Today’s post is from Stuart Pearson, Chief Digital Officer at Citizens Advice Manchester, one of a network of 270 local, independently-run branches across the UK. It provides independent, confidential and impartial advice both directly from its own office and through an outreach programme at partner venues such as libraries, SureStart centres and GP practices.
Our cloud-first approach, based around Chromebooks running Google Workspace, meant we were well placed to react to the UK going into lockdown in March 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In a few days, we went from supporting 140 people in one location to supporting 140 people in 140 locations.
Yet we still faced a number of challenges when it came to continuing to serve the people who need our advice and staying connected with colleagues. With help from Ancoris, hardware supplier ASUS and Google Cloud itself, we’ve not only been able to address those immediate needs but also put in place solutions that will continue to deliver benefits once we’re all back in the office.
From face to face to video conferencing
One of our most pressing challenges at the start of lockdown was to continue to deliver advice to people across the city when our advisers could no longer meet them face to face. We could continue to offer advice through our existing telephone and digital channels but a significant proportion of the people we serve are digitally disadvantaged and can’t or don’t want to use those channels. Advisers were also finding that telephone and digital advice sessions weren’t always as effective for those people as face-to-face meetings, because it wasn’t as easy to build rapport with clients when they couldn’t see non-verbal cues.
Just before lockdown, I’d attended an event about Google Meet and I immediately saw the potential of using Google Meet Hardware in partner venues that were still allowed to offer face-to-face services. When I approached Ancoris to discuss the idea, they were not only willing to provide some free advice but also able to lend us some ASUS Google Meet demonstration hardware for a month-long pilot free of charge.
That’s typical of our experience with Ancoris: there’s never any hard sell, just an attitude of “what can we do to help?” They’re also always very honest about what they think will or won’t work, what’s a good solution and what we might want to try.
We set up the hardware for the pilot in an interview room in a SureStart centre, used Google Calendar to schedule appointments one day a week, and then assigned a suitable adviser for each session. When clients entered the room during their appointment slot, they simply had to touch the Google Hangouts Meet Hardware touchscreen to see and talk to the adviser, who joined the Meet call from home through their Chromebook.
Easy to use - both for advisers and clients
The pilot was hugely successful. From the start, the sessions were — and continue to be — fully booked. Because the system is so simple to use, with no mouse, keyboard or menu system to navigate, clients can meet with advisors without needing any digital skills. Advisers also love the solution because they can still see non-verbal clues when talking to clients, while it’s easy for them to manage appointments through Google Calendar and for managers to swap in a different adviser if necessary. Our partner loves it, too, because the system is easy for clients to use and very reliable, so their staff don’t find themselves pulled into providing support.
Other outreach partners were soon asking us to take the same approach at their venues. Within a year, we’ll have installed Google Meet hardware in almost a dozen locations. The limiting factor now is the availability of advisors.
From stop-gap to permanent approach
It’s more than a stop-gap solution, though. Outreach services are always expensive and difficult to provide. So, even though the initial investment in the hardware is (for a non-profit like ourselves) relatively high, this model will offer us a more cost-effective, efficient and flexible approach to providing outreach services even when face-to-face meetings are allowed again.
For example, eliminating time spent travelling to venues will let advisers see more clients during sessions. With staff likely to continue working from home for part of the week, our specialist advisers won’t have to travel into the office during their scheduled work-from-home days for a single appointment.
And it will be easier to provide translation support for clients who need it, by inviting interpreters into Google Meet sessions. Working in the non-profit sector, you’ve always got that strain where demand is higher than your ability to meet it, so any way we can increase capacity without increasing resources is always something we’re interested in and that’s what Google Meet can do.
Moving to Google Voice softphone solution
The other major headache we faced at the start of lockdown was that our VOIP phone system didn’t handle the move to home-based working as well as we’d expected. When all of our 140 staff had to begin working from home, we ran into a variety of issues. These ranged from being unable to plug in VOIP handsets because of the location of users’ home routers to some ISPs blocking VOIP traffic to some employees simply not wanting a desk handset in their home-working area.
Because staff were already using Google Workspace running on Chromebooks, we were able to quickly and easily switch to Google’s browser-based softphone solution, Google Voice. Within a day of speaking to Ancoris and Google Cloud and agreeing a contract, we had some of our staff using Google Voice to make and receive calls from home using their office numbers.
And they weren’t just using it — they were loving it, preferring it to the VOIP handsets. It’s simple to learn and it’s quicker and easier to bring up a contact’s details in Google Workspace and start a call than to scroll through the directory on the VOIP handset to find the number. They also like the flexibility of being able to work from anywhere in their home rather than being tied to wherever their VOIP desk handset is.
As the organisation’s chief digital officer, I also love it because it’s far more flexible than our VOIP system. Like many non-profits, we sometimes receive funding for short-term projects lasting just six or twelve months but VOIP contracts typically last three years. That means we can find ourselves locked into paying for services long after the staff needed for the project have left.
Google Voice’s flexible pricing structure means we can scale up and down each month as projects start and end, only pay for licences we’re currently using. Google also offers a discount to non-profits, while we don’t have the capital costs associated with regular refreshes of VOIP handset hardware
Another benefit is that the system is easier for us to manage. We can immediately add or remove numbers and assign them through the Google Workspace Admin Console. And we benefit from new features as soon as they’re added to the solution, at no additional cost, rather than having to wait until the end of our existing contract for an upgrade. We’ll continue to use VOIP handsets alongside Google Voice until our various VOIP contracts end, but we expect to migrate completely to Google Voice by the end of 2021.
An inspiration for national branch
Citizens Advice’s national branch, which supports the work of local branches like ours, has been following our progress closely. Like us, they believe other branches can benefit from moving to these solutions. We’re therefore working with the national branch, Ancoris, ASUS and Google to offer packages to the wider Citizens Advice network for both Google Meet Hardware and Google Voice — with some generous discounts.
For too many Citizens Advice branches, IT is a headache and not a solution. I hope these solutions will be as much of a game-changer for them as they have been for us.