monique thomas
Monique Thomas.

Needless to say, the current crisis is imposing a heavy burden on the IT technical support officers. “We are very busy,” Monique Thomas, the head of the IT department, tells us in a video call made from her home. You see, her department’s officers are also working from home, which means that they have a lot of things to discuss every single day. “It’s obvious that we must make very clear arrangements on a lot of things with everyone,” says Thomas.

So is no one actually at the office to keep an eye on the critical systems? “When a system crashes, someone has to go to campus, but many things can be arranged from our homes.” Only the Media Support Centre’s Service Desk is still manned. This department helps lecturers record online lectures, a whopping 2,500 of which have been recorded in the last few weeks.

IT and coronavirus in numbers

Internet traffic from campus: down 75%
Internet traffic to campus: up 10%
Questions submitted to Service Desk: up 50%

Video lectures recorded: 2,500
Students have spent 40,000 hours watching online lectures (150,000 views)
MyApps users per day: 750
Zoom users per day: 160
Conversations held on Teams in two weeks: 2,300

Flooded with questions

When it became evident that a huge number of lecturers were soon going to have to start working from home, the department sprang into action at once. “It happened on Friday the thirteenth, I have a clear recollection of that,” Thomas says with a smile. “We immediately raised the number of licences for MyApps [the university’s remote desktop – ed.] from four hundred to one thousand.”

But even now that a thousand licences have been issued, the lecturers are pushing the system’s limits. The IT technical support officers regularly receive notifications that the system is at full capacity. “Things suddenly happened very quickly. It wasn’t CIO or CTO that got EUR to go online, but rather COVID-19,” Thomas says with a wink. Because there were so many new users, the Service Desk was flooded with questions. The number of e-mails and phone calls increased by 50 per cent.

'Enorm beroep op onze mensen'

The department also immediately activated the Microsoft Teams software to allow employees to have safe video calls with each other. “Originally, we weren’t going to introduce that program until this summer, so that put a huge strain on our people. Not only did we have to install the software; we also had to notify people and make sure they had instructions for use. We also moved e-mail accounts to the cloud so that people can schedule Teams meetings from Outlook.”

Many lecturers have told us that they are using the Zoom video call app to run their lectures. Do you want the lecturers to stop using Zoom now that the university is offering Teams?

“Yes, we do want them to do that at some point. We wish to make a complete switch to Microsoft Office 365. There are some privacy concerns with Zoom [Zoom was found to share data with Facebook without permission – ed.]. The university has concluded an agreement with Microsoft that guarantees that conversations and data will be private. Moreover, Teams has more features than video calls alone. Not all of those features are available just yet, but soon employees will be able to share files and work in documents together very easily.”

The media have reported quite a few stories on cyber-attacks during the coronavirus crisis. Perhaps some hackers have a little too much time on their hands now due to the crisis. Are you seeing more attacks?

“There will always be people who want to abuse the situation, so yes, we are prepared for that. People working from home may be a little careless with sensitive data, because they are using their own equipment and sometimes their own software. That’s one of the reasons why we want to create some consistency across the board, to the maximum extent possible, to get everyone to use the same safe software, where possible.”

How is the IT staff doing? Have they had much overtime?

“Yes, but they’ve had that since before the crisis. We always have a lot of work to do. We’ve divided our work into four categories: teaching, research, management and general services. As a result, we now have a much clearer idea of what each person’s responsibilities are, and our officers are in closer touch with their own target groups. That works very well, because it gives them a greater sense of responsibility. Also, managers have to do less coaching, because the employees themselves know exactly what’s expected of them. IT officers tend to have a huge sense of responsibility anyway. They don’t need micro-management.

“We also think it’s important to organise fun things every once in a while. For that reason, all our staff have been sent a bit of a booze box: two cans of beer, some nuts and vegetable chips. And tonight [last Thursday – ed.] we will all play a pub quiz together. Relaxation is very important, particularly when we’re working so hard and are no longer having impromptu chats with our colleagues at the coffee machine. We hope to organise something special every fortnight: maybe a mini-conference, or a book review, but also fun stuff such as an online tennis or football competition. We really need that sort of thing.”

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