Coronavirus: Linux laptops and long hours helped this team switch 4,000 staff to home working

Repurposed laptops, long hours and a good sense of humour were key to one organisation making the change from office-bound to working from home in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Here's how they did it.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

From delivering laptops to staff who don't own personal devices at home, to answering hundreds of daily calls from colleagues struggling to log in, through making sure servers are ready to cope with thousands of remote connections: Hackney Council's IT team has had a hectic couple of weeks. 

Like many other organizations amid the global Covid-19 pandemic, the London council has had to move its 4,000-strong workforce, which until now was largely office-based, to home-working – and all in the space of a week. 

Since HackIT (the digital, data and technology teams of Hackney Council) realized about ten days ago, that a shift to home working was coming, late nights and emergency planning have been the new normal for the IT department. 

"We had to do it all in less than ten days, so it's been pretty intense, to say the least. We've had people working very long hours," says Henry Lewis, head of platform for the borough of Hackney.

SEE: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

The challenge was two-fold. Not only did HackIT have to make sure that every single one of Hackney Council's staff would be able to work from home, but the team also had to plan for business continuity. In the context of a global health crisis, the collapse of the council's services was certainly not an option.  

"Our residents rely on the council's services for so many things, from paying benefits, to cleaning their streets, and making sure that vulnerable people receive the care they need," Rob Miller, director of ICT for Hackney Council, tells ZDNet. "Making sure that the council is able to continue to deliver services reliably is even more important now, and we have a huge responsibility to our borough."

In one week, the council's IT team has switched almost all of its office-based staff to working from home, and the organization continues to provide its usual services. 

Part of the reason that the switch was successfully carried out, and on such short notice, is that the council had been preparing for flexible working already. Miller says that the objective, for a few years, has been to let workers get things done from "any device, anywhere, anytime". The organization had previously set up flexible working tools such as Google G Suite and VMWare's virtual desktop technology.

Security, therefore, was also ticked off the to-do list pretty much from the start. Hackney Council's "zero trust" policy, explains Miller, meant that devices both personal and council-owned were already secure. Instead of re-thinking the entire security architecture for the organization, the existing framework only had to be scaled up.    

What quickly emerged, however, and which Miller identified as the biggest challenge, was that many of the council's employees lacked the appropriate equipment to work from home. While Hackney Council did provide "grab'n'go" Chromebooks for the occasional remote meeting, the IT team found that the organization's equipment was insufficient to let every employee work from home.

"I'm a family of five," says Lewis, "and I can tell you that devices in the household get seized fast enough. I'm lucky that we have enough devices – but in this context, you don't know what people's individual set-ups are going to be. We made assumptions at the beginning about how many people would have a device at home, and those assumptions were erroneous."

In a few days, the team delivered a total of 400 laptops to staff who needed it. HackIT found that the council was, in fact, sitting on hundreds of old laptops. The department had been thinking of re-purposing them for schools or charities; but the devices ended up making for a good short-term solution to the IT team's more pressing needs.

The laptops were all installed with Linux, a much lighter weight OS. "This worked really well," says Miller. "The team turned the refresh around in a matter of a few days and were able to get the devices issued by the end of the week. It was an example of local government working at the speed of light."

In parallel, the team worked to set up colleagues with remote working tools, while constantly monitoring the system to make sure that it was holding up under the burden of 4,000 employees suddenly logging in remotely. HackIT started figuring out how to bring key services online, such as support forms for residents with COVID-19 or emergency phone lines.

In line with the organization's role – which includes making valuable information available, especially to vulnerable residents, in a time of crisis – the team came up with a brand-new idea: to put together an online map of local voluntary and support services to help people cope with the coronavirus outbreak. 


The team came up with a brand-new idea: to put together an online map of local voluntary and support services. 

Image: Hackney Council

Using an existing prototype, which had been created for the council's "Explore Hackney" web page, HackIT gathered useful information from around the borough and put it all in one digital place, with resources ranging from food banks to wellness groups. The new "Find Support Services Near You" was created in 36 hours to let residents access critical information in as effective a way, if not more, as when the council's town house was still open.

The team has made the map's template available on GitHub for re-use. Equally useful, however, are the lessons that the council's IT team has drawn from the experience. From his contribution to orchestrating Hackney Council's "work-from-home" operation, Lewis kept one tip: avoid burn-out at all costs.

Although HackIT counts about 150 staff, the task at hand was a substantial one, and time was very limited. "Lots of people were really challenged and all of them were highly motivated to do the very best job they can," says Lewis. "But this is not a sprint. And it's been a challenge to ask them to slow down and take a break." 

SEE: How London's tech is adapting to the coronavirus challenge

"You don't want anyone to burn-out after two weeks, because in two weeks we'll still be needing to support our colleagues in delivering critical services to vulnerable people," he adds.

Lewis mentioned "virtual coffee and cake sessions" throughout the day as a way to slow things down. But ultimately, one method stood out: better communication.

"The trick is, in my opinion, to try and maintain a good sense of humor," said Lewis. In the current context, some people "may have other things going on for them", he adds diplomatically – whether that's children to keep busy at home or a family member who got ill. 

"You have to keep it light-hearted. And understand that even if it's frustrating, you'll feel better in half an hour's time," Lewis says.

Editorial standards