What BT did when coronavirus struck

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Over the last few weeks I have published a series of blogs where I have focused on giving some advice to companies and employees on how to work during the pandemic. I suspect some people will be interested to hear how we responded so I decided to focus the last one on what we at BT Ireland did when coronavirus struck.

Like every business, we have been severely tested by the coronavirus pandemic but because of the industry we work in and the way we use our own products and services, I think it is fair to say we were better prepared than most. Back in January, when the pandemic conversations were gathering momentum and the first suspected cases hit Europe, we formed a cross-company coronavirus taskforce, reporting into the leadership team. They formulated a plan which took all aspects of the business into consideration – including people, technology, operations and finance.

Once complete, we decided it was imperative to test our business continuity plans. We had the technology in place, including a remote working capability, but we needed to carry out a remote working drill similar to a ‘fire drill’ to identify any chinks in our armour and to assure everything worked as designed.

The challenge of running a business when offices suddenly become a no-go zone has a dual impact, on employees as well as customers and partners. Our test run suggested we were in pretty good shape for both. Within a matter of weeks, we were doing it for real and I’m pleased to say that the plan has stood up to the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in.

Supporting our people

On the employee side, we got payback for having started a digital workplace transition. Before the crisis, we had over half the workforce on Microsoft 365, using Unified Communication and Collaboration tools like Teams. This was rolled out to 100 percent of employees within weeks of the news breaking. To support new adopters and refresh existing users, we ran online training workshops and webinars to help them make the most of UC tools, particularly the functionality in Teams.   

As with any technology implementation initiative, there were some initial teething problems. Some employees were using dated devices, so it was important to refresh hardware to improve the user experience. We also gave people soft phone versions of their desk phones to replicate the office environment, and everyone was enabled with a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to ensure their home broadband connections were secure.

Our internal training about security risks became essential because cyber criminals were targeting home workers with phishing scams. People are always a vulnerability, because we’re human and make mistakes, so the best defence is to constantly reinforce messaging around security policies and procedures.

During lockdown, when threat levels were raised, we provided training and webinars to constantly remind people to be on the lookout for suspicious activity. Being a part of BT Group and our close working relationships with, the National Cyber Security Centre and other international groups, has helped formulate best practice responses to zero-day attacks, benefitting our clients as well as our own business.

Even more important than security is the health and wellbeing of employees. Our managers would check in regularly with people over Teams, not for work but for a chat, because we know that not everyone is used to home working and may feel isolated.  We are adapting to new ways of working and need to remember that some people may be struggling with it. To help, we have been running an employee assistance programme along with health and well-being webinars and charity events.

Taking care of business

For our customers, coronavirus called for us to design and deliver a new type of business continuity, with support teams working away from their usual sites. By enabling ‘remote agent’ features that allowed business calls to be answered on mobile phones and soft clients, we were able to relocate our customers support centre agents to their homes within days.

To meet spikes in demand, we increased PSTN capacity by doubling the Global SIP channels available to customers. We also increased VPN concentrators to enable our staff to connect to centralised resources over secure connections.

In the case of the Emergency Call Answering Service we run for the State, where high availability is critical, we prepared for call takers to work remotely, but so far our two sites have been able to carry on working while observing social distancing and hygiene rules. The same is true of our Network Operation Centre (NOC) which has been open throughout the crisis.

Lessons learned

I have four key takeaways that I took from the experience that might help businesses prepare for the unexpected:

  1. It is inevitable that in our lifetimes there will be more events that we cannot predict, but this does not mean that we cannot plan.  The best defence against uncertainty is agility.
  2. Test your plan. In Ireland, fire drills are a legal requirement under the Fire Services Act 1981 – 2003, which is the likely reason they are more common than any other drill. Treat your business continuity plan with the same degree of importance so you can identify the flaws and prevent them from becoming a real problem.
  3. Don’t think that throwing money at technology will solve all your problems. I always look at technology as an empowerment tool and people as its puppet master. Technology can effectively assist businesses in achieving their goals, but the business has to be clear on what it’s looking to achieve and articulate it in a digestible and achievable manor. Technology investments should link directly back to your business strategy.
  4. There is a human element to every organisation. Ensure this is key to every business continuity plan. If the people side fails, the plan fails. Think broadly when planning for this, which means considering everything from user adoption, training requirements and equipment to childcare issues, health and wellbeing and inclusivity.

A quote from Our MD Shay Walsh, reflecting on how BT Ireland responded to the pandemic.

“I’m so proud of the way all the employees here in BT Ireland have reacted to the pandemic throughout the lockdown and now the slow unwinding of restrictions. Although continuity plans were in place there is no substitute for a real-life implementation, but I can honestly say that being prepared meant we stayed one step ahead from early March.

Our first responsibility is to the health and well-being of our employees but in doing so we have also been able to look after the rapidly emerging and changing needs of our customers who were equally blind-sided by the unprecedented speed at which the restrictions impacted their businesses.   

The criticality of high quality and flexible communications could not have had a more profound test than in the past four months and I’m delighted that we have stood up to that test and delivered to the benefit of our customers and our employees”

Ailbhe McDarby

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