WFH ASAP: How T-Mobile Transitioned To A Remote Workforce In Just Two Weeks.

Cody Sanford, EVP, CIO & Chief Product Officer, T-Mobile

In February, one of the first serious outbreaks of COVID-19 in the U.S. happened in Kirkland, Washington, just a few miles from T-Mobile's Bellevue headquarters. A few weeks later, Washington State ordered all non-essential businesses to close and employees to work from home to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 infections. T-Mobile had some important decisions to make.

Connectivity is integral – and even more so during a crisis when social distancing guidelines are in place. T-Mobile's number one priority was to deliver our customers the service they were depending on, while also prioritizing the health and safety of our employees during this highly contagious pandemic. Even with scarce information and unknown factors at play, we had to determine how to rapidly pivot our teams to achieve this. Because of the hard work and collaboration of all our team members – from engineering to customer care to retail – that pivot took place in just about two weeks.

All hands on deck

So how did we do it? First, we needed to get smart about the virus itself. How did it spread? Are workplaces an issue? How likely is it to spread further? In the very earliest days, all we really knew was gatherings were not recommended, the words "social distancing" became a thing, and more and more cities around the country were expected to also become hotspots. We anticipated that we would need to close down headquarters and other work facilities, and knew we needed to map out a nationwide work-from-home plan.  

Pandemic preparedness was already in our business continuity plans, but those plans focused on how to deal with mass absenteeism, not a complete shutdown of society. So, we rewrote those plans in the moment. We had to make work-from-home (WFH) a reality... and fast. Each customer care center, retail store, data center, switching office, network operations center, field operations unit, regional business office and our corporate headquarters has unique workforces, environments and risk profiles; all of which complicated our approach to a holistic WFH transition. 

One of our earliest problems was that we simply lacked enough cleaning supplies to keep our workplaces safe. So we had to deliver hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes to thousands of retail locations and customer care centers. We then had to establish guidelines for how employees interacted with customers and each other. Meeting this challenge set the stage for our remote workforce transformation.

The first and "easiest" group to transition to WFH was our corporate staff. We spent a week getting our virtual private network (VPN) scaled up to accommodate the concurrent traffic within the regional business offices. Then we ensured each employee had a VPN-enabled laptop and asked them to work from home, where they have been working ever since.

The next phase was more technical. We established a virtual desktop environment so employees in our network operations centers and security operations centers could work from home the same way they do in the office. For our retail and care centers, we implemented cloud-based call routing. This allowed us to box up the desktops of more than 12,000 care reps from our 17 domestic call centers and set them up at home with monitors and headsets. Cloud-based routing gave us the flexibility to route calls to the next available rep regardless of their location — a big improvement over the hardware-based routing technology that assigned calls based on region and geography.

It sounds simple, but this was a remarkably complex undertaking that involved around-the-clock work from engineering to rebuild the systems and provision sanitized equipment for each care rep to take home, and then coordinate with them on how to set up their work environments at home. The collaboration among these teams to make this transformation possible in such a short amount of time is incredible.

We also transitioned a portion of our essential stores to “virtual retail.” To ensure that our customers get timely answers to their questions, retail employees can answer customer care calls and customer chat messages on T-Mobile.com, which adds a lot of highly-trained capacity to our care organization. We also introduced curbside service, where retail employees can help customers with online order pick-up, line activations, device set-up, troubleshooting and more outside of a store using a tablet. These creative solutions are a reflection of the close collaboration among engineering and retail teams to ensure we’re continuing to provide customers quality human connections through the convenience of digital technology.

Amazingly, throughout this transition, our net promoter scores have never been higher. I attribute much of that to our Care and Retail team members. They are altruistic, empathetic and professional — all while dealing with their own personal journeys through the new normal imposed by COVID-19.

Lessons learned from the trenches

While it took a huge amount of hard work by a lot of dedicated T-Mobile employees to successfully transition to a virtual company, the work we had done in prior years virtualizing our technology infrastructure was the single biggest differentiator in our ability to quickly respond and create an all-remote workforce. Thanks to scaling efficiencies within the cloud, we are no longer constrained by inflexible, hardware-based business logic and workflows.

COVID-19 has proved that flexibility and agility are now table-stakes for surviving today's rapidly changing market conditions. For businesses, waiting to fully embrace digital transformation is no longer an option. Going forward, digital transformation will prove even more valuable as new technologies like 5G further upend traditional workflows and business processes. Given that WFH standards will become the norm for many people post-COVID-19, adopting and adapting these technologies to suit their needs should be on every executive’s short list.

Another important factor to our success is the customer-first culture T-Mobile has fostered through the years. In practical terms, this means we’ve invested heavily in building and scaling the digital platforms our customers prefer, such as apps, websites and asynchronous chat. This gives us a lot of flexibility in how we interact with customers regardless of time of day, location or customer need.

And frankly, it was this frontline focus across all the teams that allowed us to manage our transition as well as we have. It unlocked creativity, focused our energies on what was essential and allowed us to quickly respond to customers with understanding and empathy.

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