It’s probably no surprise to hear that our working lives changed overnight in March 2020 with the first Coronavirus national lockdown. As TfL’s Digital team, we had to quickly adapt both how we worked and what we were working on, in order to continue to support London, ourselves and each other at a time of great uncertainty.
Fast forward almost two years and things have certainly not fully returned to ‘normal’ yet. So we have taken a moment to reflect on what has been a strange but strangely rewarding time.
In Digital, we were better placed than many TfL departments to shift our working life online; most people regularly worked from home, so we were already set up to access the TfL network remotely and had some experience of hybrid meetings. Even so, it took time and good humour to work out how to work together when fully remote.
We’re a small, close-knit team and were keen to keep that culture despite no longer being co-located. The first opportunity came in the very first week of lockdown with a tea party hastily moved to Teams to say farewell as I headed off on maternity leave (my lockdown was quite different to most, but that’s a different story for a different blog). While it was no substitute for actually sharing cake, it was great to say goodbye and provided an opportunity to introduce the pets who have been videobombing meetings ever since.
One of the first pandemic-related requests we worked on was a digital information screen to support healthcare workers travelling to the temporary Nightingale Hospital in London. The team followed the usual product and UX process, but in super-quick time – going from requirement to launch-ready in under a month.
We went live on digital screens at the hospital and nearby hotels, and also made the product available via a website. However, the containment of the pandemic meant that the Nightingale Hospital was not used as much as expected, making this a rare case where we were pleased not to reach a large audience. We’re proud of the product but hope that it won’t need to be used again.
Changing priorities, changing roadmaps
Lockdown had a profound impact on TfL’s business, and we had to re-evaluate and update roadmaps to fit this new world. Our travel app, TfL Go, was already in development, with a launch proposition focused on the Tube and a target release date of summer 2020. In a world where we were asking people not to travel and Tube journeys were at a fraction of normal levels, this proposition no longer made sense. We responded by rejigging the roadmap to bring forward support for buses and to promote walking and cycling options in Journey Planner, ensuring these were in place for the soft launch in August 2020.
Support for the pandemic recovery has also informed everything we’ve built in TfL Go since launch. Working with colleagues in Data & Analytics, we fast-tracked a project to integrate station busyness information into TfL Go; quieter times to travel, based on typical busyness levels, was released first in January 2021 followed by near real-time information in July. We’re now looking at options to provide information on the busyness of Tube trains and buses. This is an area we had been investigating for a while, but the need to support the pandemic recovery gave the project added impetus to overcome hurdles and deliver.
A sense of purpose
Catching up with colleagues while I was on maternity leave, I was surprised to hear that collaboration within our team and the wider organisation had improved and our delivery rate had gone up. Despite the challenges of remote working and the stresses of lockdown, the team (and everyone at TfL) was united in a common purpose and focused on supporting TfL and London during lockdown and through the reopening. Video meetings made it easier to arrange and bring together disparate groups, which made for better consultation and swifter decision making. And it’s also true that a lot of time-consuming, tangential work was removed once we were taken out of the office environment, allowing the teams to focus on the most important things.
Throughout 2020, the team had regular video get-togethers and we made space in diaries for quizzes, treasure hunts and even a Teams version of Guess Who! Members of our multi-talented team also shared their expertise in a series of video masterclasses covering a range of topics from motorcycle maintenance to 3D printing to a vegan cookie bake-along.
Over time, and especially as we entered 2021 in yet another lockdown, morale took a hit and Zoom fatigue set in for many. In Digital and across TfL, we were sensitive to each other’s needs and mindful that some people’s home environment made remote working more difficult. As the rules were relaxed in spring, some of the team met for socially distanced walks or had one-to-one meetings in local parks.
Two steps forward, one step back
With the end of the official work from home advice in summer 2021, we began to take a few tentative steps towards returning to office life. We were able to get the whole team together for an away day in September, and people started to come in to the office on occasion.
From November, we began to test how best to arrange our weeks to make the most of office time. Hybrid meetings, (with some people in the same room and others on video) were a new challenge, but face-to-face workshops, incidental meetings and social catch ups were appreciated. Lunch became more of a communal activity than before lockdown, and we brought the plants back from their extended holiday in Kent!
This trial was paused when the Plan B restrictions were introduced in December; we returned to working from home and postponed our team Christmas lunch until February. Now that restrictions are again lifting, we look forward to re-establishing the office culture while maintaining the benefits of home working. It looks like the future will be hybrid, and that works well for us.