Rakeesh Gopakumar, Delivery Lead, talks through what the past few weeks have looked like for the Kainos team within the Europe and Trade Delivery Portfolio in Defra; the response, challenges, collaboration, learnings and the future.
Defra is one of the most impacted government departments by the UK leaving the EU, this is managed within Defra as the Europe and Trade Delivery Portfolio. We have been working with Defra on several things; one is providing the central operations support for the Trade Portfolio which means our team is providing the live operations capability. The second aspect that we provide is the programme delivery and support for the imports, chemicals and a reporting capability. That’s fundamental to our ability to stand as a self-sufficient country once we leave the EU. So, in terms of the projects and programmes that we support, we own and drive several priority deliverables for the Europe and Trade Delivery Portfolio, and we are the biggest partner for that programme.
In early March, we anticipated that we would quickly have challenges, particularly because some of our colleagues must travel and come through multiple airports. That was a trigger point for us to start to do a couple of things in advance of the government issuing official guidelines. Our approach looked at:
We proactively looked at what the potential impact would be if we started losing people due to sickness. We came up with multiple models across the projects to look at, so if we were to lose 20% or 50% of staff to sickness what would it mean to the outcomes over the next three to four months and how would we manage the deficit? Each project would have a different set of impacts because some of the projects were going live within the next month whereas others would not go live until the end of the year. We proactively worked with Defra to show what we saw as the impact and our recommendations. We reviewed particularly impacted areas such as remotely running user research sessions that take place with external clients and how can we ensure they still run effectively. It provoked some thought to look at what collaboration tools we could implement for our end users and how we can embed some other fundamentals in the ways of working in the new environment. We collaboratively collated a guideline document for our teams as an extended period of working would mean a different adjustment to the home environment. For some people the new working environment might cause concerns, issues or restrictions e.g. equipment, childcare etc, so how can we help them in establishing a continued pattern that works for them. This fed into the issued guidance document which was also shared with our colleagues within Defra to see if they could benefit from it.
We came up with a set of artefacts that we shared with the teams to ensure that they knew what they had to do and that they had everything that they needed in terms of additional equipment. We also arranged for some of the kit to be available from Kainos’ office locations if people needed additional headsets or monitors. The most important thing for us was preparing in advance for when the guidelines got stricter, and before we knew it, we were there.
Personally speaking, I depend on my team of Delivery Managers to help me understand what happens on a day to day basis. I feed into calls with Deputy Directors and Programme Directors, so I need to get a real sense of what is happening. The biggest challenge has been that when we are in an office environment, you can have a 2-minute conversation and ask somebody a quick question, and this is no longer available to us. We are reliant on the technology and collaboration tools working for us and people communicating messages at the right level, at the right time. One of the things we have been trying to do is standardise some of our Microsoft Teams’ channels. Every project area would have its own Microsoft Teams channel and there would be multiple threads within these channels where information is held. What we are trying to do is to rationalise the number of channels and make sure that the right information is present in the right channel at the right time because we are losing the ability to talk to people in real time because of the remote working. For the people working on the ground the challenge has been that there are a lot more meetings coming into their diaries because people want to have more interaction and that has taken some time away from their day job. Overall, we’re finding our feet and trying to find the right balance of how much communication we have to do and how much time we need to get the job done.
Within my role, I have Delivery Managers for each of the projects and my priority was providing them with the right support they needed to look after their teams and having consistency across the multiple work streams. When people are working on projects in different locations, they tend to form their own set of behaviours and patterns. With teams working remotely, we wanted to consider standardising certain aspects of delivery and then ensuring they have the right kit and mindset in place. We had a daily stand-up on COVID-19 just making sure that there was a mechanism through which people could report back if there were any concerns or if people were taking time out because of either showing symptoms or self-isolating, it also helped us understand how well we were embedding our new working principles. We had regular touch points into Defra to feed in what we were doing and also help with some of their planning. We started to mobilise very early so were able to share our experience and support them in rolling out additional measures like opening up our Zoom meeting for some of their sessions because they were constrained with the technology that they had.
We have found that people are now more active in their communication and if there are issues to be raised, we now all communicate quickly, which is exactly what we need. The biggest change I have seen is the collaboration with other partners as we are now standardising all communication channels. We are consolidating and are moving towards using a single toolkit which is effective for every organisation involved because previously the different laptops and the way they are set up prevented people from using certain technologies. There has also been a big shift in encouraging every part of the organisation to adopt this single toolkit. The feedback so far across all the project work streams has been really positive, particularly as we have not seen any negative direct impact from the new ways of working.
For me, working a five-day week from home means I’ve had to find new ways to be disciplined and frame my mindset to draw a line between my work time and personal time. The second thing is around effective communication with my team – and I’ve heard some really creative ideas on how to stay connected, including online games and having a ‘team night in’. As a team, we want to keep that connection and make sure that it is still a fun environment. It’s not just work and then switch off.
We are working with the mindset that things are going to stay this way for a while longer and therefore anything we do has to be subject to standing up in the long term. In line with our initial approach the priority focuses back to: