In the not too distant past, IT was often blamed for a lot of issues, but already in the midst of this crisis we are seeing the hard work of IT professionals pay off as increasing numbers of people work from home, writes Johanna Hamilton AMBCS.

Brian Runciman MBCS hosted the webinar ‘Digitally coping in times of crisis’ on the changing and expanding of business continuity issues against the backdrop of coronavirus advice - and BCS got valuable insight into the ways the NHS is coping. These are the 10 key takeaways from panellists, Dr Patrick McConnell FBCS, author of Strategic Technology Risk, Paul Newman, CIO of the Royal College of Nursing and Stephen Slough, CIO of NHS Dorset.

1. Accept it is not business as usual

Trying to support every function within a business is unsustainable. Prioritise what needs to be done for “business survival”. Pare back your business function to decide what is essential and what can be shelved. Look at your pool of talent, and what you may not need immediately - for example IT architects working on new projects - and redeploy their talents to more pressing problems.

2. Prioritise the wellbeing of staff with underlying health conditions

Those who are most at risk should be protected. Also, there need to be guards in place to help employees with supporting their mental health during this period of enforced isolation. This could be using social media channels, Facebook, Whatsapp, Skype, phone calls. Keeping in touch, giving people that sense of belonging to the group and giving them focus is vital. Set up daily meetings through Skype or Teams to keep the team momentum going. If people are no longer able to do their primary role, find them something new to do to keep them engaged.

3. Decide your business-critical functions

What takes priority? What should you focus your resources and your attention on? In these unprecedented times, you may find that resource you were devoting to new projects will need to be spent on new laptops for those workers who have worked on desktops in the office. You will also need to devote time to set up, licenses for users, training etc. Businesses who already instigate home working will be the winners in this scenario.

See this as a great opportunity to examine the way you work and to look for greater flexibility in what the “workplace” actually is in the future. We need to look more closely at the freshness and new ideas that digital transformation can bring.

4. Plan, plan, plan

Business continuity planning (BCP) requires a lot of attention from senior managers, effort and a lot of money to do it properly. Businesses aren’t spending money on BCP until it is absolutely necessary, and so we’re now finding that this lack of investment is really impacting on the ability to recover. Pandemics are inevitable. Disruption, medical or otherwise is inevitable. Although it may be too late for this scenario, giving a healthy budget to contingency measures and testing should be prioritised in the future.

5. Write off your 2020 business plan

This year will be about business survival. The pandemic will probably last between 12-15 months. So, throw out the carefully crafted strategic business plan for this year, because 2020 will be about coping with new processes and survival.

6. Create a ‘pandemic planning and coordination’ team

New ways of working. New responsibilities. New management ideas. In order to thrive in an uncertain environment it is essential to manage the day to day running of the pandemic response. This needs to be staffed by a cross section of the business to take into account impact and response throughout the different business functions. It’s got to have IT experts, people who can build websites, telecommunications experts - comms will be the currency of keeping a large business operational in the next six to nine months.

In NHS frontline services, Office 365 and Windows 10 was rolled out to GPs, who are now able to work from home in quite a seamless way. However, in parts of the NHS where IT investment was withheld in an attempt to save costs, they are now bearing the brunt of the new work from home regime.

7. Seek out clear and concise medical information

You need to know what’s going on both to inform your decisions at board level and to keep your workforce informed. Share your knowledge and how that is going to impact ways of working at all levels and create a policy that will be implemented to keep the wheels turning.

In NHS Dorset, 18 new virtual waiting rooms for 900 GP staff dealing with mental health, community medicine and coronavirus were created last Friday to be used on Monday. The system is working well. At the RCN 125 new laptops were set up and rolled out in one week. Everyone needs it now, now, now, but they also need to use it. Training and support will be a challenge. So, too, will recruitment.

8. Prioritise medical IT

In a medical situation, the IT support workers have to have everything they need to keep the high dependency units working in order to support clinical staff on the ground. Unfortunately, in this time of crisis, the hackers are working overtime attacking systems, so to make sure everything stays online and that critical services are maintained, cyber security must also be made a priority.

9. Invest in IT

Broadband infrastructure in rural communities can be very hit and miss. The NHS are finding ways to reroute traffic and using the internet in more creative ways to ensure essential information is getting out. Network capacity is struggling across the UK with the change in usage.

Data is being held and used in places that it wouldn’t normally be used - make sure that employees are adhering to GDPR. There is also the fear that essential IT isn’t available to home workers, so a relaxation of rules could mean IT security starts to lessen. Set up multi-factor authentication as a frontline defence.

10. Prepare for headless chicken mode

Preparing for the pandemic after it has hit has a few problems. People panic buy - everything from toilet roll to electricals - there’s a dearth of “essentials” available and even what will be delivered. If you can’t get the kit, there is then a work-around that has to be implemented, that is unfamiliar to users, which then has a support knock on effect. The main advice is to stay calm, stay focused and keep going.

And one last point... At times of national crisis, there are always people who will try to sell you something that will relieve the burdens to make your life easier. Just be aware that people don’t always have yours, or society’s best interests at heart.

Watch the webinar