Coronavirus: 'We got 10,000 staff remote working from home - in one weekend'

A proven infrastructure, new laptops and re-imaged older kit helped one organisation to get its office staff remote working in super-fast time.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

You've got 11,500 office-based employees and you need to get the IT infrastructure ready to help the majority of these users work from home by Monday morning.

That was the challenge facing Dylan Roberts, chief digital and information officer (CDIO) at Leeds City Council, a week ago as the full impact of the spread of coronavirus COVID-19 across the UK began to hit home.

With a significant amount of effort, Roberts and his digital services team got over 7,000 laptops ready-to-go in just three days. More than 10,000 of the council's employees are now working from home – and upwards of 7,500 of those employees are now able to work online at the same time, with scope to push this figure up to the full 10,000.

"We were lucky to have a decent and proven infrastructure to enable homeworking already," says Roberts. "Most important was the fact that we'd made decisions in the past to ensure our infrastructure and solutions could be scaled-up as required fairly quickly."

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Roberts – who is responsible for the delivery of operational services across Leeds City Council and also the NHS Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and local GPs – says this preparedness is as a result of experiences with previous emergencies like local flooding.

The council's virtual private network and supporting application licences were able to scale up quickly to 10,000 on-demand. In terms of hardware, the key to success has been a two-fold approach that relies on using a blend of newer devices that the council keeps in storage and re-imaging older laptops for workers who are remote working for the first time.

As a result of its hardware contracts, Leeds always has laptops as "bonded stock", which means the supplier holds thousands of laptops for the council in a secure location until they're required.

"In a situation like this, that approach is great – we've always got bonded stock that we can bring down quite quickly if we need it," he says. "Our team worked through Friday night and through the weekend to get stuff from bonded stock, and they also got some old laptops ready, which we pulled in, refreshed and set up."

These older devices had been brought into the IT department from the Leeds community during the past 12 months as part of the council's ongoing Windows 10 refresh programme. Now, at a time of crisis, the devices were given a new life. The Leeds digital services team wiped those older devices and created a fresh image, so remote workers could use basic cloud-based apps like email and Skype.

While the digital services team was able to rely on well-tested plans to scale-up networks, laptops and applications, they discovered a tougher challenge when it came to ensuring that remote workers could connect from home. They found a broad mix of ISP provision – it's easier for some people to maintain a high-quality connection than others, especially given domestic demands for broadband.

"A lot of the issues that we're getting are more do with the user's internet-service provider or their local setup, rather than our infrastructure," says Roberts. "One of the things we've noticed is that people have often got kids at home and they're also often sharing a connection with workers from other companies. They're all contending on the same broadband – and if everyone's logging on in the morning at the same time, then the ISPs are under pressure."

The team has established a 20-strong service centre to help with home users' technical challenges. Eighteen members of this support team are now working from home. Their role is often to find quick, workable solutions to connectivity challenges.

"It's about having people who can think more laterally," he says. "There's all sorts of peculiarities that you need to think about to give people better performance."

The support team has discovered that some home users get better internet performance by tethering to their smartphones, rather than using their domestic ISP networks.

In other cases, the connectivity challenge is more basic – some would-be remote workers don't even have domestic broadband access. The organisation has bought 50 MiFi broadband dongle devices to help some of its most remote home workers to access the network.

Beyond establishing connectivity, the support team must also find ways to ensure that council workers can continue to complete crucial non-COVID-related tasks. Roberts gives the example of education admin employees who use an always-on application called Synergy to deal with school admissions.

"It's critical that our staff can deal with those processes – despite coronavirus, life goes on," he says. "One of the things that we do in that scenario is to use Citrix Virtual Desktop Infrastructure-type solutions that use less bandwidth, so our users can stay on the network."

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The digital service team also has to find ways to ensure that GPs who are working from home can still connect to the system. That's a particularly tough challenge, as many of these doctors rely on legacy technologies.

"Many of the GPs and their health systems are reliant on things like smartcard access and non-standard applications," says Roberts. "A lot of those aren't easily transferable. So we're having to think a bit more innovatively about some of those things on an ongoing basis."

When it comes to best-practice lessons for other CIOs, Roberts says tech chiefs must recognise that moving people to remote working involves overcoming a cultural barrier. While text-based 'how-to' guides can help workers get online, the tipping point in terms of confidence and capability is likely to be reached by using video.

Leeds is a heavy user of Microsoft collaboration products, such as Skype and Teams. Roberts says employees are using Microsoft's simple video guides – and other YouTube clips – to build their awareness of how to use these tools when they're remote working.

"You can do as many guides as you want but 90% of people don't read them," he says. "What we've found is people really respond to one-minute video guides. People would rather get someone to show them how to do it. As soon as they do that, the tools are intuitive and people can pick it up and do it anyway."

The council has also put a lot of effort into ensuring home workers do not feel isolated. Roberts points to the importance of the council's and the CCG's Facebook community groups. Staff are already using Facebook in their personal lives, so there's fewer issues around getting people up-and-running for work-related activities.

"And that presents an opportunity for people to come up with ideas for doing huddles," he says. "There's one team at five o'clock who get online after work and have a beer together and a video chat. There's people doing lunchtime ones, too. There's all sorts going on, really – and it's just about using the platforms that people know and that are already being used."

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