Coronavirus: How one team switched 4,000 staff to remote working in just a week

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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.
CXO ZDNet's top enterprise CEOs of the 2010s Executive dies, taking investor cryptocurrency with him. Now they want the body exhumed What is a CIO? Everything you need to know about the Chief Information Officer explained How machine learning is predicting employee turnover (ZDNet YouTube) Ring CEO defends police partnerships (CNET) How to overcome procrastination: A CXO guide (TechRepublic) 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 withLinux, 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 ...