How (and why) Openreach deployed 30,000 iPhones to its engineers

Colin Lees, CTIO at Openreach, a UK internet infrastructure company, explained why the company decided to outfit 30,000 engineers with Apple iPhones.

Openreach iPhone rollout
Openreach

Sometimes you find a digital transformation story that neatly explains the benefits and opportunities that can be unlocked when you get it right.

I recently spoke with Colin Lees, Chief Technology and Information Officer at Openreach, a leading UK internet infrastructure company, to find out more about why the company decided to follow the enterprise trend toward Apple and equip 30,000 of its staffers with iPhones.

Who is Openreach?

Openreach builds, maintains, and manages the UK’s internet infrastructure, which means it provides connectivity services to 25 million UK homes and businesses.

The company employs 37,000 people, including more than 30,000 field engineers, each of whom is equipped with an iPhone to help them get through around 100,000 jobs each day.

The company’s engineers now say the Apple smartphone has become the single most important tool they carry.

Why move to smartphones?

Lees believes Openreach employees should have the same easy user experience at work they get as consumers. This makes sense in terms of making work easier to do, but also delivers benefits by reducing the amount of support teams need to do their jobs, while  increasing customer success rates.

“It's really important that we help engineers be more efficient, that we give them devices and apps that makes it easier for them to do their jobs,” said Lees. “And that's what our iPhones do for our engineers.”

The idea is that these devices help engineers focus on the three things that matter to Openreach: customer service, the engineer’s own experience, and productivity.

“I don’t want engineers to worry about if a PC is available or opening a computer at the top of a telegraph pole," Lees said. "I want them focused on the job and on the customer.”

HIs view is that technology should make life easier, should address the problems employees are experiencing and reflect real need, not dictated demands.

Why choose iPhones?

For Lees, Apple’s ease-of-use was the big advantage. “People do not need to be trained in how to open an app or how to turn the device on or how to use the menus," he said. "We have a very diverse range of employees and Openreach, in both age and technical ability."

That ease of use isn’t just about tapping buttons. It’s about tapping buttons in sometimes dangerous or difficult situations, down in trenches or high up in fine weather and foul. Battery life, durability, and mobile connectivity also matter, but the UI remains Apple’s primary advantage, he said.

How do Openreach engineers use their iPhones?

By the nature of the job, engineering is complex and sometimes requires staff to climb to the top of telephone poles and other physically demanding situations. In those scenarios, carrying a portable communication, information retrieval, and support tool makes  sense.

Lees told me his army of engineers use FaceID to unlock devices and said his company has developed 100 iOS apps for different missions and scenarios.

“Another app we use a lot is FaceTime,” he told me. “When apprentice engineers join Openreach, there's no substitute for being able to show someone what you need help with.”

What do engineers think?

Regular readers know my support for employee choice and the need to ensure enterprise systems are consumer simple. Equipping staff with devices they like that are easy to use delivers tangible productivity and loyalty benefits. Lees certainly believes this, saying the decision to equip its staff with iPhones sent a powerful message.

“It helps our engineers feel valued," he said. "They know that we're giving them the latest devices, we value them. We're not leaving them behind. We're not having cohorts on an iPhone 7 and others on an 11. It's an equal approach to all our engineers."

“With iPhone, you get things right first time, because it gives you all the information you need for a job. iPhone is the most important tool I have with me at work,” engineer Claire Greenfield said.

“I love how quick the new iPhones are. The bigger screens are also really useful. It makes it easier to read charts and diagrams and see important details like where you need to lay your cables,” said Anita Josephs, a field-based coordinator.

How to manage a mass deployment

As a large enterprise, Openreach was able to work directly with Apple’s existing MDM APIs to create its own deployment tools and to connect apps with its Microsoft-based back end services. Even so, equipping and deploying 30,000 devices is not a job for the faint-hearted. How should you approach it?

