Switching it up: How companies managed remote working during a pandemic

Services Australia, Telstra, and National Australia Bank reveal what they did during the height of COVID-19 pandemic.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor
Female freelancer working from home on laptop computer in small business home office
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Unless you worked for a company that endorsed some form of flexible working arrangement -- and many increasingly were -- remote working would have been a foreign concept at the start of last year. That is, of course, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It was then that we saw organisations across most sectors scramble to figure out how they were going to continue to operate, while balancing the health and safety of staff. The solution was obvious: Remote working.

As staff traded working in open-planned, hot-desking-style office environments for their kitchen tables, in a quiet corner, or the spare room in their home, management was forced to come up with solutions to facilitate the shift and do it in a way that caused as few disruptions as possible.

Introducing video conferencing applications, online collaboration tools, and equipping staff with laptops were just a few of those solutions that organisations, such as Services Australia, turned to.

"The number of staff working from home at the height of COVID required the rapid mobilisation of resources to support a remote work environment and minimise disruption for our staff and customers," Services Australia CIO Michael McNamara told ZDNet.

He explained that the Australian government department which was responsible for providing welfare support to millions of Australians during the height of the pandemic -- including 1.5 million new customers which didn't go quite as planned -- had to deliver around 9,000 "office-in-a-box" kits to staff over five weeks.

"This included phones and PCs with the ability to connect to our network and hold virtual meetings from home," McNamara said.

"In this same period, we had around 2,000 additional staff join us from across the APS (Australian Public Service) who, within a matter of weeks, were trained and on-boarded with the tools they needed to assist us to take calls and process claims from both home and office environments. This required the fit out and testing of new workstations across six sites in less than two weeks."

During that same period, McNamara said the department experienced unprecedented demand on myGov, which caused widespread access issues and forced the department to make upgrades so that the system was fit to handle the demand.

"We quickly scaled up, simplified policy, and re-designed our digital services so we could help Centrelink customers online from the safety of their homes. In just 55 days, we processed 1.3 million JobSeeker claims, a claim volume normally processed in two and a half years. Our flexible IT capability enabled us to bolster myGov and, as a result, it now has the largest capacity of any authenticated online platform in Australia," he said.

See also: Returning to the 2021 office is anything but normal

For others, such as Telstra and National Australia Bank (NAB), transitioning to remote working was much easier. Partly because flexible working arrangements were already in place and staff were accustomed to working with other team members who resided interstate.

Prior to COVID-19, Telstra staff, for instance, were already working 1.7 days a week from home. Plus, in August 2019, parts of the company were rolling out Microsoft Teams to enable video calling, which was just accelerated once COVID-19 hit.

"People at Telstra have enjoyed flexible working for almost a decade, and this made the transition to full working from home arrangements relatively seamless for our 25,000 office-based people when COVID first hit," Telstra boss Andy Penn said.

"Flexible working has become critically important to business over these past 12 months … we are in a new era of hybrid work, where someone lives should no longer be a limitation to the work they undertake.

"At Telstra we are moving to a 'location agnostic' approach for all office and contact centre-based roles, opening up the talent pool beyond the typical CBD, meaning we can advertise roles with no fixed address attached. As an example, we already have 80% of our contact centre consultants in Australia choosing to work from home on any given day -- and 100% are now able to do so."

As a workaround to ensuring all staff were well-equipped with the necessary tools for remote working, Telstra began standardising its technology equipment by taking what Julian Clarke, Telstra's group owner for Next Gen People Practices, described as a "human-centric design approach".

"We looked at various personas of people across the company, so tech tribe, sales savvy, and said, 'Right, for that type of work what things do you need?'. Something like a tablet if they go and see customers a lot.

"We've been surprised ourselves. We thought that most people would need one monitor, but some people have said they need two, so we've allowed for multiple monitors at home as part of our standard offering now."

In addition, Telstra started to look at the design aspect when it came to helping staff with working remotely full time by giving people the option to choose the size of their desks so it could fit in their homes or providing alternative solutions.

"Most people at home before didn't have a camera. And if they did, it was a camera on their laptop and because they were already working one day from home, they were managing with that. But when you're working from home all of the time, people were saying, 'I want a camera built into my monitor because it's just easier that way'," Clarke explained.

"To save space, we're actually trialling a monitor that has a camera and a docking station in-built to help people minimise space in their home because some have said it's just taking up all the space on my dining room table."

Like Telstra, NAB was already adopting new technologies, such as a public multi-cloud strategy pre-pandemic. This fortuitously worked in its favour and enabled the company to scale quickly when the pandemic hit.

"Our ongoing investment in technology prior to COVID-19 put us in a great position to be able to rapidly respond to this crisis. It has given us greater resilience in our systems, and the ability to continue serving customers remotely," NAB Enterprise technology executive Steve Day said.

"In March 2020, we went from approximately 5,000 remote workers to 30,000 in just three weeks, with 98% of operations staff working remotely in just five days."

"Our technology team moved quickly and through secure remote access for both cloud-based and on-premise applications we were able to ensure our colleagues, including our 1400-strong contact centre team -- which are all Australian-based -- could continue serving our customers.

"In the past year, we switched on new communication options for customers including live chat and chatbot functions. They're options that will remain available for NAB's millions of customers."

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In addition, NAB's workplace technology team rolled out Windows 10 to all head office staff, with upgrades for branch staff still underway, and introduced collaboration platforms such as Microsoft 365 Teams, OneDrive, and Zoom into its environment.

The black and red bank has also opted to move away from legacy token-based remote access to avoid any potential delivery delays of virtual private networking equipment to staff. Instead, the bank has supplied staff with Zscaler cloud-based private access and internet access to enable them a secure connection to corporate applications.

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