Your Users Are Your North Star: Building Effective Video Conference Rooms for T-Mobile’s 50,000 Employees


What is your North Star? Every IT team should step back, take stock of its activities, and zero in on its purpose rather than its function. T-Mobile's Collaboration and Productivity Design Team is responsible for finding and architecting collaborative solutions. These include video conferencing and telepresence services, spam filters and anti-malware software for email and messaging, and other types of groupware.

Our North Star is not the hardware and the software we deploy, but the company's 50,000 employees who provide outstanding service and support to T-Mobile's millions of customers here in the United States.

Our company has caused quite a stir in the last few years. T-Mobile has gone from being a struggling fourth-place carrier to a thriving third-place contender that is gaining on the big two. But since our team's work has no direct impact on our wireless subscribers, we don't spend any time worrying about them. Instead, our job is to provide the best collaborative tools to the employees who are delivering outstanding service to that rapidly-growing consumer base.

Unfortunately, our video conferencing and telepresence capabilities had become an impediment to T-Mobile's growth. However, there wasn't an actual tipping point. Our older platforms weren't suddenly obsolete. We just knew something needed to change. 

We Kept Hearing, “This Isn’t Working”

We kept hearing the same refrain: "Online meetings don't work." The setup process was cumbersome, and it took forever to connect everyone who was taking part. We could see that there was a problem, but we had never scratched under the surface. 

For the most part, T-Mobile was a Skype for Business shop. We used it in most of our 2,000+ conference rooms. And to utilize that service, we were relying on some 70 different configurations of other vendors' cameras, speakers, screens, projectors, and phones. Some of our rooms had Microsoft Surface Hubs at their core, but even these devices, which were designed to work with Skype, didn't always play well with the other gear we used to set up video conferences. You needed a PhD to make sense of it all.

You can imagine the confusion created by this situation. Setting up a meeting was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. It took five to 15 minutes to get all the participants connected and talking to one another, and before you knew it, everyone's time was up.

People grew tired of this cumbersome process and retreated to emails and phone calls. As a result, these "zombie" conference rooms full of a cobbled-together solution stood empty and unused despite our substantial investments in collaborative tools. 

Lost Time Adds up

Five-to-15 minutes per meeting may not seem like a big deal, but when you scale it to 2,000 rooms, 50,000 potential users, and 10,000+ meetings a day, the amount of lost time, productivity, and money is staggering.

Lost productivity adds up. 15 minutes might not seem like much, but it quickly compounds when it’s for every single employee.

We asked our employees to outline their pain points with our Skype rooms, and many of them weighed in, but we didn't have any metrics to support their complaints. When we looked at meeting stats on our Skype backend, all we could see was when a user had logged in and how long it had taken them to do so.

For example, we could see that a user had logged in at 12:03 and had taken six seconds to input credentials for a meeting that started at noon. What we couldn't see was whether this person had entered the room at 11:50 and had spent 13 minutes setting up cameras and microphones before logging in.

If another colleague logged in at 12:11, we couldn't tell whether they were late, or had faced their own setup and configuration issues. 

Physical Surveys Gave Us Better Data

We needed better data, and so we did some physical surveys in actual rooms. We came up with lists of three basic things that people had to do to get a meeting running. (1) Schedule a meeting, (2) Join it with audio and video, and then (3) Share their screen in the meeting. Given the wide range of hardware in play, this sequence varied greatly from room to room. 

Next, we invited random users who sat near these rooms, into the conference room, and asked them give it their best shot. We offered $5 Starbucks cards just for giving us 30 mins of their time and trying it out. The response was great! 

I spent days watching different users trying to set up meetings. We timed them, but we didn't help them. They had to figure out everything on their own. Once they completed the task, we'd spend another 20 minutes showing them the best way to set up a video conference in that room. But the bonus for us was we got to observe what users went through to get their meeting running. 

These tests gave us the hard numbers and exact details we needed to understand the problem. But before we began looking for a solution, our executive team issued a challenge: We had to find a way to reduce the meeting setup time (audio, video, and screen sharing) to 60 seconds or less. 

I was floored. I knew we could improve the setup time, but I doubted we could reduce it to under a minute. But one thing was clear: We couldn't achieve this target with our existing equipment. We had to start from scratch, and so our team began to shop around. 

Looking at Value Instead of Price

We threw price considerations out the window and checked out the various potential solutions. We re-evaluated Skype and took a good look at Zoom, but one platform stood out: Cisco Webex. The killer feature was integration.  

Cisco not only makes Webex software but also all the conference room hardware, including smartboards, cameras, microphones, speakers, and the desktop touchscreens that we need to run it. Webex also integrates with Cisco switches and routers, and Cisco IP telephony products. It is also available as a desktop and mobile client for third-party operating systems.

Everything looked good on paper, but how well did it work in the real world? We called up Cisco and explained our situation. They signed us up for CCEP—the Cisco Customer Experience Program—and their team helped us set up three conference rooms with full Webex deployments.

We then ran a pilot for a couple of months to see whether these three sites would experience the same issues as our Skype-equipped zombie conference rooms. Were people able to join meetings? Could they get the audio and video working? Were they sharing content wirelessly, or were they using the physical cables in the room? Was the room being underutilized? Was the image and sound quality acceptable? All these were questions we had when we started the experiment.

The Webex backend provided the analytics we needed to tweak each of these rooms to get the desired performance. When we hit the magic number of 60-seconds-or-less, we decided to roll out 32 Webex-equipped conference rooms with full A/V functionalities. 

Putting Boots on the Ground

We learned a lot during this initial rollout. For starters, people are resistant to change, even when they're not happy with their existing tools. Some of our employees were right to be skeptical as they had used Webex in our previously Skype-enabled locations, and the platform had proved unstable in conference rooms cobbled together with hardware from different vendors.

Once we got them into purpose-built Webex rooms, our users started to embrace the new platform. They were hesitant at first because the setup procedures had changed, but we worked with a training vendor to get them up to speed at the site of our first building-wide deployment. 

My team developed technical manuals that explained how to set up meetings, use personal rooms, and operate video tools. We then hired a technical trainer who translated these documents into a user-friendly format, and who went out to various locations to deliver onsite training to 20 or 30 people at a time. 

We recorded these seminars and released them on our Cornerstone e-learning platform. There's now a whole library of Webex content on that site. 

To further promote the adoption of Webex, we worked with building administrators who are the people that manage and book our conference rooms. They were our boots on the ground and helped spread the Webex gospel. 

Looking to roll out your videoconferencing solution? Have boots on the ground. End users need a key contact they can turn to.

Having resources on-site turned out to be the number one predictor of success. When something wasn't working, our building administrators called in the problem. If a user didn't know how to run a Webex meeting, an admin would walk them through the process. 

Visual Cues Speak as Loudly as Words

During the rollout, we learned that there's nothing like dealing with somebody face to face. Whether in-person or through video conferencing, body language and visual cues play an important part in human communication. That is equally true when you’re demonstrating a smartboard to your colleagues in a conference room or when making a decision with co-workers halfway across the country on Webex. 

A smile can demonstrate understanding. A nod can connote agreement, which may be evident during real-world interactions, but it is not so clear when your telepresence tool has stuttering audio and video. Our Webex rooms provide clear sight and sound, resulting in a transparent user experience.

When you're on the phone or in a chatroom, you don't realize how much communication is non-verbal. Once you start using a platform like Webex, it comes back into play, even though that may not be apparent. You feel like you're in the same room with your colleagues on the opposite coast. T-Mobile employees have noted that their Webex meetings are more productive. They're spending less time setting up the hardware and more time making decisions. 

We have experienced some pushback in one area, however. Webex uses face-recognition algorithms and moving cameras to track people in the room during meetings. Some of our employees have expressed concern that these cameras are always on and are continuously monitoring them.

The Collaboration and Productivity Design Team and our trainers are taking every opportunity to address their concerns by explaining Webex's privacy features to our users. Once they understand that the cameras and the microphones only start rolling after they log in and initiate a meeting, and stop recording when it ends, these users feel a lot more confident about the platform. 

Expanding Our Webex Rollout

The expansion of our Webex rollout has been explosive. In 2019, we went from 32 fully A/V-capable Webex rooms to almost 300. These included 112 conference rooms that were installed in a single building by a remodeling partner that went in and set up the entire place with brand new Webex rooms.

In terms of use, we have gone from 1,300 Webex meetings a week to almost 100,000. When we look at calls that incorporate video, we've gone from 250 to 2,000+ a day. Either way, you're looking at an almost tenfold increase or more, and that is staggering. 

We couldn't have achieved this level of success if we'd been afraid of change or if we'd put price before value. Tossing out Skype and bringing in Webex meant changing our ways and spending more money, but the results were worth it, and by the end of 2020, we'll have rolled out over 1,000 fully A/V-capable Webex meeting rooms. 

We Never Lost Sight of Our North Star

This was not an easy process. It seemed management asked for the impossible, but we delivered the 60-second-or-less meeting startup time. Our users were skeptical about the move to Webex, but we won them over by providing outstanding training and a superlative conference room experience. 

If we'd focused on the tools instead of the users, we might have failed at creating a better video conferencing experience. A product that looks good on paper doesn't always translate into a smooth ride in the real world. 

We stayed the course and won the day because we never lost sight of our North Star. The primary mission of my Collaboration and Productivity Design Team has always been to serve T-Mobile's employees so they can better serve our customers. 

As for budgets, we learned that they grew with our success. T-Mobile gave us money for three Webex conference rooms to start. When our proof of concept worked, we got the go-ahead for ten rooms, then 15, 32, now 1,000+. Cisco Webex helped us build a solution that works for us. It is now up to every T-Mobile employee to put in the work for our customers.