Sometimes we are not always aware of the staff working behind the scenes to support the research. They are the people working at weekends to check software systems, putting in place the logistics for conferences hours before an event is due to start, processing paperwork for recruitment, and many more crucial tasks.
At the BSU we have a brilliant IT team, without which, our research would not be able to happen. They are; Ela Parmar, Mark Andrews, Simon Flood and Josh Newton.
In our first blog on the theme of ‘supporting the research’, find out how our IT team prepared the Unit for the implications the coronavirus would have on working life, and how their expertise have ensured our critical research on COVID-19 can take place.
At the end of 2019, the BSU carried out a crisis management desktop exercise. At the time, no one could have foreseen that a pandemic would mean that this exercise was going to be the perfect rehearsal for a real life situation only a few months later. In November 2019, the IT team took note of lessons learned from the desktop exercise and began preparing for a worst case scenario, not knowing what was to come. The priorities were to ensure that every member of the Unit could remotely access the BSU network, and that they each had use of a laptop.
In February, the number of cases of coronavirus in the UK were rapidly increasing and it became apparent that crisis management plans might have to be put into practise rapidly. By the beginning of March, the Unit Manager, Caroline Winsor, and IT Manager, Ela Parmar, had worked to ensure that every member of the BSU could access the network remotely and that they each had a Unit laptop. All of this brilliant forward planning and preparation meant that on the 16th March, when the entire Unit first began working from home, there was a seamless transition and our researchers could continue their work.
Alongside preparation to ensure laptops were provided and home network access was set-up, the team also had discussions that focused on; creating a remote helpdesk system enabling the team and staff to keep track of enquiries, moving all paperwork and forms online with a workflow approval process where needed, and ensuring all members of the Unit could access Slack allowing for easy internal conversations.
Preparation and project planning also extended to creating and maintaining an asset record of all the laptops and other equipment that was being taken home for members of the Unit to set-up a suitable and comfortable work space at home. The team also found ways of ensuring that new equipment could be delivered directly to people’s houses.
Biostatistics from home
Thinking about communication from home was an important area that a lot of consideration and work went into early on, led by Mark Andrews. It was realised that the ability to ‘see’ and chat with colleagues was so crucial for staff morale and wellbeing. Mark and members of the team experimented with several video conferencing tools, and recommended Microsoft Teams for BSU use. In the first week of working from home, they organised a virtual staff meeting using Teams. At the first meeting, over 60 members of the Unit attended, and since then there has been a virtual staff meeting (‘BSU Together’) every week.
Inducting new starters during home working became a new challenge which Josh Newton found solutions for. He created an induction process that was completely digital, ensuring that every new member of staff/student/visiting worker was able to remotely access the network on their first day, that they all received a laptop and necessary equipment, and that the IT pages on the intranet were kept up to date with information on how to use our systems.
As the weeks and months went on and working from home continued to be the ‘norm’ for members of our Unit, new challenges arose and maintaining secure systems was a priority. In June, the team arranged a secondary VPN service that is not dependent on the BSU network storage or virtual server infrastructure. This has proved to be invaluable for long term home working, and ensures there is a robust and cost effective backup, should the primary VPN become inaccessible. In September, they also completed the move of some server hardware from the BSU server room to an offsite location. This gives more resilience if a secondary major incident was to happen and the server room was no longer available.
Enabling COVID research
The BSU has been carrying out critical research on COVID-19 since the pandemic first began, and there has been a developing portfolio of work being carried out by our researchers to tackle the virus. With this, there has been a large influx of data which has needed a safe and reliable home. In March, Simon Flood led the major task of setting up a brand new server in only a few days, specifically for the secure storage and analysis of COVID-19 data. As the pandemic has continued, the amount of data has increased and therefore so has both the disk storage and IT requirements which have more than doubled. Simon and the team have ensured that the infrastructure they set-up can continue to support the expanding data and requirements, and every member of the BSU COVID-19 working group receives priority service.
Still going strong
Over a year since the crisis management desktop exercise and nine months on from the first national lockdown, the majority of the Unit continue to work from home full time and the BSU’s research to help understand the coronavirus is more crucial than ever. The Unit has faced many challenges over the past year and we have had to quickly adjust to new ways of working and interacting. This has all been made significantly easier by the amazing support from our IT team, under immense pressure and constraints. Each member of the team has played a vital role and they have all used their expertise to carry out the vast amount of important work that has been needed. The smooth and efficient transition to working from home, the creation and development of a new server for COVID-19 data, and their continued work to ensure all members of the Unit are supported remotely has been outstanding.
Ela Parmar, IT Manager, said:
“At times we have had challenges, however my team has been brilliant during this difficult period, and the support they have given to staff has been fantastic. Despite working from home, we have been able to undertake many of the IT projects that we had planned, in addition to newer unplanned projects to support the COVID work. I am very proud of my team.”
In the second blog on the theme of ‘supporting the research’, read about our fantastic administrative team.