Dealing with the unexpected, TOGETHER, a Life Insurance CTO’s perspective

April 8, 2020

My name is Charlie Allen, Vice President, Chief Technology Officer at Southern Farm Bureau Life Insurance Company located in Jackson, Mississippi.

Herman Eggink reached to me last week to ask me to share my experiences with taking our business to home as part of the sharing of experiences through https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/dealing-unexpected-together-herman-eggink.

Historically, we have not been set up for many employees to work remotely. We like to have our staff onsite. That is not to say, we did not have employees connecting remotely and working, but it has been employees that typically had jobs that required them to travel or Information Systems employees that needed to work after hours and weekends without coming into the office. The COVID-19 virus changed that in the last 3 weeks. What follows is our journey.

The week of March 9, myself and a couple of my Management staff began to think about the possibility of our employees being required by State Government mandate to work from home or the least thing happen would be local schools closing and causing issues for our employees with child care. We felt like this would be the first group of employees we needed to set up to work remotely.  By this time, the COVID-19 virus had begun to appear in Mississippi in small numbers, but we could see via the news what was happening overseas, Washington State, New York City and other States realizing it was just a matter of time before the numbers began growing in our State. That is also the week President Trump issued the order blocking travel from Europe. We had 2 Asysco staff onsite and once this event happened they left for home, heading back to Europe. Once this happened, my staff really began taking stock of our situation and we began putting a plan together to get staff located offsite and working.

First thing we took a look at was our bandwidth to the internet. We did some testing on remote connections and determined that we could possibly handle up to 300 remote connections, but the math indicated we could be pushing the maximum. I didn’t feel good about it and I knew we would need more than 300 remote connections if we had to empty the building. Social Distancing was beginning to be the goal. Bottom line, we needed more bandwidth and we put in an order with our ISP to double our bandwidth which they were able to accomplish on March, 19.

We did not have a good inventory of the capabilities of our employees working remotely such as who actually had internet to their homes. I sent out a survey to employees asking them to provide answers to questions such as do you have internet at home, do you have a computer at home, what is the operating system, etc. Surprisingly, there was a very small number of employees that do not have internet to their homes. Obviously, they will not be able to work remotely.

Just a few months ago we had updated our VPN solution to F5 and that proved fortuitous as our old solution would not have handled the load that we had to put on it. We would use the VPN to connect most of our employees to their work computer in the office. We have a small number of VDI users and they would continue to connect to their VDI system remotely.

It is still the week of March 9, 2020 and we need to have the equipment to provide our employees. We have been in the process of rolling out new PCs and upgrading to Windows 10, so we had been pulling old equipment and preparing it for Asset Recovery. These PCs were 4 years old or older and were sitting in our offsite warehouse. The decision was made to bring that gear back on site and begin the process of imaging with Windows 10. This would be the equipment we would provide to our employees to take home for working remotely.

We had to connect these PCs that we would be giving our employees to their home routers and it would not be done wirelessly. A quick inventory of available Ethernet cables indicated we needed to order cables, which we did. We ordered 300 25-foot cables and 25-50 foot cables.

We then had to contend with our VOIP phone system. It can be set up to place an office phone in your home and the office number ring. You have to power the phones as they are powered in the office with POE. That would not be a feature available on a home network. We needed to get power bricks ordered to power the phones at home. We had a scare regarding that as we at first had a difficult time locating the power bricks, but it was accomplished. Some of our employees were able to forward their office phones to their personal landlines or cell phones; that helped limit the number of power bricks we needed to order. The Call Centers could not do that, as we had to be able to move their office phones offsite due to how the calls are distributed in the call center.

The weekend of March 14 was notable in that school districts in the Jackson area began closing schools. Our first scenario was coming to fruition.

Following a meeting with Senior Management on Monday morning, March 16, the decisions were made to begin moving employees out of the office to work remotely. The work I.S. had done the previous week, allowed us to get started almost immediately. The first order of business was to identify those employees that were affected by the school closures, had been to Covid19 hotspots the week before(the previous week was Mississippi’s Spring Break Week) and were requested to self-quarantine, or had compromised immune systems. This group would be our Phase 1 employees to be set up to work remotely.

Our Infrastructure staff began on Tuesday morning, March 17, rolling out PCs, monitors and instructions on how to set up a PC at home. Over the next week, until March 26 it was nonstop for the infrastructure team as we went through Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3 and Phase 4 to empty the building of as many employees as possible as the news became more dire and the decision was made to get more employees working remotely. We set up a distribution area on the ground floor in the atrium of our building that employees could come to pick up their equipment when notified by the infrastructure team. This made it easy for employees to locate as most employees don’t know where I.S. lives in the building.

We employ 650 employees and as I stated previously we had never worked very many employees remotely. Before all this happened, we had probably 200 employees that could work remotely, but that model was not our standard practice.  At any given time during the day, you might find 20 employees working remotely before the COVID-19 virus. On Monday morning, March 30, 2020 we had 441 employees working remotely. Approximately 200 employees onsite working, but in a building designed for 650 people, we have plenty of Social Distancing.

I always knew I had an outstanding staff. Time and time again in the past, they have pulled off incredible feats, but this time, they pulled off the impossible. From a business viewpoint this has been the most stressful time I have ever experienced in my I.S. career and I have been doing this for a long time. Although stressful and challenging, it was a bit exciting, but an excitement I don’t want to experience that often. My staff showed their dedication to our company, our employees, our Agents and most importantly our customers in pulling this off. We can continue to serve our Farm Bureau members.  It is a scary time and we are not through it yet, but I believe we will get through it. I truly believe we will be stronger on the other side of these unprecedented times.

Stay Healthy!

Charlie