics and overall productivity. What started as a tactical response to the pandemic has evolved into a strategic and ongoing way of working for our organisation.

One of the key advantages of remote work is the ability to recruit talent from a much wider pool of candidates. By removing geographical constraints, we can tap into a diverse talent pool from across the entire country, or even globally. It provides opportunities to hire highly skilled individuals who could not otherwise relocate for an office-based position, and allows us to assemble teams with a rich mix of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences, leading to more innovative and creative solutions.

Remote work also fosters a sense of connectedness and equality among team members. When everyone works from their homes, there is a shared experience that promotes a stronger bond among colleagues. Taking physical hierarchy out of the office promotes a more inclusive work environment, allowing ideas to be freely shared and collaboration to thrive.

Were connection and collaboration encouraged beforehand, or has that become a priority as we move into this new way of working?

While we did focus on collaboration prior to the pandemic, we often achieved this on a site by site basis. This was still a positive achievement, but we did struggle to create that connected team experience between the different sites. Previously, people were together in the same office, but there was a lack of integration and connectivity between different sites. It was not cost-efficient or practical to bring entire teams together for meetings, and webinars were not as effective for remote participants.

Now, with everyone having the ability to work from home, the focus has shifted towards the importance of collaboration as we adapt to new ways of working, and we’re seeing much more connection across the teams and sites.

Over time, the focus of webinars and team initiatives has shifted towards people and inclusivity. This has led to the creation of four squads in the team, focusing on engagement, well-being, diversity and inclusion, and career progression. These squads aim to make the workplace a better environment and improve work-life balance for everyone.

“Remote work offers increased flexibility and a work-life balance. This leads to higher job satisfaction, improved well-being, and ultimately greater productivity.”

What is your employees' point of view? How has it improved their working conditions?

In August 2020, we surveyed our staff to understand their preferences for remote work versus working from the office. An overwhelming 83% expressed a strong preference for working from home.

Taking this feedback into account, we started recruiting location-agnostic workers, expanding our talent pool. In March, we solidified our remote-first strategy indefinitely.

This shift has had a positive impact on our employees' working conditions. Remote work offers increased flexibility and a work-life balance. By eliminating the daily commute and providing a more flexible work schedule, we can accommodate our team members' diverse needs and responsibilities. This leads to higher job satisfaction, improved well-being, and ultimately greater productivity.

How do you see the future of smart working progressing?

The successful implementation of remote working demonstrates that physical proximity is not always necessary for collaboration. Advancements in technology, improved broadband connectivity, and the enhancement of tools like Teams have facilitated this transition. The evolving needs and preferences of individuals, including a desire for better work-life balance and reduced commuting, will drive the continued growth of remote work. While some face-to-face interactions may be missed, the benefits of remote work, such as increased productivity and reduced commuting challenges, will shape the future landscape of smart working.

What advice would you give to businesses considering this?

  • Embrace the benefits: Remote work can lead to improved engagement, better customer experiences, and access to a wider talent pool. It allows for diversity and integration within teams.

  • Consider the context: While having a single location may be easier, if your organisation has acquired businesses and teams spread across different locations, remote work can be a better approach to foster a unified team ethos centred around the customer.

  • Trust and output-based measurement: Establish a culture of trust and measure employees based on their output rather than the number of hours worked. This approach can strengthen teams and promote accountability.

  • Adapt to change: Recognise that transitioning to remote work may require a leap of faith, but sometimes external factors like COVID-19 can force necessary changes. Embrace the opportunity to evolve and adapt your operations.

The Business Cares division has a proven track record of achieving results. Throughout the ever-evolving working world, they have consistently displayed exceptional adaptability.

Whether it involves enhancing customer care, rectifying a malfunctioning billing system, executing substantial transformation initiatives, reducing costs, or establishing and nurturing new teams, the team demonstrates unwavering commitment and ability to accomplish the task at hand.

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