‘Technology isn't failing’: Three stories that show how tech workers are supporting vital services

From healthcare to education, IT has been the backbone of key services that have kept running in the face of the pandemic.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

"Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the surgery is conducting telephone and video consultations only" – is the bright-red, bold-fonted message you will find on most GP practices' websites these days when trying to book an appointment. 

As COVID-19 started spreading across borders, it quickly became evident that doctor's surgeries and health centers would have to change how they deal with patients: like many other organizations, health services in the UK have had to resort to remote working. 

The method is called "total triage", and the NHS has recommended that all practices move to the remote management of patients as soon as possible to reduce the risk of infection. One important part of the switch to remote working has been the IT teams, who have been setting up new systems at top speed while dealing with the requests for technical help that inevitably come with new ways of working.

SEE: Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

"The people in the NHS who are on the frontline will rightly be remembered as the heroes of this crisis," says Carl Harris, group marketing director at the British Computer Society (BCS). "But behind the NHS is the NHS digital community, which is working to keep health services providing critical support. In this moment of crisis, IT services and infrastructure have played an enormous role in keeping society running in as normal a way as possible."

The BCS has launched a campaign to highlight these "vITal workers". Note the caps: the initiative focuses on giving recognition to IT teams large and small that have been working to keep the country's most crucial services running as the COVID-19 pandemic brought traditional formats of working to a stop, with people encouraged to share examples of contributions from IT professionals.

Among the stories flagged by the campaign so far is the one of Michael Knight and his team, who provide IT support for the NHS South, Central and West (NHSSCW). Knight, who is the associate director of technology, led much of the technological support for local GP practices, ever since medical centers started closing in mid-February because the first suspected cases were reported. 

Total triage is a brand-new way of working for many surgeries, and Knight's team has been the one picking up the phone whenever GPs or surgery staff need technical support. The statistics speak for themselves: the number of daily incident calls to NHSSCW's IT team has surged to over 4,000 this month. On a busy day before the crisis, Knight registered about 400 calls. 

"It has really been about that volume shift," Knight says. "The number of support requests is incredible for us. People shifted from working on-site to consulting in a different way. They hadn't done it before, and they needed to be guided on how to do it."

Any IT project that was in the works and wasn't essential was put on hold: Knight's whole team is now focused on making sure the support response is sufficient and that sensitive data is kept safe. Staff have been working additional shifts to coordinate IT support seven days a week, and to provide support for urgent service requirements outside of normal working hours. 

Throughout the month of April, the NHSSCW's IT team also set up 3,100 laptops, which were dispatched to GPs and primary care staff. Knight gratefully remembers the "absolute blinder" played by one of his team members in early February, when he was preparing to replace and dispose of a large chunk of the organization's equipment. "One of our guys thought that we should hold off disposal," says Knight, "and eventually we were able to re-build this kit and get it re-issued. Some people did have some foresight, even at that point."

That doesn't mean there have not been some unexpected problems. You wouldn't think twice about disposing of the cardboard box that came with your new laptop – but when you are dealing with thousands of devices, things look more complicated. "I should get our comms people to work out how far we could go with those boxes placed at the end of one another," Knight ponders. "I reckon we'd go quite a distance."

Building laptops, rolling them out to primary care and general practice, and then dealing with a ten-fold increase in daily support requests – and all of it in the space of a few weeks – might seem like work enough for a single team. But Knight and his team didn't stop there. As the government started recalling retired doctors to compensate for the lack of resources in the face of the pandemic, it became necessary to come up with a tool that would let returning GPs on-board as quickly and smoothly as possible. The IT team's to-do list lengthened a little bit more.

Working hand-in-hand with national health services and NHS Digital, NHSSCW conceptualized a new telephone service to recruit clinicians and take them through ID verification and referral processes. The organization already has a multi-platform contact center hosted in the cloud, explained Knight, so the team just had to work out what the automated "press one, two or three" options would be, and who they would lead to.

Much more complex, however, was the process of verifying applicants' credentials, which would normally take place in a medical center, and now has to happen over video conferencing. "Getting through that process has been a big challenge for us," said Knight. "We re-trained a team specifically to deal with support for the new platform." But that challenge was worth undertaking, as it means those returning doctors have now been able to see as many as 20,000 patients.

Examples abound of IT teams that are keeping critical services going in other sections of society. Some of these services are certainly less noticeable; but that doesn't downplay their importance. From water and sewerage suppliers, to data center operators, many services can't afford to shut down, regardless of the health crisis happening outside. And behind stories of organizations successfully withstanding the crisis, there is usually an IT team ensuring business continuity and coming up with new ideas to help. 

In Yorkshire, the Hollybank Trust has been operating for 65 years to provide care to individuals with profound disabilities. The charity operates across ten residential homes, a school and a nursery, and a hydrotherapy center. Currently, 600 staff look after over one hundred residents staying full-time in the dedicated homes; on top of that, adults and children can come and stay in the residences for short breaks.

While the school and the hydrotherapy center could be closed, the charity's ten homes had to remain open. This meant that while the majority of Hollybank's staff was able to switch to remote working, a number of front-line carers had to remain on-site to look after residents.

Victoria Cotterill, the head of IT at the Hollybank Trust, told ZDNet that from mid-March, a number of projects were paused so that HR, finance and other head-office functions could be, in the space of a week, thrown into working remotely. Hollybank was already in the middle of Office365 migration, and Microsoft Teams was quickly deployed to all agile workers. In parallel, the team also started live IT sessions broadcast across the organization to cover themes such as cybersecurity with live Q&As.   

