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Preparing large workforces for remote work

In an interview with Bruno Chomel, CIO of Orange Polska, Morgan Dunn of Mind Partners explores how the telecommunications giant transitioned 10,000 employees to remote working while maintaining quality service for millions of customers.

Was the transition aided by any prior contingency plans? If so, how was the need for such plans recognized and how was it implemented?

So, we had a rule already. First, we are a telecom company, so working remotely, for us, is something we understand. We were, like everybody, going slowly towards remote work, so it was already the case for headquarters personnel to have the opportunity to work one day per week remotely. We also had a flexi-desk policy in our headquarters and main buildings, so you weren’t assigned an office. When you arrived in the building, you’d go to a screen, select an available seat, take your belongings, and go to this seat. That was what was done before COVID, not so much as a contingency, but rather to reduce square meters of office space. With our one-day-a-week policy, it was effectively a result of a more modern ways of working.

Who was involved in deciding the home office plan?

We had a crisis meeting every evening with all of the executive committee, from day one. So, every evening, we had a half-hour video conference with the CEO and executive committee members. It was taken very seriously from day one.

It’s the first time that I remember that we had daily meetings, whereas we usually meet once a week. By holding these meetings, we were able to quickly transition 84 percent of our more than 10,000 employees to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic.

How were you able to streamline your transition to remote work well enough to effect it in such a short period of time?

Our meetings were focused on understanding what the issues were, where we were, and then we were able to invest very rapidly in equipment and masks and other items. For a few weeks, these issues were discussed every evening before everything came a bit more under control.

The good part is that most of our systems could be accessed remotely with a laptop and a VPN. For example, my IT teams were working during weekends, and we had two points to tackle.

First, to send more VPN dongles to everybody, and also to secure and configure notebooks and distribute them. The second issue was to make sure that we had enough VPNs available, since the average usage of VPNs before COVID was far lower than afterwards.

Beyond the technical aspect of the transition, how did you address the questions and concerns of employees and colleagues while you were setting these measures in place?

We conducted two surveys, in which we got very positive feedback for a few reasons. First, because we were reacting even in advance of the Polish government, employees felt that we cared about them.

Additionally, every week, we had a webinar with all the employees who wanted to connect to explain the situation. In these, we explained everything, including where we stood, what our plan of action was, how to come back to the office or not, and the CEO was always involved.

We had more than 20 of these webinars week after week, and what’s amazing is that more than 50 percent of our employees were following these webinars. So, every week, the CEO and the executive committee were available to answer any questions. Now, we’re holding these meetings once every two weeks, to maintain proactive and direct communication.

We also worked a lot on training. Whereas, before the pandemic, roughly 45% of employees took advantage of online training, more than 90% took at least one online training course post-COVID. Furthermore, we now have a valuable forum on our intranet in which employees can discuss what to do in certain situations and what is and isn’t allowed.

Were end-users affected at all by the transition and COVID in general?

In one example, for our fixed business, we have plain telephony, for which we still have a lot of users. This is typically used by older people in Poland, who come to shops to pay their bill every month. Since the shops in malls were closed while on-street locations were open, we had a lot of older customers visiting these shops to pay bills.

This was a bit hazardous, so we told them: ‘You don’t need to pay now, you can wait before paying.’ This was very well-perceived, and we did the same for the companies, telling them ‘We understand it’s a difficult time, so we’ll be more flexible in collecting money.’ That was extremely well perceived, and even now, we rank first in net promoter scores.

So, I think that what we’ve done at this time was positively perceived by our customers. And I think we’ve done a lot to communicate with customers, to find pragmatic solutions, to delay bill collections to help them to avoid going to shops. So, we’ve worked to show a lot of care for our customers.

With high insight, what was the main challenge that you faced during this phase of rapid digital transition?

It was a lot of work to prepare the notebooks and dongles to allow our employees to work remotely, as we had a team working nights and weekends on this problem. But since we already had much of the necessary equipment in our shops, we were able to quickly meet our employees’ needs.

Have you learned of the reaction of Orange employees to these measures? If so, how have they reacted and adapted to them in a changing working environment?

We had something internal called ‘bez cukru’ in Polish, or ‘no sugar’ in English. Our CEO launched these video conferences to answer employees’ questions directly. So, there’s a trust between the employees and the CEO and executive committee due to this direct communication.

It helped, because we did a survey before in which people perceived communication as too formal, so during these conferences, anyone could ask any question.

What key insights have you and your team gained from setting these changes in place?

We’ve learned that proactivity and communication are essential for preparing employees for remote work and for addressing the needs and concerns of service users. Our values are to help people, to offer essential tools, so we’ve succeeded in satisfying our employees and our customers, and we’ve done well globally for it.

Is Orange Polska now planning on coming back to this office? Has the lockdown changed for the longer term the way employees work?

Yes, but it will definitely be less than four out of five days per week, and more likely three out of five. There’s a chance that next year things will improve, but now we have the equipment, VPN access is working very well, and we know now how to work efficiently in this hybrid mode.


Mind Partners is a boutique executive search firm with offices in London, Paris and Dublin.

Photo: Bruno Chomel, CIO of Orange Polska, the principal supplier of telecommunications services in Poland.

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