Samaritans was well-prepared to keep on supporting people in need during the pandemic thanks to its wider digital transformation just months before.
As a regional welfare agency, Samaritans is always on the frontline supporting disadvantaged people during times of crisis. When a pandemic hits, however, the organisation's mettle – and strength of its systems – are severely put to the test.
Luke Russell, Head of Business Technology at Samaritans Foundation, reflects on how different things could have been for the regional welfare agency and its support efforts if the crisis happened earlier.
"I lament that if we had had this crisis a year or even six months ago, it would have been a very different situation for Samaritans," he says.
Some might say it was luck rather than planning that we completed our unified communications project in December 2019, but we had actually been preparing for 18 months.
Luke Russell, Head of Business Technology at Samaritans Foundation
Samaritans' team of 800 staff and 380 volunteers serves more than 30,000 people in need across Northern and Western regions of NSW. Its 'customers' are people who heavily rely on the work of the organisation – particularly in a crisis – including people who are homeless, disabled, escaping domestic violence, suffering mental health problems or in financial hardship.
"I have wondered many times across the last few months how we might be doing all that we can without our new collaboration tools, and our calling system," says Brad Webb, Samaritans CEO. "These technologies really have enabled our workforce to keep delivering what they need to."
Unified and collaborative teams
Samaritans completed a major technology shift to a Telstra unified communications platform in December 2019. The agency now collaborates and communicates using Microsoft Teams and Telstra Calling for Microsoft 365. With all this in place, Luke says the organisation reacted swiftly to the latest crisis with minimal extra planning required.
"People in certain roles have just been able to pick up their Surface Pro and work where they need to and be back online without any setup or protracted processes," says Luke. "In a world prior to Teams and Telstra Calling it would have required a lot of planning, preparation and execution from a lot of stakeholders."
Luke remarks on just how powerful the cloud architecture has been for business continuity when really put to the test:
"We knew the benefits of cloud and what it could do for our organisation, so it was about reducing the burden and the dependency on physical infrastructure and embracing cloud," he says. "But it's not just financial efficiency. It's the reduction of risk. We can now assure the organisation that outages we suffered in the past are much less likely. People can have confidence that when they need Samaritans and they need access to our services; they can get them."
Advocates for change
Luke admits some team members were sceptical of the shift to the cloud or frustrated by the perceived disruption that technology changes can create, though he has recently received several emails from staff showing they're now "true advocates" for the opportunities the changes have made possible.
Brad notes the organisation has always had protocols for crisis management, but like most organisations, nothing prepared it for the "scale and speed" of the coronavirus impact:
We established a COVID Response Team early in the crisis. As we began working remotely, we've continued to meet and keep communicating about challenges, responses and preparations.
Brad Webb, CEO, Samaritans
While ensuring the safety of staff, volunteers and the people they help, the IT team's rapid response ensured new services could be set up to deliver support at a physical distance whenever possible. Some hands-on services unfortunately had to be reduced or stopped during the highest restrictions of the pandemic lockdown but finding alternative means of support was always a priority.
For the technology team, switching on telepractice and telehealth services became a critical priority, made much easier through the cloud-based technology platform Samaritans now has in place.
"We were able to shift some of our face-to-face engagements to the telehealth space really quickly," says Luke. "It was great from a service continuity and sustainability perspective, but more importantly it meant people who were dependent on those services weren't forced to wait."
"Being able to just extend the investments that we made previously meant people were already familiar with the system. They were comfortable and there wasn't a big adoption gap to manage."
Being contactable matters
Luke says the Telstra Calling system has been particularly beneficial. Previously, staff would have to be at their desks to be contactable by anyone who needed them. The effort to set up service changes or divert numbers would have been "horrendous to manage".
"Before, we had so many disparate phone systems plugged into server rooms in our 100-odd sites that we maintain around NSW. They were costly, outdated, and expensive to maintain," says Luke. "Now we have removed those financial burdens and the points of failure. People can now take their phone with them anywhere at any time.
"That's the most important thing: to make sure people who need to connect with you can depend on you, especially in our context."
Samaritans has also conducted social support programs online in the absence of physical visits. Everything from cooking classes and other activities for its disability programs, to helping someone sign a lease virtually over a Microsoft Teams call. Online fundraisers have replaced traditional shopping-centre collection activities, along with many video check-ins with families in need. One Samaritans service even held a virtual disco.
Our staff work for us because they love what they do. They seek to support others. That hasn't changed. In fact, I think the desire has increased.
Brad Webb, CEO, Samaritans
For organisations still hesitant about starting a digital transformation, Luke recommends really questioning the cost of not doing it. He's found that digital transformation unlocks so many benefits for the organisation, including resilience, continuity, sustainability and agility.
"You can get overwhelmed and distracted by the mechanics and the intricacies of what it means to start," he says. "Or you can break this down into small incremental investments. A single cloud platform is a start and will return immediate benefits. The question I think organisations should ask is, what does it mean for us if we don't invest in technology?"
Luke says the biggest proof of success for Samaritans in its digital transformation can be summed up in one word: trust.
"For business, trust means lots of different things, and in technology you would argue it involves things like compliance and governance and cybersecurity," he says. "For me, it's about ensuring the way we engage with communities is done in a safe way. Technology plays a really pivotal part in that trust as we become more digital. We have such a connection with community: providing support really is about relationships and a big part of relationships is trust."