But when it came to front-line carers, the priority was to ensure simple and efficient ways to communicate with off-site staff. Key workers, who were used to moving between homes freely, found themselves assigned to a single home, and unable to move elsewhere within the campus. 

SEE: Working from home: Success tips for telecommuters (free PDF)

None of the residential homes has any IT equipment in place aside from usual business administration systems, so Cotterill started worrying about carers feeling isolated and unsupported. In just over two weeks, Facebook Workplace was rolled out as a way for front-line staff to have access to communications without the need to be logged in to the network. 

And although Hollybank workers have been able to stay with residents, it remains that parents and families aren't allowed to visit. To let adults and children video call home and friends, the trust's IT team introduced Skype onto devices within the homes, and created how-to guides for on-site staff to help residents use the tools.

"Keeping the lines of communication open between the people who live there and their families, who are unable to visit, has been crucial," says Cotterill. "Feedback from parents and families has indicated that this has proved to be a real lifeline for them during this pandemic.

"The technology we have introduced isn't going to set the world on fire, these are systems that other, bigger organizations have been using for some time," she adds, "but what it's doing is connecting people at a time when it's easy to feel disconnected or isolated."

Hollybank Trust nominated the charity's IT team and their work for the BCS' vITal workers campaign. Harris at the BCS says the work by Hollybank's IT team has enabled the organization to keep providing key services as normally as possible.

For Harris, the COVID-19 crisis is helping to shed a different light on the world of IT. More often than not, the public's eye has been turned to IT disasters prompted by major technological failures or security breaches. But these headlines overlook all the ways that IT lets us stay connected. 

"The difference this time is that the coronavirus crisis is a human one," said Harris. "Technology isn't failing in this story. And as people are unable to work and socially interact in a normal way, IT has actually become part of the solution. It is becoming evident to anyone who is impacted that digital infrastructure ensures that the things we are highly dependent on keep running."

In fact, over the last years, while the public was often pointing fingers at technology and condemning its failures, many IT professionals were preparing organizations for the digital transformation that the coronavirus pandemic has fast-tracked. 

"We're a big university: 28,000 students and 3,500 staff," James Crooks, the director of learning and information services at the University of Central Lancashire, tells ZDNet as he started describing the institution's recent shift to remote learning. "But a lot of what we've been able to do in the past month actually started three years ago, when we started a new strategy for learning and teaching, centered around an online and tech-enabled approach."

Like the rest of the country, the university's campus is closed, but all academic activities have been brought online. In what is now a common story, the change was abrupt: about 10 days separated the decision to move off campus and the closure of the university's facilities. 

Ten days were enough, however, because Crooks and his team were ready. As part of the new strategy launched a few years ago, academic staff were already equipped with Microsoft Surface devices, and had been given plenty of guidance on how to embed technology in their teaching. Crooks estimates that about 60% of lecturers had already been using the new tools at their disposal, leaving only about 400 lecturers to brief and train in the short time period leading to the closure of the university.

A caveat, added Crooks: 400 lecturers still represented a huge amount of work, and the team did "superbly" in up-scaling the guidance and support. But with most staff already prepared to start working from home, the university's IT department could tick off a lot of the legwork. "If we hadn't done all that work over the past years, it would have probably taken all of our time right now," says Crooks. "Instead, we've been able to focus a lot on the student experience."

The University of Central Lancashire has a strong agenda for widening participation, with over a third of students coming from working-class homes. The institution already has a fund designed specifically to help students who don't have the financial means to access key learning technologies such as computer equipment. From an early stage, explained Crooks, the team anticipated that a percentage of students wouldn't have a laptop at home, and would be less able to access course content online. 

A call was put out to the academic teams asking staff to identify students in a more difficult situation, and in parallel the IT team searched around for hardware suppliers to find new devices. "As time went by, more and more students came out of the woodwork. They were using a friend's computer, or their family's, or they were kicking their little brother off their games console to try and get access to a web browser," says Crooks. The university has now equipped 500 students with a laptop, and bought 200 wireless Internet dongles for those with insufficient broadband access. 

SEE: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Overall, Crooks says, the switch to online learning has been a successful one. Of course, given the size of the university and the scope of the subject disciplines it provides, there are still on-going challenges: bringing a management course online isn't exactly the same as deploying remote solutions for art design or engineering. But the main steps of crisis management have so far been completed.

Crooks has even found that the pandemic is opening up new opportunities for students. The use of Microsoft Teams as a platform to safely exchange ideas and comments, for example, has been greatly beneficial. Contrary to social media, the Microsoft tool lets students express views that might be controversial, without the risk of it coming back and biting them in the future. "Lecturers have liked that as well," said Crooks. "They come in, throw what might be deemed a 'hand-grenade' question, then leave the Teams chat, and come back again 30 minutes later to see what happened."

It might well be that the coronavirus pandemic is causing a shift in the way that we think of IT and technology infrastructure, therefore. While most businesses and organizations had already been thinking about digital transformation prior to the crisis, it is unquestionable that COVID-19 is pushing innovation to the top of the agenda. 

Thinking about the implications of the vITal workers campaign, the BCS's Carl Harris anticipated that the pandemic will hugely disrupt the role of IT. "Things won't be the same after this," he said. "There will be a new type of digital transformation. Organizations will start running things online that they hadn't considered, but which this crisis has highlighted."

Most fourth year students at the University of Central Lancashire will have to wait until December to attend their graduation ceremony. Most, but not all: Crooks explained that, in order for medical students to go into practice as soon as possible to help fight against the spread of the virus, graduations took place last month via Teams. Doctors-to-be took the Hippocratic Oath online, and were all set to start working.

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