Case study

BT Conferencing:

Sustainability value in a virtual world

Independent evidence

When it comes to sustainable business practice BT has a track record that speaks for itself. Ranked top of its sector in the Dow Jones Sustainability index for eight consecutive years from 2001, it has sustained consistently high performance ever since. In 2011, BT achieved its highest-ever score, reaffirming its position as a Gold Class recipient. Central to that success are two unarguable facts.

First, as one of the world’s largest providers of conferencing services – supplying two-thirds of FTSE 100 companies – BT resolutely practices what it preaches. In a recent independent study, Professor Peter James of the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Bradford1 reports that: “In the year ending March 2012 conservative estimates suggest that use of BT Conferencing services avoided a net 43,839 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and created financial benefits for BT totalling £188 million.” Derived through the study, those findings include travel cost avoidance and productivity gains but are exclusive of less tangible benefits such as more effective decision-making, and better work life balance for employees.

Second, BT recognises the simple corporate truth that what’s good for the environment also happens to be good for the bottom line. Kevin Moss, Head of Net Good at BT, explains: “The communications sector continues to play a critical role in enabling a low carbon economy. For BT, unified communications and collaboration technologies such as conferencing services are certainly paying dividends, both financially and environmentally.”

This case study seeks to examine the BT experience more closely, largely through the lens of the University of Bradford study. It also draws out key learning points for other major organisations, irrespective of sector or geography.

1 October 2012: CONFERENCING AT BT – Results of a Survey on its Economic, Environmental, and Social Impacts

Newfound agility

It’s important first to touch upon the necessary cultural shifts. Dave Hobday, Managing Director, BT Enterprises, looks back: “The way that companies used to do business was inflexible and expensive – and that included BT. People constantly on the move between face-to-face meetings wasted time and money with a huge impact on the environment. BT needed to be a lot more agile and make decisions across time zones and geographies in real time.”

For BT, conferencing services became crucial to achieving that agility, providing the means to collaborate right across the globe and making yesterday’s barriers of time and distance simply vanish.

Testament to that is the fact that the University of Bradford study (which surveyed a random sample of 10,000 BT employees) calculates that in the year ending March 2012 BT staff made 5,200,000 conference calls.  This is significantly higher than the 3,600,000 calls made when a similar survey was conducted in 2008 and paints a very positive trend of increasing conferencing usage as BT continually enhances its business efficiency.

Conservative estimates suggest that this eliminated 1,040,000 face-to-face meetings, each with a mean travel saving of 197 miles. Equally telling is the fact that those virtual meetings took an average of just 46 minutes, with only 3.4 per cent lasting over two hours, which is often the typical length of a face-to-face session. On average, 15 people from around seven different locations took part in each call. 

Saving time and money is all very well, but what about the quality of the business interaction? “The University of Bradford report shows that 75 per cent of those virtual meetings were said to have completely met their objectives,” adds Dave Hobday, “and of the remainder, 73 per cent of people believed that any shortcoming was unrelated to the virtual nature of the meeting.”

This clearly demonstrates that BT is practicing what it preaches; leading the way in the use of conferencing and collaboration tools to improve business agility and drive up the speed, focus, and quality of its decision-making processes.

Unified Communications

That conferencing-led transformation has helped BT become a far more proactive organisation. In fact, its people cite conferencing as a critical success factor in areas as diverse as attracting and retaining the best people and improving time to market by launching new products more rapidly.

Dave Hobday observes: “Today’s business graduates are used to real-time communication tools such as instant messaging, text, web-based collaboration and so on. They expect new media tools to be integrated and right there at their fingertips in the workplace. That’s why BT sees collaboration services as truly critical for staying ahead of the game.”

Within the four-week period covered by the survey, 70 per cent of BT people responding confirmed use of conferencing facilities. Looking at the technologies used, of these 87 per cent reported using audio conferencing, 72 per cent used web conferencing, and six per cent used video conferencing.

Moreover, conferencing users participated in an average of 20 audio, nine web-based, and three video calls each month. That variety enables BT to match the medium to the meeting agenda – to optimise the chance of attaining its objectives – within its unified communications architecture.

It’s not just about internal meetings either. As unified communications grows and develops it’s playing an increasingly important role on the BT collaborative agenda. For example, integration with Microsoft Outlook means that virtual meetings can be organised in an instant, while increasing adoption of presence functionality allows a person’s status (such as being in a meeting, on the phone or available), to be known on a minute-to-minute basis. BT also uses conferencing and unified communications to collaborate with key customers and suppliers.

Dave Hobday brings that to life: “This means, for instance, that people can be brought into virtual meetings at a single click. Similarly an instant messaging exchange can be promptly and efficiently escalated to an audio or web conference if circumstances dictate.”

Flexible working

Conferencing and collaboration services are key to the BT flexible working strategy that, among other things, encourages staff to work at home where operationally expedient. The full facilities of the BT unified communications architecture can be extended to residences. Some 14,500 BT people are now teleworkers, with thousands more working from home on an ad hoc basis.

Agile working, made possible through conferencing and other unified communications services has enabled BT to cut its accommodation needs by some 48 per cent, which means a significant reduction in both energy consumption and carbon emissions. Reducing physical office space has yielded global savings of £100 million per annum for BT, with 42 per cent of that coming from London alone. One-off capital receipts from 4,000 building disposals were £500 million.

In fact, the University of Bradford study observes that 32 per cent of conference participants actually do so from home, while 37 per cent of the people surveyed note that conferencing has allowed them to work normally when prevented from reaching their destinations through transport disruption or otherwise – underlining the role of conferencing in the success of the BT flexible working programme.

Sustainable approach

So how do BT employees feel? The University of Bradford study records that while 79 per cent of respondents believe that the need to cut cost is the main driver for increased use of conferencing, 74 per cent also report that their use of conferencing is driven by a personal desire to reduce the environmental impact of travel. In fact, 38 per cent of conferencing users stated that their last call had definitely replaced a face-to-face meeting, with a mean avoidance of 5.3 hours of travel time.  Conferencing assists with work life balance too, with 73 per cent of respondents reporting a reduction in the stress caused by travel and 65 per cent citing better control of time.

In any organisation there will always be a substantial minority of people in jobs where conferencing is not a crucial requirement. For the rest, behavioural change is as much a critical factor as having the right technology, which is why internal communication programmes are so important. Kevin Moss adds: “Creating an organisational culture where individuals understand and embrace the principles of sustainable business practice and agile working is critical and that’s when employee engagement programmes really come into their own.”

BT is putting to good use its experience in finding ways to work with internal stakeholders to encourage the use of conferencing. Not only does it assist its customers to understand how to make savings by replacing face-to-face meetings using conferencing services, but also it provides specialised programmes for end user adoption and ongoing education and training. These have helped numerous FTSE 100 companies introduce conferencing without additional pressure on internal resources.

Dave Hobday concludes: “Conferencing and collaboration tools are providing BT with substantial business benefits, helping it to help the environment, and improving its people’s work life balance. We have the skills to show customers how to build robust agile working programmes that will not only add to the bottom line but also improve their corporate image.”

Key facts

  • In the year to March 2012, conferencing eliminated 1,040,000 face-to-face BT meetings, removing the need for travel and saving almost 44,000 tonnes of CO2
  • Over a 12-month period the financial advantage to BT of using its own conferencing products and services was approaching £190 million
  • BT virtual meetings last for an average of 46 minutes, while only one virtual meeting in 30 lasts for more than two hours
  • Over a typical four week period, 87 per cent of BT conferencing users participate in audio conferences, 72 per cent use web conferencing, and six per cent use video conferencing


Case study