Earlier this year, amid warnings of travel chaos during the London 2012 Olympics from Transport for London, we made the decision to shut down the office for the Olympic fortnight and to set up the organisation so everyone could easily work from home. It seemed a good time to test out our disaster recovery procedures; as an organisation that provides technology products and services to the charity sector, it made sense for us to take the lead by using the resources available to us to enable CTT to work 'office free'.
Many of our client-facing systems were already web-based, so staff had the same access both at the office and at home. The challenge was to do the same for the general office and administrative systems. That meant primarily phones, email and shared files. Staff already had some access to email and files over the internet through our Microsoft Exchange and Remote Desktop Connection, but this was not ideal as it didn't have the greatest user experience.
We made the decision to move to 'the cloud' and Microsoft's Office 365 service has enabled us to deliver email and share files over the web to staff based anywhere. The web interface is easier and more familiar as it's very similar to using Outlook. In addition, users can access shared mailboxes -- such as our customer services emails -- quickly and simply from home, just using their web browser.
While travelling to London during the Olympics did not turn out to be the bedlam that was predicted, we still all worked from home for two weeks straight during the Games. Our preparation and investment in technology was definitely worthwhile and the project was a success. We carried out business as usual without any technological hitches and would recommend similar solutions to other small to mid-sized organisation. As we'd hoped, the exercise proved to be a great test of our disaster recovery plan. If anything were to happen to the office - or to prevent us from getting there - we could carry on without a major impact to the organisation.
It did leave most of the team embracing the idea of flexible working, rather than complete office-free working, as the lack of human interaction during the day for two weeks proved to be taxing.
Here are some of the observations from the team:
Good communication: The phone system worked exceptionally well. We installed a Cisco Unified Communications system, which allowed staff to access the office phone system through their home PCs, laptops or smartphones - over a standard internet connection. Our customers, partners and suppliers didn't see any difference in service and response times. We just had to make sure to keep our mobiles fully charged!
Easy access: Using Office 365 for e-mail hosting and the Exchange online platform with Sharepoint for document storage and processing meant that we had the same access to documents and files from laptops, tablets and smartphones at home as we do from our PCs in the office. We also used DropBox and Huddle in some cases when offline syncing and collaboration outside CTT were needed, so no emergency visits to the office to download documents were required.
The post: We had one team member who lives nearby to walk to the office each day to pick up the mail, scan and email important documents and post cheques out when necessary. There are services that can manage post for you, if needed, but we were lucky to have someone to look after this process for us and avoid added costs.
Working routines: Remote working means you can fit your work around your life, but if you're used to a fairly regular routine, this can definitely go awry when you're away from your desk for two weeks. Many of us ended up working at odd hours and with laptops, well, on our laps - which aren't necessarily habits you want to cultivate, especially if you want to avoid insomnia and repetitive stress injuries!
Meetings: Just because our team was working from home, didn't mean everyone else was. There was still a fair amount of travelling to and from London to attend meetings. Luckily, it was quiet and public transport was very easily managed, despite the warnings of chaos associated with London travel. Where possible, we did use Skype for our meetings. A great tool for general communications, but we did find for things like brainstorming and discussing new ideas that we missed actual human interaction.
Back at work: We were all pleased to be back in the office and in the presence of colleagues last week. Even those of us that commute a fair distance admitted how happy they were to have personal contact after a two week absence. Our systems mean that we can support flexible working practices and still thrive as an organisation, which is definitely something we will be taking advantage of more often. What we realised, however, is that while we could be an 'office free' organisation, we don't want to be.
Even when technology works extremely well, it just cannot supplant the human need for physical interaction.
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