Category: Staff and Workforce

Hounslow Digital Apprenticeships by Shiza Touqeer

Around this time last year, I had just graduated from university and I was very uncertain about my career. Certainly, many fresh graduates have fears that they will not find a stable job due to their lack of experience and minimal professional knowledge. I wasn’t any different and the anxiety of staying at home was taking over me to the point that I was thinking, I might not be good enough to get a job. That is when a family friend suggested me to apply for the position of an apprentice at London Borough of Hounslow as an ICT Client Support Officer working as part of the servicedesk team. 

I was reluctant to take up the position of an apprentice because many people had suggested that I have a degree and I should just apply for permanent positions instead. Regardless of the uncountable suggestions, I decided to apply and successfully got the job, which boosted my confidence. I started to work on the apprenticeship in November 2019 and I would definitely say that this has been one of the best decisions I have made.  

Prior to being an apprentice, I had many misconceptions about not being equal to the rest of the team or having to complete jobs that nobody wants to do however, once I began to work in my current position, I was positively surprised. Apprenticeships not only prepare you to face the professional world heads on but they also help to build up knowledge. Thankfully, I have been in a team of people and managers that have never made me feel like I was an apprentice and gave me equal amount of responsibilities with my other colleagues which made me feel very confident.

AWS Challenge with Loti team 

I have also had the opportunity to participate in an AWS challenge as part of an apprentice day with Loti, which me and my team managed to win due to our team effort. Me and my fellow apprentices worked on an idea to develop the “Test & Trace”, application where we made sure that our targeted customers’ needs were met. That day, I realised that there are many doors that can open up for us and participating in such activities actually helped me understand that no opinion or idea is a bad one, which led us to victory.  

Apprenticeship course 

I have been part of the Firebrand Infrastructure Technician course and that involved meeting up tight deadlines and be part of group projects and trainings. I can argue that this has been anything but easy so I would recommend not to take apprenticeships easily. Being part of the servicedesk and working on my portfolio have been a challenge however, I have made sure that  I request enough “off the job” time from my manager and let my colleagues know whenever I need to juggle between the two.  

Reflections 

I would recommend people to take up apprenticeships because they are a great way to enhance skills and allow you to connect with likeminded people. It has been a very positive experience for me so far and I look forward to completing my apprenticeship in the upcoming months.  

Cognitive shade

As Head of Digital Services at Hounslow, continuing to look after our colleague’s mental health has been critical. The Digital and IT teams were amongst the first to be sent home a week before the official lockdown whilst seeing a doubling in our service demand and most members of the team have not been to our main building since that time. As the crisis continued, the working environment has been become ever tougher with the team maintaining an onsite presence throughout this time alongside the pressures we all have in our personal lives currently. 

For IT teams the pressures are unique.  In normal times working in IT is a stressful job , surveys have shown over 70% of staff find it stressful  – in the public sector we are helping  people who deliver critical services and sometimes it is hard for staff not to take criticism personally. 

During this time a member of our ServiceDesk team Aman passed away suddenly at 22 from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy which had a huge impact on the team (https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/johal-family).  We raised money for this cause through  a 19 challenge  such as to Do any exercise for 19 minutes every day for a week, Do 19 minutes meditation every day for a week or finish every meal with a piece of fruit for 19 meals and had great participation across all teams. 

The pressure on mental health has been immense for all staff. The support the council has provided has been fantastic with resilience webinars, continued support from the paid for Employee Assistance Programme from Validium, regular updates from senior managers using Microsoft teams.   

All staff are being encouraged to take their holidays on a continued effort to achieve work/life balance. In addition, within our teams we have had quizzes, some virtual pub nights, show and tells for all teams every 2 weeks. We have encouraged people to stay in contact with each other as they would do if they were in the office and call people just to catchup as you would do over coffee or at the desk in more normal times. 

We have had a couple major system issues to deal with, which has been even more ‘fun’ with the number of staff at home across the organisation having increased 5-fold.  All this alongside supporting Council meetings going virtual out of hours – the work has frequently meant late night working and weekend working.  

I have been engaging with our Organisational Development teams on setting up specific seminars for Digital & IT staff through MIND as Hounslow as an organisation is likely to be working remotely for the foreseeable future  This will help to ensure we continue to offer support over the extend period of time alongside regular communications to ensure we all remain in touch with each other. 

Support

If you need support with your mental health, please ask – people will help.  A good starting point for support is https://www.mind.org.uk/ , https://youngminds.org.uk/ or  https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/ 

Keeping things speedy…

We’ve been very fortunate in being well prepared for the whole organisation working remotely, catering for a new normal of over 1500 staff members using VPN on a regular basis.  That’s an increase from the usual 500 or so.   On occasions some things have been a little slower than normal for some applications but workable. 

However, we’ve also seen a huge transition to Microsoft Teams as the conferencing and collaboration tool of choice for the organisation.  Teams use has exploded from two hundred to well over a thousand concurrent users every day, this introduced a few challenges.  And we like a challenge. 

We saw that that as VPN use increased along with increased used of Teams video conferencing, we began reaching the limits of the VPN solution.  The impact of that was a reduction in video quality on Teams, sometimes to the point that video cut out altogether.   

This was because the video and audio network traffic is sensitive to delay and other traffic was holding things up, a bit like an ambulance trying to get through a traffic jam at 8am (if you remember what that was like).   

We decided that, given the importance of collaboration and face to face communication, we didn’t want to ask anyone to stop using video to reduce the problem.  So, the team looked elsewhere and instead decided to implement split-tunnelling on our VPN for our Microsoft collaboration traffic, specifically Teams, Skype, SharePoint and Outlook.  We found some excellent information pulled together by Microsoft and several various VPN providers which detailed exactly the split tunnelling solution we were looking for (links below). 

Doing this has eliminated the quality issues we were seeing on video conferencing and so far we are seeing reduced utilisation on the VPN in the region of 15% – 22%.  From the initial idea to going into full production for all colleagues took us five days. 

Before: 

Forced VPN configuration

In the image above from Microsoft, all the traffic from the VPN client is going to the VPN Gateway. 

After: 

Split Tunnel VPN configuration

This image from Microsoft shows some traffic going direct to Office 365, and the rest forced to continue through the VPN. 

Links: 

Optimize Office 365 connectivity for remote users using VPN split tunneling 

Guides for common VPN platforms 

Running a virtual workshop using MS Teams

Hounslow Leadership Group (HLG) consists of the most senior 100 managers from across Hounslow Council. The group meets every month to discuss the Hounslow hot topics and input and shape the strategic direction of the council.

As with the rest of local government the council is adapting to new ways of working as part of it’s response to the coronavirus. With much of the council working at home and a large number directly involved in the immediate response we were unsure whether the April HLG meeting was going to go ahead.

Set up on the day

What started as a conversation around should we hold the meeting at all soon, turned into realising that it was essential that it took place.

Conversations had started to turn to recovery and it was important to engage the wider leadership group in the recovery stage of the pandemic. This approach is an important part of the #1Hounslow internal transformation programme and essential to ensure we are operating according to our values.

Digital has been at the centre of the response phase, with massive increases of staff working at home, spinning up a new contact centre, creating digital processes for the Community Hub and using data in more strategic ways. But the question – can we do all this using our digital tools, making it interactive and engaging – we then had a week to pull it together.

A team from Digital & IT, Organisational Development and Corporate Transformation worked together to make the magic happen.

We had used MS Teams for a number of other events in the Council, such as the weekly live Q&A with the Chief Executive to all staff, so it was a natural progression to use Teams for HLG.

What we did

In terms of planning, whilst the meeting had been in the diary for a while, we needed to ensure that we knew who was now able to attend and to enable us to allocate colleagues in the workshop groups.

Colleagues were put into groups of about 10 people, with a facilitator of each group volunteered to then feedback during the main session.

We used Microsoft Teams live to stream the main event, with individual Teams meetings for the workshop sessions. Staff were invited to the workshop groups the day before so they had two Teams meetings in their diary (main live Teams event and the workshop normal teams meeting).

Example of Calendar for meetings

Workshop facilitators and all the Directors who were presenting or hosting were made presenters of Teams live event. There were two producers.

On the Day

We opened the session with a quiz – we wanted to have something informal whilst people were finding their virtual seats. Colleagues messaged the answers to Mark, (Director of Digital & IT), and he read some of them out, so we had some interaction. He then introduced the session, explained how things were going to run and work, with some ‘ground rules’. Embrace the Digital – Be in the virtual room!

We then wanted to ensure that we were able to get a sense check of how people were feeling at the time, especially important as we were not able to see everyone. We used www.slido.com for some interaction and got colleagues to answer the question – How are you feeling at the moment?

The results of this gave the Chief Executive an understanding of the thinking in the virtual room to frame some of the discussions.

Niall (Chief Executive) welcomed and thanked everyone for all the amazing work and for taking the time to attend, Kelly (Director of Public Health), Clive (Executive Director of Finance and Resources) and Mandy (Assistant Chief Executive) gave updates on our response to the pandemic. Mandy then introduced the workshop session.

The workshops asked colleagues to focus on the future, from response to recovery and thinking about what we want to retain, restore and reinvent for the communities of Hounslow. During the workshop they were all asked to complete a template that everyone was able to collaborate on – attached at the end of this post.

Image

The main session, continued to run empty (with just the two producers and a couple of other presenters), while they joined the workshop Teams meetings. Workshop facilitators led the discussions and captured info into the template.

Thirty mins later everyone re-joined the main Teams live event where Steve, Director of HR and OD led the feedback from the workshop facilitators and discussion. We prepared the order that they would feedback in beforehand so that everyone was clear what was going to happen when.

The main producer used the slide deck to produce the event, cutting between slides and presenters etc as appropriate – it was important we had some structure to the event.

It all went really well. Staff were really engaged and we got some great feedback. It was a bold idea to run the session as a virtual session with so much packed into it. But it worked!! Its essential to get colleagues engaged in the discussions, especially at this time and perhaps worked a bit too well, we have another one in a few weeks. We are happy to have any further discussions if anyone is interested as part of our working in the open for our Digital Strategy.

London Borough of Hounslow, Digital & IT

What we’ll do differently next time?

  • We would think about how we invite people to the main event so that we could use the Teams meeting chat function. We used an ICS file that colleagues individually downloaded into their calendar but it would have been good to have the chat functionality with everyone
  • Having a host really worked to provide some continuity through the sessions – we’d formalise this for next time
  • More guidance for the presenters in advance on the fact that there is a delay when slides move and they need to be in order/followed
  • Make it run to time more

What worked

  • Two producers works and provides some resilience
  • The slide deck gave a running order for the producer of the event to know what was happening when

Feedback from Colleagues:

We sent out a questionnaire after the session to ask for feedback from everyone that attended.

What was good:

“Loved the warm up round “

“The format worked well for such a large group and the ICT held up well”

What can be improved for next time.

“A ten minute break half way through “

“More interaction “

“a longer small group session – not everyone in my group had a opportunity to contribute as the time was not long enough”

“The small group session was not long enough and was hindered by comms issues eg not being able to hear other people due to poor connectivity”

What is the most significant thing you learned from the meeting?

“We can’t go back to how it was before. “

“How we are starting to think about recovery and how we might work in the future”

“I appreciated the opportunity to hear about how services were being delivered differently during the small group session”

Other Resources:

We have shared the resources that we used to make the event such a success, below you will find the agenda, the slide deck, instructions and the template we used to during the workshop.

Set up on the day