Vodafone’s Irish operation has invested €2.5m in a new way of working strategy. John Kennedy spoke to CEO Jeroen Hoencamp about how flexible work strategies inspire progress.
Across the technology world, many organisations are embracing new ways of working strategies that on the surface look like an interior design project but under the bonnet are improving productivity and ticking a number of strategic boxes.
Various organisations I’ve visited in recent months, including software companies and telecoms firms, are redesigning their work spaces in such a way as to boost collaboration, make the work environment more attractive for people with key skills and fundamentally be more productive.
Vodafone, which recently invested €2.5m in redeveloping its 1,100-strong headquarters in Leopardstown, is a case in point. Gone are the private offices and cubicles and instead people turn up and sit wherever they can find an available space, making use of the local wireless network to access their files.
No one is allowed to keep paper on their desks, there are no longer shelves or drawers. Instead, everyone is given a locker. There are no meeting rooms, just central areas where people can relax over a coffee.
Symbols of power and privilege no longer exist. CEO Jeroen Hoencamp doesn’t have his own desk anymore, he just turns up like everybody else and finds an available desk space. He agrees it can be a little disconcerting for workers to find the CEO sitting next to them on any given day, but says people learn more about the business they are in and time-consuming, scheduled meetings are becoming a thing of the past.
A 21st-century transformation
I put it to him that this new way of working – making the most of flexible working technologies like smartphones and broadband and making it easier for people to collaborate in a more fair and equal environment – is almost a metaphor for the kind of transformation Ireland needs to make in the 21st century.
“It’s fair to say that the environment we are all operating in has fundamentally changed and will never be what it was. What that also means is that every company, small and large, will have to look at the way they do business, and look in mirror and take stock and say we’ve been doing this for a long time in a certain way and it worked well and worked well in the Celtic tiger years. But that phase is over.”
For technology companies changing the work environment to mirror the technology they consume is also a vital part of customer service: experience what the user experiences.
“Part of it you can see is the office but it is only one of the things we’ve done. The key is not to lose sight of the customer or the broader objectives of the company. We needed to come up with a new strategy, a completely different way of looking at the organisation, leadership and then lastly what we call the new ways of working – so we created an office environment that facilitates that new way of working.
"We have taken an approach where we said technology is important but it is the facilitator, we have taken the approach: what would we do if we were our own customer?
"You don’t start by designing a technology infrastructure – you look at the profile of the people. The investment has enabled more collaboration, more mobility and of course we wanted to showcase our own products and services.
"That was the starting point. We looked at our offices and decided we wanted to create a completely open space with a flex-desk culture. We have zero offices and nobody has their own desk anymore. We also realised we needed to make the whole office wireless, which it wasn’t.
"If you want people to work from home or remotely you need to equip them all with a laptop and smartphone. By using Wi-Fi, laptops and smartphones, our people would realise what it is like as an individual customer to be using these services. That has been the big advantage for us, to learn from them and show us if we had some way to go in improving our products and services in order to use them effectively and productively," Hoencamp says.
ICT and education must be Government focus – Hoencamp
Hoencamp, who comes from the Netherlands, has been living in Ireland almost two years now and believes Ireland has been facing its troubles head-on.
"I think the Government focusing on the right things is helping to create an environment that is fit for purpose for companies to create more employment. I think the Government is doing the right thing to create a good climate. But it must also focus on two sectors to truly achieve its goals: education and ICT in general.
"Education sounds obvious but there’s one area where I would suggest we should never ever cut back or under invest is education. That’s the future of our country. We have great people, a good education system, but we need to make sure that if we look 10 years ahead we don’t lose out against emerging markets who are vastly outpacing us at this point in time. Investment in education but also ICT is critical.
"Ireland’s core broadband infrastructure is not competitive today and we are losing ground rapidly. So in order for schools even to be effective and certainly for every business to be able to compete internationally we need a better ICT infrastructure.
"Firms need to be able to access any kind of cloud computing, any type of modern communication such as videoconferencing, and that can only be done if you have that core infrastructure. That is a basic need and it isn’t yet at the level where it should be."
Starting up in Ireland
FLEXIBLE WORKING IS THE NEW WAY OF THE FUTURE
€2.5m: Amount Vodafone invested in new way of working strategy
2.4m: Number of mobile users on Vodafone Ireland’s network
232,000: Number of DSL subscribers on Vodafone network
80pc: Increase in video traffic on Vodafone’s network in the past six months
Hoencamp is passionate about making Ireland one of the best places to start a business and has been gearing up Vodafone to work more closely with entrepreneurs. His rationale is clear – the start-ups today could emerge as the big enterprise customers of tomorrow.
"Ireland is a quite unusual market in the sense that there’s an enormous number of entrepreneurs and start-ups. Particularly since 2008, a lot of people by choice or necessity started their own company and it’s a great opportunity for Vodafone to support and facilitate.
"It’s also in the heritage of Irish people, they are entrepreneurial and they do start new businesses so it’s a focus area for us. One of the key things we can of course do is provide our products and services and tailor them for the needs of our entrepreneurs. If you’re a small company starting up you need an infrastructure but don’t want to invest a lot of money.
"So to be able to offer hosted solutions, cloud solutions, these are all terribly technical terms, but what it basically means is a start-up can use mobile and fixed communication, in a very easy way.
“We are facilitating a grow-as-you-go model, where you don’t need to put up a big investment to buy infrastructure but can use and pay for on a monthly basis. Because Vodafone is an innovative company we can relate to entrepreneurs.”
Ireland can best serve its future entrepreneurs by ensuring investment in education and infrastructure.
“My six-year-old son was on Skype the other day with a friend in the Netherlands,” Hoencamp says, pointing out that kids today are growing up fast with technology and education needs to keep up, too.
“But only if core infrastructure is there. If we don’t have ICT front and square in the education system and we don’t have a competitive ICT infrastructure in the country, we will lose out.
“From a skills point of view, I’d say ICT, technology, engineering, maths and science are topics that are hugely important.
“The entrepreneurial spirit is in the genes of the Irish people, anyhow, I’m less worried there, but from an educational point of view we need to focus on that.”
Jeroen Hoencamp is one of the panelists at Silicon Republic’s Digital Ireland Forum on 23 March in the Convention Centre, Dublin.
Watch a video of Vodafone CEO Jeroen Hoencamp talk about new ways of working and enabling entrepreneurs here: