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How IT leaders and their teams are supporting employees through the coronavirus crisis

We talk to four top IT chiefs across the UK to find out how their teams are supporting their organisations and staff to keep working through the Covid-19 outbreak

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Adapting IT to the new normal

IT leaders are used to working under pressure – when you’re running technology for a big company or a public sector organisation, you never know when the next crisis is on the horizon.

What’s been unusual about the past few weeks is that all tech chiefs have faced the same problem at the same time: having to set up their employees to work remotely as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

As one CIO said to Computer Weekly, the transition in working styles – both technologically and culturally – has involved significant amounts of stress and a huge requirement for effective change management in very tough circumstances.

“People are worried and under a challenge from working in environments often not perfect for work – perhaps flat sharing, or with small children who need care. It has been critical to focus on the mental well-being of our people. We’re encouraging flexibility and for people to put themselves and their families first,” says the CIO, who asked to remain anonymous.

When it comes to putting in place the systems and processes to help cope with new ways of working in challenging circumstances, IT leaders are using a range of strategies. Here’s what four IT leaders told Computer Weekly about their strategies.

Think creatively to address service concerns

Theo Blackwell, chief digital officer for London, says his organisation at City Hall and the various boroughs of London are working hard to ensure the capital’s crucial public services are still available. He says the Greater London Authority has a lot of people working on resilience – and he draws attention to a couple of immediate challenges, one of which is making sure his team can work from home.

“Most organisations have a policy for remote working and lots of staff are familiar with that. But I don’t think we’ve ever entered the territory where 95% of staff will not be working at City Hall,” he says, reflecting on preparations for the shift to remote working across London.

“So our immediate step was to was meet staff demands and needs – like how to run meetings and effective conference calls, and the use of Skype and Microsoft Teams, for example – and how you do that in the most effective way from a multi-site operation.”

Another challenge, says Blackwell, is ensuring network connectivity across London. That attention is centred on providing communication to citizens in the capital about potential issues surrounding availability and also managing concerns relating to the potential for networks to become overloaded as so many more people start working from home.

“That involves talking to providers to get the reassurance that the network does have the capacity for this. We want to provide one place for people to go, so they know where to get information from mobile phone providers or broadband providers as well,” he says.

More generally, Blackwell believes his organisation and the London boroughs have responded quickly and effectively to the technology challenges presented by the spread of coronavirus. He says public sector employees across the capital continue to work collaboratively to seek out innovative solutions to the key issues they encounter.

“People have responded really well,” he says. “The boroughs deliver far more frontline services and digital services than City Hall and they’ve responded in an innovative way. They’re effectively creating a much more agile approach to translating the needs, people are expressing through to the council, into actions and results.”

Put people and their requirements first

Diarmuid Gill, chief technology officer (CTO) of advertising specialist Criteo, says one of the most important things that IT leaders can do is to look after their people.

“It’s essential to acknowledge the impact that the situation is having on each person individually and also on their family situations. Managers and team members at all levels in the organisation must reach out to every team member to ensure no one gets forgotten,” he says.

“Many parents have been left without childcare and so have to cope with doing their work while looking after young children. Managers and companies must show understanding and flexibility.”

As well as looking after internal team members, Gill says it’s critical for businesses to stay in close contact with their customers. “This crisis is affecting everyone in different ways and so companies need to try to adapt to their client’s changing needs in whatever ways they can. If nothing else, reaching out to your clients shows you care,” he says.

When it comes to Criteo’s approach to the Covid-19 outbreak, Gill says technology is playing a vital part in keeping everything on track. The firm’s employees are using Zoom video conferencing technology and Slack group chats extensively, as well as collaborating via document-sharing services such as Confluence, Office 365 and Google Docs. Gill says CIOs need to ensure that workers feel confident and capable when it comes to using these tools.

“Documentation becomes extremely important, as you cannot rely on teams being able to communicate in the office open space. It’s vital that all team members know what the plan is and what is expected of them as the impacts of misalignments or misunderstandings will be multiplied when the team members do not have face-to-face conversations,” he says.

