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How our people and technology choices enabled 400 people to work from home – in a day

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How our people and technology choices enabled 400 people to work from home – in a day

Like most organisations around the world, Nous has had to move fast in supporting remote working during the disruption brought about by COVID-19.

There has been lots of focus on what it means for people working from home, but what does it mean for the IT leaders who make it happen? And how can business and IT leaders deliver such a rapid shift while they themselves are grappling with massive disruption in their own work?

In mid-March, Nous asked its 400 people across Australia, the UK and Canada to work remotely. It is still early days, but so far the signs are that it has been a success. A few key stats show the extent of the transition: a week after we started working remotely, our average Skype for Business traffic bandwidth had increased eight-fold and our chatter on Microsoft Teams had increased 20-fold.

Here are some lessons from the experience.

Communicate early, clearly and frequently

In January, Nous’ COVID-19 response team developed a three-level plan so Nousers understood the business implications of each level of severity and could plan accordingly.

Since we began large-scale remote work, our focus has been on maintaining the strength of our communications virtually, to benefit our people and clients. This has involved:

  • Optimising our use of virtual communications platforms. We have improved how we use Microsoft Teams and Skype for Business, our existing collaboration platforms. We have also experimented with new channels (like Zoom) to accommodate client preferences and provide options to mitigate risk.
  • Documenting and sharing best practice around virtual communication. We crowdsourced insights from across the business to lift our collective capability to run impactful virtual meetings and workshops for clients. (You can read our advice on remote engagement with clients and workforce.)
  • Transitioning our internal and client events to virtual. We are training Virtual Event Producers across the business to assist with delivering interactive discussions, workshops and learning sessions via Microsoft Teams. We delivered our first virtual client roundtable three weeks after going remote, for 20 senior leaders from across the energy sector.
  • Feeding our existing digital communications channels with fresh, relevant information. We have provided regular updates to our colleagues via our intranet and our Managing Director’s blog. We are communicating with our clients on COVID-19 through our website and direct contact.

Embed flexible work practices in culture

Nous’ culture has helped our workforce to work in the COVID-19 context. Our culture includes seeking impactful and authentic engagements with each other, our clients and the communities in which we operate. Flexible work practices allow Nousers to build meaningful connections when and where it suits them in order to meet their commitments to clients, colleagues and family.

This cultural foundation meant that shifting to remote as a result of COVID-19 has not been as sharp a pivot for Nous as it has been for some organisations. But we have had to work hard within the new constraints to maintain our culture in the remote context. For example, several teams have established weekly (or even daily) social catchups online, so they can better support each other through the personal challenges of social distancing.

Act early to anticipate needs

Our technology management response to COVID-19 involved getting ahead of the challenge. This included:

  • Adopting an incident management framework to direct our activities. We used our cyber security incident response and management framework to coordinate and direct our planning and execution.
  • Planning for increased ICT demand and heightened risks. We knew the shift to remote working would increase security risks and technological vulnerabilities, and resourced helpdesk support accordingly. We experienced a doubling in service desk requests in the first few days, and it almost quadrupled on the highest peak day – but within three weeks, requests were back down to normal.
  • Proactively engaging with suppliers. While large suppliers independently issued new service delivery protocols in response to COVID-19, we developed them in partnership with smaller suppliers to ensure all aspects of our business were ready.
  • Providing infrastructure support for our employees. We distributed our inventory and loaned hardware to employees on the day they dispersed to work remotely, to make people’s experience of working from home feasible and consistent.

Embrace technology that supports flexibility

The COVID-19 response is consistent with our long-term technology strategy, which is designed to support a flexible workforce. All Nous staff work from a laptop and all systems can be accessed remotely via cloud services or a VPN.

Prioritising convenience, continuity and security, we have invested in:

  • cloud-based key business applications, which can be accessed any time from any device, requiring users to become self-reliant in managing updates
  • a single sign-on identity access platform, which provides adaptive, multi-factor authentication and a seamless login experience over multiple applications and devices
  • protections against cyber intrusion, which includes third-party penetration testing to ensure the security of our cloud services and efforts to educate our people on cyber risk
  • a technology allowance for all staff, which ensures everyone can access a functional workspace and high-speed internet connection.

Be willing to experiment

As a professional services organisation, our work can more easily be performed remotely than can the work of many other organisations. Whether due to security considerations, engagement with physical materials or the need for in-person collaboration, many organisations will face constraints on their remote working.

For organisations in this position, there are no easy answers. Because this is uncharted terrain, we need to be prepared to experiment with new approaches to see what works.

In undertaking this experimentation, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Standardise technology platforms. An array of technologies that support collaboration are all vying for users, but it is not viable to provide technical support for all of them. Before long, different teams will have different platforms and collaboration will be stymied. Pick a tool (or two) that do the job and encourage use across the whole organisation.
  • Build on existing culture and channels. Remote working is not a good time to change ingrained habits. It is best to harness the existing culture to support uptake of technology, and then use that technology to reinforce the culture. Similarly, it is best to use existing digital communication channels to connect with staff rather than seeking to introduce them to new ones.
  • Maintain security. Malicious actors are not afraid to exploit the COVID-19 disruption, so it is important to maintain security protocols. While it may be tempting to set aside security layers in pursuit of simplicity in remote working, this leaves you vulnerable to spilling secrets (your own or your clients’) and may put you at risk of a legal breach.

This disruption is unprecedented

For most organisations, the current level of disruption is unprecedented. Even for IT leaders with decades of experience, such widespread change is likely to be challenging. Give yourself permission to try new things, see what works, learn from experience and celebrate your successes.

As we emerge from the enforced remote working of COVID-19, we may just find that some of our new discoveries become part of business as usual in future. Think of it as the silver lining to the dark cloud.

Get in touch to discuss how we can support your organisation to implement large-scale remote working.

Prepared with input from Tristan McMichael and Paarth Arora.

Published on 15 April 2020.