“We use all the Apple infrastructure when it comes to managing the mobile device,” Lees said. “It works very well for us. My encouragement would be use what you can get out of the box.

"I want an engineer to be able to have a have a device arrived through the post. They turn it on, and it works, so that’s how we do it.”

This required use of SSO, and so the company created specific apps for unique purposes, keeping the base iPhones in their natural state. This makes sense as devices don’t need to be configured before they get to the engineer. Apps, services, and access can all be assigned during the on-boarding process.

Another challenge when making vast deployments is deciding which groups get the new hardware first. In this case, the company prioritized upgrading older devices. It also looked at where the deployment would deliver the greatest productivity or morale benefits. Eventually all 30,000 field service engineers were up and running.

This is a significant change from two years ago, when engineers were using toughened PC devices, which were nowhere near as flexible. “Now we don’t even give them [a PC],” Lees said. “We just give them an iPhone.”

[Also read: Q&A: Marketcircle CEO on leadership in tomorrow's workplace]

Financing the deployment

Lees explained why Openreach turned to Apple Financial Services to reach a deal to deploy 30,000 new iPhones across the entire engineering team.

The company used to follow the traditional approach of purchasing devices and waiting for them to reach the end of their serviceable life. Apple Financial Services changed that. It meant that for the “same ongoing cash flow we could get a modern estate refreshed on a regular basis,” Lees said.

“That was then a no brainer, as there is no doubt that having the latest devices boosts productivity.”

How to develop apps

Every company is different, but all of them must think long and hard to ensure the digital solutions they do put in place actually benefit employees.  It’s about designing simplicity in from the start.

After all, if you’re up a pole or stuck in a conduit, you don’t want a drop down list with 20 options on it — you need a small number of options you can select with your thumb. Mobile apps are not about transplanting PC apps to a phone, they need to be designed to exist on the phone intuitively.

Once a task that can be digitized is identified, Openreach app development begins. Agile development teams comprise developers, UI designers, and expert engineers who iterate on a fortnightly basis, working closely with front end staff.

In one example, the teams built an app that overlays the Openreach network onto a satellite map, which helps engineers identify where a problem physically exists.

“Engineers are able to walk down the street and literally see where the network is on their phone,” Lees said. This is now one of the most used apps.

Once apps are in place, Openreach maintains a channel so engineers can discuss the app and any limitations they experience with the development team in real time. The company also runs regular drop-in sessions to gather additional feedback. Maintaining an open communication with front line staff is essential to successful deployment.

The Openreach apps

The company has developed dozens of apps to handle specific company processes and needs.

That doesn’t mean every engineer is traipsing around with an iPhone full of Openreach apps — that becomes confusing. In the real world, engineers may interact with up to 10 apps per day, with others available for specific tasks or more complex workflows.

These apps are significant: “We’ve automated tasks that used to take hours and days, so they now take seconds and minutes,” Lees said. “I can roll out a full suite of apps to our engineers in under an hour, which is powerful.”

Three examples of such apps include:

  • My Jobs app: The engineer’s list of jobs scheduled for that day, useful information and history for each job, notifications for the next customer if a job is running behind schedule, and seamless integration with Apple Maps, which allows engineers to plan their journey within the app. This app uses a combination of AI and human decision making to assign jobs appropriately.
  • Permissions to Work: Some engineering tasks require digging, drilling through walls, and other tasks for which permission must be sought. In the past, it was necessary to email or post relevant documents for customers to sign and return before work could begin. This app lets an engineer take a customer’s digital signature on the spot to begin work immediately.
  • FastTest+: This app does what it says on the can — it runs a series of line tests to ensure repair has been a success.

What next?

Lees admitted to being very interested in how machine vision intelligence and AI can be deployed within apps to help his teams maintain the UK internet in the future. “I think AI analysis of photographs is maturing to the point where it’s becoming useful,” he said. Implementations may extend to fault analysis and quality control.

Apple and Openreach have published a case study video explaining more about the deployment which is available here.

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Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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