TalkTalk shop in street

What happens when a digital company tries to digitally transform? TalkTalk found out

To stay ahead of the competition, telecom provider TalkTalk is transforming its work culture by overhauling its physical workspace and technology tools. The company moved to an open floor-plan office and outfitted employees with Microsoft 365 Enterprise, which empowers them with tools to work more creatively, collaboratively, and securely from anywhere. Freeing employees to work the way they want – and share ideas freely – fosters ingenuity and spurs better ideas for getting ahead in a fierce market.

With billions of internet users and smartphones across the world, you would think it’s a great time to be a telecoms business. It is, but it’s also tough.

The market is fiercely competitive, and if you’re a smaller player, like TalkTalk, you don’t have deep pockets for vast infrastructure expansions and fancy advertising. “We can’t outspend the competition because we’re a smaller player, so we have to outthink and outmanoeuver them,” says Gary Steen, Chief Technology Officer. “That’s why we put a huge premium on enabling our people to think creatively and differently about how they approach problems.”

TalkTalk is a value provider of telecoms services in the UK. For consumers, it offers landline, broadband, TV and mobile services. For businesses, it provides a full range of products and services spanning internet access, data, voice and mobile. The company’s mission is to deliver affordable, reliable, simple and fair services to everyone.

In 2015, TalkTalk’s management realized that its traditional work culture was becoming a barrier to outthinking the competition – which Steen defines as developing new services, coming up with ingenious advertising campaigns and anticipating customer needs before they even ask. Employees had to be in the office to get work done. All important decisions had to snake through the London headquarters, which was frustrating, as two-thirds of employees worked 200 miles away in Manchester. In addition, the company’s email and conferencing tools were limited and difficult to use.

“People obviously wanted to share documents and collaborate in the cloud, but our tools limited how we worked,” says Andrew Dacombe, Director of Colleague Systems at TalkTalk.

TalkTalk set out to modernize its work culture and technology with a programme called “Greater Place to Work”. It also broke ground on a new office in a former soap factory in Manchester, featuring an open floor plan with 80 “neighbourhoods” that contain flexible work spaces for different business teams, 40 meeting spaces, 30 private work pods and booths, and various multi-use project spaces. The whole place is Wi-Fi-enabled, and there are fewer desks than people, encouraging employees to think creatively about where they get work done. The goal with this new office is to encourage people to mingle, collaborate, share ideas, and even stay home.

“There’s a strong move in the UK, and especially in our industry, to offer flexible work options – work from home, split shifts, condensed workweeks – and we need to provide these options if we want to attract the best talent,” Dacombe says. “The ability to be a fully empowered employee outside the office was a key goal of Greater Place to Work.”

Everything you need to know about Microsoft 365

Naturally, TalkTalk needed to empower employees with more than comfy couches and cappuccino machines. The company’s 2,500 employees also needed technologies that would enable flexible, fluid work styles from any location and daily collaboration between employees in London and Manchester, at home and on the road.

TalkTalk chose Microsoft 365 Enterprise as the centerpiece of its modern workplace. Microsoft 365 Enterprise combines the power of Microsoft Office 365, Windows 10 Enterprise and Microsoft Enterprise Mobility + Security.

To ensure success, TalkTalk made the decision to initially focus on just a few of the many Microsoft 365 services – email, conferencing, file-sharing and mobile device management. It also used the complimentary Microsoft FastTrack service. The FastTrack team migrated email to Microsoft Exchange Online, set up Office 365 ProPlus using Click-to-Run streaming and virtualization technology, moved thousands of documents into OneDrive for Business, got everyone up and running on Skype for Business Online for conferencing and connected thousands of devices to Microsoft Intune.

“It was an intense effort, but the FastTrack team did a fantastic job and provided far more assistance than we anticipated,” says John Gaskell, Office 365 Program Manager at TalkTalk. “With their help, we did a great job in our initial focus areas, which put us in a strong position to roll out other Microsoft 365 capabilities and to make a business case for upgrading to Microsoft 365 Enterprise 5 [E5].”

Microsoft 365 E5 includes more advanced security software and telephony capabilities.

