Technology Division of Information Technology embraces essential role during pandemic | VTx

TLOS staff held numerous workshops over the past 18 months, and faculty participation skyrocketed. The staff also held one-on-one consultations and department consultations.

Just as important, though, the TLOS team created a community. Every area of Virginia Tech experienced issues exclusive to that area during the pandemic, so TLOS recruited many others from across the campus community, including academic support, faculty, graduate students, and distributed IT professionals to help with planning, attend workshops, and participate in consultations. The forming of what Pike called the “continuity partners group” facilitated a lot of important and productive conversations, with TLOS serving as the umbrella.

“I’m super proud of how my team came together in response to these challenges,” Pike said. “I would be remiss in trying claim credit for all the important work that happened as a part of these conversations that we just happened to convene. We utilized our networks in multiple ways to bring people together and allowed the flexibility for them to go in the directions that were most appropriate to them. Once the work was done, we gathered the information to tell the story.

“I think it’s easy to feel alone when you’re working in a crisis, and I think that hearing what you’re doing is similar to what they’re doing, then that also fostered a sense of community and a confidence that we’re doing everything we can do.”

To help stop the spread of the coronavirus, Virginia Tech officials decided to allow employees to work from home during the pandemic. Most employees are given laptops once they begin working at the university, and this gives them the capability to be productive and accessible when unavailable to be in the office.

For the most part, things went smoothly, but a few issues came to the forefront. Many of Virginia Tech’s employees work in outlying areas — places like Giles, Floyd, Craig, and Pulaski counties — and many of those areas lack strong broadband capabilities. Without consistent access to the internet, many employees expressed frustration at being able to provide their best efforts to Virginia Tech.

Many of those employees relied on IT staff for guidance in managing their broadband issues, and those staff members were able to provide best practices. But broadband access in rural areas needs to be addressed on a much bigger scale.

“Yes, we did deal with that,” Midkiff said. “In our region, much of Blacksburg, we have pretty good broadband. Is it too expensive or not? You can argue that, but you can get decent broadband in Blacksburg.

“But we have employees who don’t get good cell service where they live, much less internet connectivity. We’ve had a lot of folks that have been really challenged there, so how do we help? We’ve worked with some people. How do you remain productive, but working over a slower connection? Longer term, it’s pointed out to the region how important it is to improve broadband for economic viability.”

Another issue revolved around the significant increase in email usage. Collaborative Computing Solutions, another division of IT unit, had started a refactor of how email works at the university before the pandemic hit, as employees worked from home and used email more to communicate. Other universities, businesses, organizations, etc., were doing the same thing, thus putting pressure on email systems.

“We were getting about 1.5-2 million emails per day. That’s people emailing to addresses,” said Marc DeBonis, director of Collaborative Computing Solutions. “Our people were sending out 70,000-80,000 outbound emails per day.

“We had taken on service ownership of email at the university. We said, ‘There has to be a better way to do this,’ and we were in the middle of upgrading the infrastructure when the pandemic hit. Ultimately, we were successful, and we were successful in a way that minimized impact to the users.”

DeBonis and his staff also saw increased usage in other collaborative tools offered by the university. Department heads, supervisors, and others started holding meetings through Zoom, Google hangouts, and Microsoft Teams, and they started communicating through messaging platforms like Slack.

“Right around the March timeframe, the usage went from 5,000 direct messages per day to upwards of 15,000,” DeBonis said. “It was a three-to-four times bump. People were still communicating through email, but they were no longer going to each other’s cubicles to talk stuff out. They were using these tools, and it was a huge surge.

“They were kind of niche tools. Only people who knew about them were using them pre-March 2020. Suddenly, everybody told everybody, ‘Our team is using this. Go there,’ or, ‘Our team is using this. Go here.’ We were trying to put forward our best practices along with everybody else … we increased our training quite a bit, so people could get used to these tools.”