Author: Matthew Hedges, TechLabs London
Innovation is not a mathematical formula, in fact Megan Smith, Barack Obama’s former US CTO (Chief Technology Officer), once said that “Innovation comes out of great human ingenuity and very personal passions”. In the last few weeks we have been reminded of one of our country’s greatest personal passions, our local community. Since the turn of the century, many said local community spirit had drifted away, replaced by the rise of the internet with its online, faceless communities that have somehow, despite their intent, granted people the opportunity for aggressive anonymity, rather than community cohesion.
It is somehow fitting then, that during the strange times we now find ourselves facing, socially distanced from that local community, we have seen so many of our clients and the wider Microsoft community, look to that same technology to develop and enhance the local community spirit we feared had been lost.
Back in early March, it took a team of Microsoft developers just 48 hours to create the Microsoft Crisis Communications app. A completely free app, bringing together elements of Power Apps, Power Automate, Microsoft Teams and Sharepoint, to allow businesses and their employees to rapidly and effectively communicate as the emerging crisis developed. Their standard app allows employees to report whether they are working from home or having to attend the office to monitor staff safety, as well as making use of notifications and RSS feeds from the World Health Organisation or local government to stay up to date.
Together with one of our housing clients, we could see how this could be enhanced, so in similarly quick fashion, we worked together to add to the standard Microsoft app in a matter of days. The aim was simple: to protect employees from being furloughed or laid off due to the current crisis.
As a team, what we developed was the ability for both employees and the employer to capture availability as well as open opportunities or projects that staff could be matched to. Projects included data cleansing or documents migration, but in future could be extended to include community projects or volunteering initiatives for example.
Each staff member can set their available hours per day, per week or for the foreseeable future in a few simple clicks. They can also indicate their skillset and pick from up to 3 preferred projects that match their defined skills. Employer administrators can search for available resources to add to their projects based on their availability, their skillset and/or their preferences too.
Our client had a personal passion not to furlough staff or let anyone go, if it could be avoided. Equally we loved the community spirit shown by Microsoft to provide a free app during this crisis, so it was a no brainer for us to do the same. As a result of this collaboration, not only will the organisation now be able to re-deploy its staff to relevant projects simply, but those existing projects that were moving slowly due to lack of resources can now progress much faster by embracing the skills already within the business.
Many of our clients have impressed us with their desire to not just remain ‘open as normal’ but to go above and beyond, in the interest of their community.
Another such example was a social housing provider in Bucks who wanted to build a new business process within their Dynamics solution, focused around ‘Wellbeing’. This new process would require any member of their staff, on any device, to be able to quickly and easily capture the details of customers that were presenting signs of coronavirus, link to their core systems to show an alert icon and inform other processes where things might need to be done differently.
They also wanted staff to be taken through some questions to identify if the household had any new emerging needs such as loneliness, a death in the household or simply that they could no longer get to the pharmacy, buy food or pay their rent. From here, support staff would be able to define remedial tasks related to these issues, filtering them out to departments and staff with the right skills, to provide a proactive support package to each of these households.
The solution? Together we worked through a rapid 1-week project, from idea through to testing, feedback and onto being live. Now that it’s in place, the business can better understand the needs of their community and meet those needs with their continued positivity and selfless efforts.
One other client decided that they wanted to open up a hardship fund for their customers, to allocate money to residents who were struggling to pay late bills, buy food supplies, or in the event that they lost their jobs or source of income, as a result of the current crisis. Within 48 hours, we had worked together to get a Power App created, allowing them to allocate, approve, monitor and report on their fund, to get money into the hands of those most in need, in a controlled way.
People sometimes ask us why we work within the vertical market of housing and not in a more profit driven sector. Well, because it is in times like these, having clients like these, that we take total inspiration, it’s one of our greatest motivators. It makes us want to bring more innovation to the market, to give back to the people out there that we all turn to in a crisis, to make their lives that little bit easier.
Whether any of that is innovation, ingenuity or something else, you can decide. But one thing is for sure, during these difficult times, our clients and the Microsoft community continue to inspire us and remind us that there is always a creative way to overcome even the most challenging of situations.