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When You Can’t Predict the Future How Can You Be Ready for It?

July 2020 by Paul Monteiro, EVP Platform Operations and Engineering chez GTT Communications

The coronavirus pandemic has placed heavy demands on the networks that connect people and organizations around the world, and on the technical experts who staff network operations.

Paul Monteiro, EVP for Platform Operations and Engineering, leads GTT’s business continuity planning at the operational level. The plan aims to protect the health and safety of GTT’s staff while ensuring our clients continue to experience the network performance, reliability and security they need.

Few would have predicted the arrival of a global pandemic in 2020. How did GTT prepare for it from a business continuity standpoint?

Our network serves thousands of businesses globally. To keep it running smoothly 24/7, we operate five network operation centers (NOCs), client service locations and subsea landing stations throughout the world.

Between us, our network management team has a remarkable level of experience in responding to natural disasters, managing everything from earthquakes and hurricanes to volcanic ash clouds. That said, the coronavirus pandemic has been on an entirely different scale due to its worldwide impact.

I’ve worked with business continuity for 20 years, and there’s always been this pandemic question, a potential risk hovering out there. As a professional, you think, maybe it won’t ever happen. But when we saw Italy close down in March, that’s when we prepared to implement our global business continuity plan for a pandemic in full.

We have an established practice of stress-testing our business continuity plan quarterly. We run war games where we simulate our response to any kind of crisis event. We look to ensure that the right resource is in place from a systems, process and people standpoint to enable us to adapt to the scenario we’re dealing with.

When we stress-test, the first thing we do is to come up with a scenario idea, man-made or natural. Then everyone from the first management level up to myself, about 50 people, get on a call. We then run the scenario as true to reality as we possibly can. For instance, if it involves relocating to a disaster recovery site, we will have employees get up from their desks and travel to the designated location. We will then time how long it takes to set them up, get them onto the network and working, making calls, etc. Once we’re comfortable services have been “restored,” we close the call. Then there’s an audit report afterward, detailing what went well and what needs to be shored up, fixed or added to our process documents to ensure they are done differently, better or faster in future.

How quickly was the network operations staff able to respond to the pandemic?

We made the decision to act in line with some of the earliest government-imposed lockdown orders. This meant that we immediately began to pivot hundreds of our technical staff to start working from home. We executed the business continuity plan in several phases. The key functional areas involved included our service desk, network monitoring and service delivery provisioning teams. We progressed from a quarter to half to nearly all of the technical staff working from home in the space of a week.

The gradual way we did that rollout helped us make decisions in an agile way. Working incrementally and hand in hand with our internal IT team, we could understand what the issues were and what they could be attributed to. For example, we quickly learned that the quality of home internet in most countries was very good. However, a handful of people didn’t have sufficient broadband quality to work from home, so we were able to order expedited upgrades with local providers to ensure they had adequate bandwidth, and for disaster recovery scenarios we purchased a small stock of 4G SIM cards. We also worked out ways to ensure we had readily accessible replacement stock. For things such as laptops we made sure to have spares in locations around the cities in which we operate that would be accessible even during lockdown. Foresight in this area was particularly apt in all locations where office blocks were locked down by local authorities and in cities such as Pune, India, where laptops became incredibly scarce as businesses scrambled to provide a work-from-home environment for their workers.

Does operating the network with a dispersed technical staff pose any challenges?

My biggest concern when we were making the changes was how their new environment would impact our colleagues and, in particular, those doing night shifts. A big part of having a good working environment when you’re doing night shifts (speaking from my own experience) is the routine and camaraderie of having your colleagues around you in an office.

Communication was absolutely key for us in overcoming this. With everyone working from home, especially in the beginning, as new routines are still being formed, I think you have to facilitate communication more actively.

We did that by setting up twice-daily meetings, at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. CET, that covered us across shifts for U.S. and European times. Everyone would join the calls, from the top-level down, so there was a good shift handover and a forum to communicate immediate early issues in this new environment. Representatives from each NOC would take the virtual floor and give an update covering all areas, from the status of our clients as lockdown was enforced across the globe, to network stability, and finally any notable issues experienced by staff using home connectivity. I would conclude the session with a general account of the status for pandemic restrictions, what was lifting or what we expected to be coming in. This practice gave everyone a forced communication corridor. Over time, we’ve moved from having a daily meeting, and now it’s currently three times a week.

What have been your main areas of focus managing through this pandemic crisis? Executing a business continuity plan in a pandemic situation is incredibly challenging and different from other business continuity scenarios. It has required us to adapt with immense agility. I’ve been hugely impressed with the foresight, collaborative spirit and resolve of our technical staff. I believe the need for heightened agility will continue in the weeks and months to come.

In such a scenario, it’s important to keep adjusting your tactics and to keep looking around for input from other business functions, as well as externally. It’s also important to look ahead to anticipate future operational requirements. This can be challenging to allocate time for with so many immediate priorities. My advice to other businesses going through a similar challenge would be to try things like establishing a plan for handling any work backlog that’s building up while you’re dealing with the more urgent requirements. There’s reassurance in having a plan in place to handle what you can’t do right now and that you can communicate clearly to others as needed.

My key priority is the safety of our employees and, through that, ensuring continuity of service for our clients. The potential for vulnerability is why careful planning and stress-testing to prepare for a crisis scenario is critically important. We take care to document our processes to ensure effective execution when a crisis emerges.

I am working very closely with our HR and client experience teams to keep our colleagues safe at work and our services running. Our planning philosophy is to take a cautious approach that considers a range of potential scenarios to ensure our ability to respond with agility to the next phases of the pandemic, tailoring our practices to each geographic region as required.

How has client experience been impacted by the actions taken during this pandemic from a network operations standpoint?

We are pleased that the customer satisfaction metrics measuring our NOC support have shown consistent improvement since the start of the pandemic, despite the work-from-home status of our NOC personnel. Providers across the globe have been putting huge emphasis on network stability around the world during the peak of the pandemic; for instance, taking steps such as only allowing essential planned network maintenance. This has helped ensure the integrity of networks globally throughout this period, where being connected has been more important than ever.

What has influenced your leadership approach?

I was born 100 kilometers off White Island, New Zealand. I grew up around a lot of volcanic activity, and respect for the unexpected was a big part of my upbringing. We also enjoyed a strong local community where everyone looked out for one another. I’ve always tried to take that perspective with me in my career.

I value the personal connections I have in my organization. The last update I gave to my team on our call was about how much more cooking I’m doing at home now, together with my kids. The response has been really positive. Putting aside the titles and seniority, we’re all going through the same things. I check in with my team more than I ever did before, and we don’t just talk about work issues, but also just about their last activities as a family or individually, or what they watched and liked on Netflix. I’ve even had advice on coping with lockdown from some of my direct reports, which has been hugely helpful to me. I’ve learned more about the people in my organization in the last three months than I have in the last 10 years. I’ve also encouraged everyone to keep going with their pastimes outside work. For me, I am head coach for the Czech Republic Junior Touch rugby organization. I haven’t been able to do that during lockdown, so I’ve shifted to doing video analysis for teams, assigning individual fitness programs, sending them feedback and keeping the contact going.

What would you say are the most critical success factors to ensuring an effective business continuity plan?

The keys to success are advanced planning, regular stress tests and frequent communications. But a further success factor that can’t be underestimated is the requirement for a dedicated team of talented technical personnel. I feel fortunate at GTT to have staff and colleagues who value, and strive to deliver, outstanding support every day, which ultimately enables us to effectively navigate this crisis and keep our clients happy.

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