Remote working may have been forced on companies by the pandemic, but for many may now become a permanent part of their work environment. One third sector organization was beginning to make the shift when COVID-19 struck and accelerated its thinking.
Positive Steps is a charity operating in both Rochdale and Oldham in the North of England. It specialises in delivering targeted advice, support and services to young people, adults and families on a wide range of issues they face, from help making the transition from school to further education through careers guidance and on.to giving support to individuals and families with drugs, parenting or housing problems.
Careers advice for young people is a significant part of the workload, to the point where the charity has workers in most of the schools in Rochdale and Oldham, either as a permanent placement or working their time shared across a small number of schools. Another important target is young carers looking after parents with disabilities. Here the goal is to provide an interface to specialised services that can help the parents, and to provide the young carers with something for themselves, such as trips out.
For the charity’s Senior Infrastructure Analyst for Corporate Services, Garry O’Driscoll, the pandemic and its consequential lockdown arrived at a time when he already had plans in hand to shift at least the out-reach members of the charity’s staff to working remotely. Out of a full complement of 160 people at the charity, some 130 work in the field, visiting schools and clients, or running workshops around the area. So lockdown added impetus to what was already in hand, though in the short term at least it also cut back on the full range of services the charity normally provides:
Obviously, the schools are a big part, and they are closed at the moment. But we have been using Microsoft Teams for meetings with young people, as well as for careers interviews. It allows the clients to use just about any device, mobile phone or PC, and they don’t have to buy the software. And we've been using Microsoft Bookings to manage timings. Clients can go to their own school website, set a date with our advisor, and it goes straight in their calendars.
This has ended up being quite a frenetic time because with lockdown disrupting the school year and putting exams on hold, school children are naturally worried about the impact on the future college or career prospects. So the charity has found itself busier than ever, trying to get guidance in early so they can get the college places or apprenticeships that they want. Staff have also then been learning how to do this using technology rather than operating face-to -ace, so the workload has in practice increased because of the lockdown.
Much of the charity’s work comes via referrals from the local authorities, so the spread of tasks has also risen to include delivery food packages to the shielded vulnerable. But as the staff are fully equipped for remote working, it also means they can offer additional advice to those people on a range of issues, such as claiming Universal Credit benefits, and direct report back should there be a need for further interventions or specialist services.
Chromebooks and Citrix
The charity was already using Citrix as a part of the admin infrastructure so extending that out to the remote staff made obvious sense. Team members have been equipped with Chromebooks, to log directly into the charity data center. O’Driscoll explains:
It was partly cost we were looking for. Windows laptops can be quite expensive when all they're doing is acting as a gateway. We could potentially buy two Chromebooks for the price of one laptop.
O’Driscoll observes that most of the places remote staff worked with clients there is an internet service available. In addition, all remote staff are provided with a mobile phone, which also doubles up as an internet hot spot if no alternative available.
One area where the lockdown did spring a small trap on O’Driscoll was when it xame to back office and admin staff, for whom remote home working had not been part of his plan. Fortunately, they all had some form of computing resource and internet connection at home. The availability of Citrix meant that all he had to do was give them the log-in instructions and the URL for its NetScaler and they have been able to log on from their own personal devices.
Remote workers are enrolled on to the charity’s enterprise Google account, so the first log on the Chromebook is automatically populated based on the policies configured for that particular user.
The change to full remote working has proved to productive, according to O’Driscoll. Whereas staff were able to average five appointments per day, when they had to go back to the office to write up notes and prepare for the next one, not they can service up to 10 appointments per day:
That's the culture we've been trying to change over time. You get the range of people - some love the remote work and some were a bit more reserved and like to have their desk. So we have had to cater for everybody without saying you can come to the office.
So rather than go ‘all in’ on remote working and do away with the need for physical locations, the charity will continue to operate from its permanent base to give clients the options that they require. For example, while some are happy to have a Positive Steps worker turn up at home, for others there are many reasons why this might not be a good idea. So the ability to have private meetings and, in particular, run training sessions and workshops at the most appropriate location is important, and having an infrastructure flexible enough to cope with the options is therefore equally important:
The Citrix workspace environment gives that option. That's the point. And without a doubt it is complemented by Microsoft Teams. We could deliver training anywhere.