During the pandemic, British Gas owner Centrica has continued to supply its 26 million global customers with energy services and solutions, while moving 15,000 of its employees to a remote setup. At Fujitsu ActivateNow, James Boswell, director of end-user computing at Centrica, explained the scale of the challenge.
• Watch Centrica’s James Boswell speaking at Fujitsu ActivateNow
Like many companies, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has forced multinational energy services and solutions business Centrica to become much more agile. For a group whose subsidiaries — including British Gas, Ireland’s Bord Gáis Energy, smart home unit Hive and plumbing and drainage specialist Dyno-Rod — serve 26.2 million customers, this represented a major change in operational practices and thinking.
One of the most immediate areas for change was establishing remote working arrangements for many of its employees. Speaking at Fujitsu’s recent digital conference, ActivateNow, Centrica’s director of end-user computing James Boswell said: “When the lockdown started, we needed to move large parts of our workforce from being based in the office to working from home, and that was a significant challenge.”
Centrica now has a total of 15,000 people working remotely — an operational undertaking that would not have been attempted before Covid-19 struck, according to Boswell. “Previously, there had been a reluctance to allow a large swathe of the workforce to work from home. This was mainly because there wasn’t trust in the capabilities of the technology. But during this period that mindset has changed massively.”
A move to a Citrix cloud platform just before the pandemic proved prescient, allowing Centrica to deploy cloud-hosted apps and desktops to end-users working from home. “Centrica’s cloud-first strategy has really paid off during this pandemic. If we hadn’t moved to the cloud we would have been stuck — it gives us the ability to ramp up capacity within minutes,” Boswell said.
Technology company Fujitsu played a key role in that. As Centrica’s end-user computing partner, Fujitsu is responsible for much of the technology that employees rely on to service the energy company’s millions of customers, including laptops, the company’s service desk and the Citrix platform. Over a single weekend in the early stages of the pandemic, for example, Fujitsu built more than 600 laptops for Centrica office staff to use while working remotely. In migrating Centrica’s VPN from an on-premise to a cloud solution, Fujitsu also gave the company the capacity to rapidly scale up in North America, said Boswell, which would not have been possible previously.
“Fujitsu has supported us and been with us throughout the pandemic. They were really instrumental in making sure that we were still able to provide for our customers and deal with service calls from home,” Boswell added.
Overall, the experience has highlighted the importance of investing proactively in IT infrastructure, delivering effective change quickly and simplifying processes. Boswell said: “In terms of technology deployment, we’ve had to take some risks we may not have taken in the past with technology deployment and how we deliver services. We’ve really had to move at a fast pace to make sure that our employees have the right IT to be able to continue to deliver for our customers.
“Becoming more agile and making processes easier and simpler are going to be some of the big learnings to come out of this for us,” he said. The rapid rollout of the remote working capability, for example, took a matter of weeks. “If we had run that as a formal program with a project structure then it might have taken six months or more.”
Despite the challenges, many of the changes accelerated by the pandemic have proved positive, according to Boswell. “The pandemic has taught us that we can be flexible and allow our workforce to operate from wherever they need to be. We don’t need to be office-focused, meaning we can serve our customers from many different platforms anywhere in the world.”
The pandemic has also pushed the climate change agenda forward, he added, which will support Centrica’s commitment to help customers reduce their carbon emissions by 25% by the end of this decade. And the related products and services it provides, from electric vehicle charging points to heat pumps, will be important in the delivery of a low-carbon future, he said.