“What is new is for teams to start using Zoom to organise social gatherings, where team members swap coping mechanisms, exchange survival stories, share a drink and have some fun over video chat. This is particularly important for single people who run the risk of feeling isolated from the world, but also for those with families to provide some contact with the outside world.”

Find new ways to keep a disparate team online

Dylan Roberts, chief digital and information officer (CDIO) at Leeds City Council, refers to the “heroic effort” over one weekend by his digital services team to ensure that more than 7,000 council workers were able to work in parallel once the decision was made that employees would start completing their tasks from home.

Roberts says the council benefited from having already established a proven remote-working infrastructure as a result of earlier emergencies, such as localised flooding. Those preparations – allied to a weekend of non-stop effort setting up laptops and applications by the digital services team – meant the switch to home working was possible.

“Our virtual private network concentrators and licences could be scaled up to 10,000 on-demand. We also have two 1Gbps feeds into the council and we are at about 85% capacity on one, with the ability to switch to the other if required,” he says, referring to the council’s network capacity and the requirement to support 10,000 home workers across the city

Roberts’ team has also set up thousands of new laptops and re-imaged older devices so that new home workers can use basic cloud-based apps, such as Skype and email. He says the key technical change is beyond the scope of his own council’s IT infrastructure – and that involves finding ways to keep workers connected when they’re using home broadband.

“Everybody is working at home at the same time, whether that’s council employees or other family members who work for other companies. Then there’s often kids at home who are streaming, too. So ISPs’ infrastructure and services are under pressure,” says Roberts.

“We have found users who are struggling and that has primarily been because of their own broadband limitations. In some cases, we’ve discovered that users have got better performance by tethering to their mobile phones. We’ve also provided Mi-Fi mobile devices to help some users who don’t have broadband at home.”

Roberts’ CDIO role covers the delivery of operational services across Leeds City Council and also the NHS Clinical Commissioning Group and local GPs. He says the long-term success of remote working will be related to the ability of his service team to keep staff happy and connected.

“Culturally, we have put a lot of effort into ensuing folk are not feeling isolated,” says Roberts. “There are daily huddles on Skype and Teams, and there’s a Facebook community and so forth to make sure people check-in with each other. We have a clear set of guides to help people work seamlessly at home and to look after their health and wellbeing.”

Exploit existing technology to boost business effectiveness

David Bishop, CTO at e-commerce website, says his firm was fortunate to have already invested in technologies and processes that lend themselves to remote working. He says the start of national lockdown – now the entire team is disconnected in a physical sense – has helped the business learn to use these tools more effectively.

“Slack was already our main tool for inter-office communications, but we’d never really used the video call functionality in anger – which broadly works well, albeit with a few teething problems for some Mac users,” says Bishop.

“Slack has helped us to maintain our current practices, such as continuing with all meetings, and the rituals we use internally, such as morning stand-up meetings, sprint demos and retrospectives, over video chat.”

Like other IT leaders, Bishop says the mental wellbeing of team members is key. “It’s our number one priority,” he says. “For the past few years, we’ve provided all team members with a subscription to the mindfulness and meditation app Headspace. Now, more than ever, the app is coming into its own, helping manage stress, and aiding sleep patterns.”

When it comes to technical and cultural challenges, Bishop says the company has had to be dynamic in how it responds to government policy – such as school closures – and how new announcements impact the team.

“We normally plan our work in two-week-long sprints, using an online project-management tool called Asana,” he says. “When we had the news that our team members were going to lose many hours of available time due to childcare responsibilities, we were able to have a group video chat and share our Asana screen to re-plan our work, given our new time constraints.” 

Essential guide to IT and coronavirus

Computer Weekly has compiled an Essential guide to technology readiness for the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis, featuring best practice advice on:

  • Remote working.
  • IT security.
  • IT infrastructure.
  • NHS and technology.
  • Business and government response.

Click here to read our coverage of IT and the coronavirus outbreak.

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