This article was written prior to lockdown, but hopefully it still provides some helpful tips on how your council can work from home without a huge budget.
Key lessons in ten seconds
With the rate things are changing on a daily basis, it’s hard to say what will be happening when this article is published, however there’s a strong possibility that many councils will be working from home. It’s also likely that you won’t have a huge budget to make it happen.
- You don’t need a huge budget to make it work – remote desktop does the job
- Communicate early and comprehensively – have a go-to place for setup information
- Your IT team’s time will mostly be spent in the configuration stage
As the COVID-19 restrictions began to kick in, Horizons Regional Council carried out a remote work trial focused on essential functions, however designed to scale up to the majority of the organisation.
As a regional council, Horizons had some experience with providing workers with remote access, covering a vast landscape with workers operating from Eketahuna to Taumaranui. Having remote workers able to respond to an emergency event had also been a feature of existing Business Continuity Planning for some time, however was only for designated staff.
For Horizons’ IT Manager William Gordon, and the rest of his team, this presented a challenge. Within four days they scaled up and successfully operated their trial for around 250 staff. He was kind enough to sit down with us and share what lessons they learnt in the process.
Horizons currently provides most of their staff with thin clients, using remote desktop and Windows Server 2016, while DNS round-robining takes care of the load balancing. While William acknowledges there are more feature-rich and modern approaches available such as virtual machines, this remains a reliable and cost-effective approach for a council with a smaller IT budget.
The first step in working from home was nothing technical, it was actually a comprehensive communication strategy to inform the staff on how to set up their devices to work from home. Regular messaging to staff along with a comprehensive page on the newly launched Sharepoint intranet were the key components for the awareness campaign.
On the day of the test, the IT team had pulled in extra support to answer questions, however it turned out they had very few calls, with most of the questions being answered by the intranet page.
The biggest time requirement was helping users configure their home PCs/remote desktop client software to use the new gateway system. In the end, they placed an already configured .RDP file on the intranet page to streamline configuration even further, and reduce friction for the user.
As most users have a thin client at work, they used their own devices at home to access the remote desktop. Some even used iOS devices, although an issue with the connection broker prevented the official Microsoft Remote Desktop app from being used. This was solved by switching to the app Jump Desktop.
As they’re on Office 365, Horizons were able to make use of Sharepoint Online, Teams, and other cloud-based services. Teams proved useful for communication, along with the more traditional email and good old-fashioned phone calls.
Obviously, everyone’s experience will differ depending on what remote working infrastructure you have established. However, this is a good case study in how you can make it work for your staff on a relatively thin budget, and scale up quickly if needed.