“Microsoft 365 has enabled us to stop seeing location as such an important factor in getting work done”

– Mark Dickinson, Chief People Officer at TalkTalk

Employee adoption of the new digital tools has surprised Gaskell and his colleagues. “We’ve had terrific uptake on Office 365: up to 20% growth in Skype for Business Online adoption in the first three months and still expanding, 1.3 million files and 4.2 terabytes of data uploaded to OneDrive for Business, and nearly 99% of employees actively using Office 365,” says Gaskell. “The more we give employees, the more they want; there’s a massive desire for additional Office 365 services like Power BI and Teams – which is a far cry from the typical scenario of IT pushing users to adopt new tools.”

Putting even a limited number of Microsoft 365 services in the hands of all 2,500 TalkTalk employees has been transformational. “We had toyed with the idea of working remotely and flexibly but had never been able to pull it off,” says Mark Dickinson, Chief People Officer at TalkTalk. “It was for the few, not the many. With Microsoft 365, we’ve been able to extend remote, flexible work styles to all our employees, which has been transformative for us culturally. It’s enabled us to stop seeing location as such an important factor in getting work done.”

At any point, Gaskell estimates that 40% of the TalkTalk workforce is working in a flexible, mobile manner versus at a traditional desk.

In Dickinson’s area, human resources, employees use Skype for Business Online to be part of informal, impromptu conversations happening every day. “We’re trying to shift decision making and power away from the head office to the people who are closest to issues and best able to contribute,” Dickinson says. “With Skype for Business Online, it’s easier to get the right people together quickly, without expensive travel. Where resourcing is concerned, this means we can hire the right skills more quickly and make more efficient use of our staff.”

Man waving during a Skype call with a male friend

‘We’ve seen up to 20% growth in Skype for Business Online adoption in the first three months and still expanding’

Dacombe adds: “OneDrive for Business gives employees more storage than they will ever need, it increases security by getting rid of thousands of accounts with other filesharing tools, and employees can access it without having to be on a corporate device. The ability to easily access, share and collaborate on files in OneDrive speeds up our work and decisions. With Microsoft 365, being mobile is on par with being in the office.”

A key value at TalkTalk is, “We can be ourselves here”. Key to supporting this value is the ability to work when and where employees want, and TalkTalk is using Microsoft 365 to deliver that. For example, when the company moved its Manchester office, it presented a much longer commute for most of Dickinson’s team. The only way that the company could retain those workers was to allow them to work from home several days a week. “Thanks to Microsoft 365, we achieved 100% team retention because of the ability to successfully adopt home-working,” Dickinson says.

Allowing people to work remotely and from mobile devices requires trusting that data is secured. The company is standardizing on Windows 10 Enterprise for all corporate-issued laptops, which provides application and device-level security with features such as BitLocker, Credential Guard and Device Guard.

TalkTalk augments operating system-level security with Intune, which IT staff use to let employees work with the devices and apps they choose while protecting company information. “When you add in the Enterprise Mobility + Security tools, like Intune for controlling mobile devices, and sophisticated capabilities such as Multi-Factor Authentication and conditional access, Microsoft 365 is a very compelling offer,” Dacombe says.

Multi-Factor Authentication and conditional access leverage Microsoft Azure Active Directory Premium and Intune technologies, which are part of Enterprise Mobility + Security. Multi-Factor Authentication strengthens identity access, and conditional access helps ensure that staff can access Office 365 services only from authorized devices.

TalkTalk enabled Office 365 Litigation Hold for all 2,500 employees, a feature that Gaskell says was “a massive win from a security perspective”, because it’s easier to use and less expensive than the solution the company was previously using.

Skype for Business Online also provides enhanced security for conference calls, identifying participants whether they join via the internet or a landline.

With cloud-based email, conferencing, file-sharing and mobile device management successfully in place, TalkTalk is busy rolling out additional Microsoft 365 services such as Microsoft Teams, SharePoint Online and Azure Active Directory single sign-on. “Our work environment today feels a lot more open, inclusive and vibrant, thanks to our new office and Microsoft 365,” Gaskell says. “People love coming to work – whether in the office or at home. And this passion is key to winning in our markets.”