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AGL’s early move to the cloud smooths transition to remote working

One of the things Shaun Code is looking forward to most when the coronavirus crisis abates is pulling on the yellow and black and watching the Richmond Tigers play Australian rules footy.

It’s a dad and daughter thing – and whether they’re at the ground or still on the sofa, there will be great excitement when the first whistle blows.

Until then, Code’s attention is focussed on ensuring that around 4,000 people working at AGL Energy in Australia have secure access to the systems and data that they need to keep doing their job, where and when they need.

Code is General Manager of Enterprise Services Technology at AGL and has helmed a technology transformation at the organisation that has seen it deploy cloud solutions, including software as a service, across the board.

It meant that when COVID-19 struck and AGL needed to start transitioning its workforce to working from home, Code was able to dial up the cloud and accelerate the deployment of Teams for communications and collaboration.

Code ordered extra virtual private network concentrators that run on Azure to ensure that more people would be able to securely access the corporate systems.

It was a relatively straightforward task he says;

If you take out the paperwork that we had to do to agree on costs and what not, we had them set up in minutes. We were in a really good position to mobilise a lot of our workforce to work from home.

At the same time as providing people with the ability to remotely and securely access the applications they needed for work, AGL accelerated the rollout of Teams to support communications and collaboration across the organisation.

Code says one of the biggest challenges was taking AGL’s contact centres remote as this had never been tackled before.

However, after ensuring everyone had access to equipment they could use at home Code and his team used AGL’s VoIP system to allow contact centre workers to operate remotely.

“We did get a bit nervous because of the volumes. There was a pretty big ramp up on our technology use, especially those VPN concentrated solutions running in Azure,” says Code, as around 4,000 people started to work from home in Australia and another 800 contact centre personnel in India and the Philippines also transitioned to working from home.

To manage extra demand Code used an approach he describes as ‘the cloudburst’, setting up extra capacity on Azure in advance, so that by the time the remote workers started to connect via a VPN or through a virtual desktop, there was enough power for all.

AGL’s VPN has been set up to be seamless for users with no compromise on security.

Once installed it will automatically detect when someone is no longer using AGL’s managed network to access systems and the VPN will kick in automatically. AGL’s investment in cyber security and endpoint protection helps ensure that remote access is as safe as possible.

Besides helping its employees to prepare for working from home AGL needed to ensure there was sufficient capacity in its systems to support its customers when they contacted the company.

“AGL’s websites, and key backend components of the AGL app are all hosted on Azure. We have auto-scaling capabilities that allow for extra volumes to hit those websites,” Code explains.

“We’ve encouraged customers to interact via our digital channels a lot more,” he adds, in order to avoid overwhelming the contact centres. Because those digital channels are hosted on Azure AGL has been able to scale elastically.

It’s not just the about elasticity, but our ability to quickly change and deploy updates and solutions in the cloud over the last few years. Embracing that kind of dev ops model has enabled us to quickly put out things like messages and updates, and change what appears on the app to give customers the information that they need rapidly, which has been especially important given the hardship some customers are facing because of the pandemic. When they need guidance it’s available to them on these digital channels.

Teams fast tracked

A long–term Skype user, AGL had started to transition to Teams in what Code describes as an evolution. The pandemic instead required a quick-fire revolution which has seen people across the business adopt Teams to connect, communicate and collaborate.

Code says that;

“Around March 20th, when we suddenly had to pull the pin on working from home and social distancing and isolation, you see the graph just skyrocket on Teams usage.

Every day, there’s comms from our executive general managers and people are using Teams as the engine for creating social interaction. We’ve got social hangouts set up and Teams channels with information around how you can better work in a remote environment, and how leaders can better lead.”

AGL is also exploring how its IT service desk can use Teams to engage with people – in chat, sharing a screen, or making a video call to explain and resolve a problem. Code says he’s also interested in how Azure bots might be integrated with the service desk so that some of the more routine inquiries can be handled automatically, freeing up resources for more complex tasks.

Chatbots could also hold promise to help streamline other employee services Code says. “It might be HR services where people have more general questions around, ‘what day of the month do I get paid?’ Some of those things we see as opportunities to leverage a chatbot.”

AGL has also experimented with Azure cognitive services to create a chatbot able to address some of the simpler regulatory questions that its legal department often has to field. Code explains; “They’re very simple questions that can just be answered by pointing someone to the section in the policy that deals with that.”

The combination of rich cloud environments and communications such as Teams are driving a range of cultural and social changes, he says. “Even though we’re more isolated, we’re actually in some ways much more inclusive.” AGL has used Teams to host live events, and leverages Microsoft Stream for video which has been embraced by AGL’s CEO and executive general managers in regular updates to personnel.

Code says this has an important cultural flow on; “Those sorts of practices, they allow it to reach everyone,” an outcome that he expects will persist long after the pandemic abates.

Teams also means that people across the business are getting to understand more about their colleagues’ lives outside of the office and fostering a richer corporate culture. Code for example posted a picture on Teams when he pitched a tent to camp with the family in the backyard that suddenly prompted a range of conversations and connections.

Code adds; “You always have to look at the opportunities to learn and for the silver linings in scenarios.” For him the accelerated adoption of Teams has been a plus, and having people work from home has also allowed AGL to refit and upgrade meeting rooms “so that when people do return to the office, they will find Teams running in those rooms as well.”