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Collaboration Case Study: AT&T

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

One of the best ways to understand how to improve collaboration and communication within one's own organization is to examine the best practices of companies that excel in their field.  AT&T is not only a leader in the telecommunications industry but also a leader in the use of Collaborative Business Knowledge tools.

The history of AT&T is in large measure the history of the telephone in the United States. AT&T's roots stretch back to 1875, with founder Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone. During the 19th century, AT&T became the parent company of the Bell System, the American telephone monopoly. The Bell System provided what was by all accounts the best telephone service in the world. The system broke up into eight companies in 1984 by agreement between AT&T and the U.S. Department of Justice. From 1984 until 1996 AT&T was an integrated telecommunications services and equipment company, succeeding in a newly competitive environment.  In 1996, complexities in the marketplace led AT&T to restructure yet again, divesting itself of its systems and technology unit, which was spun off as Lucent Technologies.  In 2005, AT&T was swallowed up by its former progeny, SBC, for $15 billion.  

Our case study draws from the pre-merger AT&T, which  provided data and voice communications throughout the globe via its two operating units, AT&T Business and AT&T Consumer, with annual revenues of over $34 billion, and 100,000 employees.

Fully half of the 100,000 employees are either part-time or full-time telecommuters.  In fact, AT&T has been a leader in what is known as telework, which is defined as working at home or another non-traditional location during regular business hours.  Although many businesses have a few mobile knowledge workers here and there, few organizations have institutionalized the concept in the manner that AT&T has.

The telework concept at AT&T dates back to the mid-1980s, when management decided to propel AT&T Information Systems sales personnel out into the field 100% of the time by taking away their offices and cubicles.   “Telecommuting” was in its infancy at that time and the company issued its sales team AT&T PC 6300 desktop computers with 1200 bps modems as well as a second home phone line.  Although it was met with skepticism at the onset, the project was a success: the sales team became more productive (measured by sales) and AT&T management discovered that it could significantly reduce its real estate costs at the same time.  AT&T created a formal telework program in the early 1990s, outlining its first telework policy.

Today, 30% of the 50,000 strong managerial workforce (the other ca. 50,000 employees are covered by collective bargaining agreements which do not allow for telework) work in a full-time virtual office, including AT&T’s director of telework, Joseph Roitz.  Roitz has been a telecommuter for over ten years, or half of his career at AT&T.  During that time, he had four jobs, two managers, and two promotions.  

The typical teleworker receives a laptop, external keyboard and monitor, router, and an allowance of up to $100 to purchase an analog telephone (VoIP is being rolled out this year, which will eliminate the need for the analog phone).  Most have a mobile telephone in addition.  Regardless of the teleworker’s venue, the connection to AT&T’s network is secure through an IPsec VPN, and a token ID card with a number that changes every 30 seconds.

Fully 40% of the workforce (which includes road warriors) work at home at least once or twice per week, and 20% do telework occasionally, largely because of business continuity reasons such as inclement weather.  Only 10% of the managerial workforce does not work during the nine-to-five workday from home, and many of these workers do in fact read e-mail and take phone calls from home in their off hours.

One of the reasons for the program’s success at AT&T is because there is no differentiation in terms of work habits between employees who work in AT&T offices and those who work remotely.  AT&T has rather effectively embedded telework in the way all work is performed.  Security policies do not, for example differentiate between “security at home,” “security on the road,” and “security in the office”:  there is but one security policy, and it is designed to anticipate all facets of the knowledge worker’s environment, mobile or otherwise.   People even work in a remote style when in office:  the tools that teleworkers use, such as instant messaging and the telephone, are also frequently used to contact workers in adjoining offices.

Next week we'll hear from top management and look at what AT&T does to connect its people to each other.