Enterprise

How Liberty Mutual shifted 44,000 workers from office to home

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In a typical month, an IT department might deal with a small percentage of employees working remotely, but tracking a few thousand employees is one thing — moving an entire company offsite requires next-level planning.

To learn more about how large organizations are adapting to the rapid shift to working from home, we spoke to Liberty Mutual CIO James McGlennon, who helped orchestrate his company’s move about the challenges he faced as he shifted more than 44,000 employees in a variety of jobs, locations, cultures and living situations from office to home in short order.

Laying the groundwork

Insurance company Liberty Mutual is headquartered in the heart of Boston, but the company has offices in 29 countries. While some staffers in parts of Asia and Europe were sent home earlier in the year, by mid-March the company had closed all of its offices in the U.S. and Canada, eventually sending every employee home.

McGlennon said he never imagined such a situation, but the company saw certain networking issues in recent years that gave them an inkling of what it might look like. That included an unexpected incident in which two points on a network ring around one of its main data centers went down in quick succession, first because a backhoe hit a line, and then at another point because someone stole the fiber-optic cable.

That got the CIO and his team thinking about how to respond to worst cases. “We certainly hadn’t contemplated needing to get 44,000 people working from home or working remotely so quickly, but there have been a few things that have happened over the last few years that made me think,” he said.

Looking ahead

For starters, snow storms in the northeastern United States frequently shut down travel for a day or two, so his team had studied how to run offices remotely for short periods of time in a regional scenario. “In a fairly sizable nor’easter, we would be up to maybe 18,000 people working from home, and while that’s not around the world or across the country, we had the foundations in place to be able to build on,” he said.

He added, “I would say that we’ve had some things happen that caused us to think through how we make our environments and our technology platforms more resilient. And so we were already focused on a lot of aspects of building a flexible workforce,” he said.

Here comes trouble

By late February, as the coronavirus transmission rate began to rise, the company started seriously considering closing its offices and moving everyone to work from home. McGlennon said they could have started sooner, but his team had enough warning to prepare for a move offsite en masse.

That first step involved making sure back-end technology pieces were in place to handle a work-from-home situation. That meant ensuring there was enough capacity for the VPN, network connectivity, internet gateways, firewalls and pretty much every other aspect of technology IT managed.

“Within two days, we had a dashboard up and running where we could see exactly the number of folks logging on to each one of our VPN devices. We can monitor the capacity of those devices, if any of them were spiking or if there was anything else going on where we could identify when we need to add in additional capacity.”

Work From Home is dead, long live Work From Anywhere

Equipping a worldwide workforce

The back end was just one part of the problem; McGlennon’s team also had to make sure folks working at home had reliable computers and internet. The equipment depended to some extent on the job at hand and an employee’s location.

They had standardized customer service, a big piece of the puzzle, on thin clients with as simple a setup as they could muster. This included a monitor, keyboard and mouse, two cables, a standard headset and a microphone set. “It came with a virtual desktop installed with all of our applications,” he said.

In Europe, they rolled out 2,000 laptops with a standard work configuration, but there were challenges getting machines to people who didn’t have them. “The challenges we faced were more logistical than technological, meaning it was about managing our supply chain to get the devices we needed,” he said.

“In many cases, we had to work hard with local companies who were able to continue to be mobile even during lockdowns in different countries, so that we could get the laptops through customs and to our offices, then figure out a distribution strategy to get them out to our folks at home.”

McGlennon said the company’s help desk has been operating around the clock and managers established a crisis management team early on to manage any hiccups along the way, whether getting equipment through customs, helping employees get set up at home or helping them manage their time without the regimented structure of an office environment.

What does the future look like?

While nothing is perfect, the company was able to move its entire workforce offsite and give them the tools to work from home. Now, as lockdowns ease, it’s not clear how quickly they’ll go back.

“Certainly, initially, we will be abiding by the guidance from our medical advisors and local, state and federal policies and protocols. So whether those are social distancing, PPE and wearing masks and all those kinds of things,” he said.

Even if a large percentage of employees continue working at home, McGlennon said Liberty Mutual is prepared. “I think we’ve proven and we’re confident in our ability to help people work from home … and we feel good about that.”

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