For the last two seasons Covid-19 has trapped the Vodafone Warriors in Australia. The team has embraced technology to keep in touch with their fans, families and workmates from the other side of the Tasman.
In May 2020, against long odds, the NRL got the green light to restart its season – they just needed the Vodafone Warriors to make it work. The one huge catch was that the Warriors needed to get to Australia, and be there for the whole season. This meant more than missing out on home games at Mt Smart; it meant splitting their entire organisation between two countries for the foreseeable future.
Though a rugby league club might not be the usual business you think of in terms of flexible working, the Warriors are the epitome of a business having to adapt to stay in the game, literally.
The World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic the day before the NRL’s opening weekend in March 2020. Teams had just two games under their belts when the season was suspended, and the Warriors flew back to Aotearoa, not knowing if their season would continue.
When they were allowed back into Australia six weeks later, it was for an indefinite stay, and connection to New Zealand-based staff, their families, and their fans, needed to happen with technology. It was a digital revolution that allowed the Warriors to become truly trans-Tasman and survive a chaotic year, and they’re a better club for it, says the team’s GM for marketing and business development, Glenn Harris.
“Last year we went through a pretty fundamental business transformation, where we embraced digital as our way to stay connected,” he says.
“We learnt to be better at gluing together bits of our business that are all over the world and to embrace the tools available, to build the digital capability of our people. It’s now just as quick and easy to talk to our CEO, who is with the team in Australia, as it is to meet with Auckland-based colleagues if they’re not in the office, and to share files and collaborate in real time.”
Though our bubble at the bottom of the world is one of the few nations where a return to office-life has been possible (outside of regional lockdowns), the Warriors, with the help of their long time partner and sponsor, Vodafone, are one of the businesses that have seized the opportunity presented by Covid-19, to reassess how they work and where they work. They’ve held on to the lessons of lockdowns to create work environments that are more functional, productive, and flexible.
“The integration we’ve got with Vodafone is a natural synergy, and their suite of Work Free-Range products, and their support has made it possible to create a largely digital workplace,” says Harris.
If Work Free-Range conjures up images of poultry in suits and ties, think of it more as being able to work wherever you have an internet connection, the antithesis to lockdown, the idea that you don’t have to be at work, to get work done. For Vodafone, it’s their version of “working from (almost) anywhere” and it’s what they’re doing themselves, and what they’re facilitating for their customers, with mobility and collaboration tools, including cloud-based applications such as email, secure storage and productivity apps, in addition to their range of mobile phone plans.
As well as keeping the connection across the Tasman, remote and flexible working also means a new normal for the local side of the Warriors operation. People can work wherever they have an internet connection, choose their own office and timetable, access secure cloud storage and join a video conference from home in Auckland, the Waikato, Nelson, or Mangawhai. In some cases team members commute to the actual office just once every few weeks.
It means staff feel trusted to do their jobs away from their traditional desks, and has increased productivity, work-life balance, and cost efficiencies in some cases where office space can be optimised. For Glenn Critchley, the Warriors’ GM for commercial, creating an environment that allows his staff to succeed despite the demands of the new environment is the most important part of working free-range.
“It’s about enabling people to deliver what they need to deliver, when, where, and how they need to do it. That’s the world we now live in, and you can get the best out of people. You don’t necessarily need a physical office. With the right tools, people are always reachable.”
Going through a business transformation forces businesses to examine their purpose, to ask why they do what they do, and how they can do it better. This environment gave the Warriors’ staff renewed clarity on what they were at work to achieve.
“The work becomes more focussed on delivering on outcomes, rather than how much time you’re at your desk, and with clear expectations on team members, and support from Vodafone, and our own IT team, remote, flexible working can deliver even better results than the traditional set up,” says Critchley.
A digital mindset
Transforming a workplace with tech is also about shifting mindsets. A business has to want change and their staff need to be supported, to make it happen.
“Often, the tools are there, but the mindset is still to come,” says Jodie King, chief people officer at Vodafone.
“We work closely with our customers to help them embrace what free-range working means to them, to provide advice and the technology so they can give their teams more flexibility, while retaining or growing productivity.”
Balance is also key. It’s about offering choice. At Vodafone, teams are encouraged to have a regular in-office day together. At Mt Smart, the tight-knit Warriors team is often together on-site for physical meetings, and for some, being in the office is how they work best, says Critchley. It’s just not the only option anymore and staff feel empowered to create a structure that best suits their lives and work habits.
Digital tools can also be used to support staff wellbeing and maintain the human connection they’re missing from the office, even if that means having a virtual coffee break with teammates. With the uncertainty and upheaval of 2020, Glenn Harris says it was a year that redefined and strengthened the Warriors’ team culture, reaffirming togetherness and connection as two of their core values – even if they were suddenly split between two countries. Providing support for player and staff wellbeing was an essential part of that culture.
“We have a lot of close knit communications within the team here and in Australia, just checking in on people, and having lots of time together. Our CEO Cameron George is based with the team in Australia for the 2021 season to provide that leadership support in person,” says Harris.
When Covid-19 hit and their offices emptied out, Vodafone added a daily check-in system to their Vlife employee app. Team members answer a few quick questions on their location and wellbeing at the start of every day, “to let managers know their staff are OK,” says King.
“The app also works as a quick and efficient tool to talk to the entire workforce. Staff appreciate the two-way communication the tool offers, and it means managers are more aware of anyone in their team who needs support.” It’s worked so well that Vodafone is now receiving calls from other customers looking for a similar solution in their workplaces.
Connecting with the fans
While technology has allowed the Warriors to stay connected while physically separated, digital tools have also brought them closer to their fans at home. Around the world live sport has undergone an unprecedented transformation over the past year. The Olympics were postponed, NBA players lived together at Disneyland and played to empty stadiums, and cardboard cut-outs and simulated cheering replaced fans at matches around the world.
Though the Warriors can still play in front of a live crowd, they can’t do it at Mt Smart. They have had to provide that connection, and entertainment value to fans in other ways, and since May 2020, that has been digital.
“We had to be entertaining rather than informative and pivot away from the Mt Smart game-day experience being the main event. This meant creating social media content with insider access to the team, what happens at training, what happens after training, what happens before and after game-day, and what happens in the grey bits you don’t normally see on TV,” says Harris.
Fans have been flies on the wall at the gym, they’ve seen the Warriors celebrating Waitangi Day, and paying tribute to the women in their lives, and they’ve even been able to say a virtual farewell to the team, with behind-the-scenes footage shot at the airport in January.
“Last year on the back of that work, we had nearly 20% higher engagement on our social channels because of the way we acted and responded to the world we were faced with, and that digital fan connection is something we’ll continue, even after the team comes home,” says Harris.
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Connecting with the families
Technology has also been providing an essential personal link home for those based in Australia, out of necessity. Though many now have their families with them, this was not the case for much of 2020, with remote connection often the only way for family time, and reliable tech took some of the stress out of a very stressful time.
“Knowing we had the support of a partner like Vodafone took a lot of anxiety out of that process. If you’re travelling and unsure about the quality of communications, to know that it is all covered off and players can contact their loved ones without disruption, was, and is, really important,” says Harris.
Even with the team’s eventual return to Mt Smart, the future is free-range and flexible for the Warriors, he says. This year they’re focused on learning from 2020 and providing the right tools to each person in the business to achieve success on the field, and off.
“This new world will absolutely be there for the long run. We want to use technology to help us achieve what it is we’re here to do, which is very simple – to be the most successful sports franchise on and off the field and give our fans, our partners and each other something to cheer about and be proud of.”
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