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As some UNC-Chapel Hill employees return to campus and the University prepares for students to come back in August, ITS has a few teams that never left. The ITS Operations Center is one ITS group that has maintained its campus presence since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“After more than 25 years, the Operations Center has never missed a shift,” said Neil McKeeman, ITS Operations Center manager. “Even during this global pandemic with the University closed, the Operations Center is still fully staffed and working around the clock.”

“That’s more than 27,000 consecutive shifts without closing — snow, hurricanes, pandemics — we’re still here,” McKeeman said.

Supporting remote work

For the work it does, being on-site is critical to the Operations Center monitoring.

The Operations Center monitors campus data communications, facilitates incident management, and pushes out Alert Carolina communications. It acts as a temperature gauge for the health of University systems. Early in the pandemic, monitoring was especially important as ITS focused on smoothly transitioning to remote work.

Neil McKeeman
Neil McKeeman

“With everyone off campus, the need for video conferencing solutions and network connections using VPN have gone up dramatically,” McKeeman said.

“As ITS focuses its efforts on remote access, things still break and there are times that the Op Center staff perform tasks that normally would be done by someone who is responsible for a service,” he said.

On-site matters

As many at the University will continue some measure of remote work, even into the Fall, the Operations Center’s on-site monitoring has an even greater importance.

“We have a sophisticated set of automated monitoring tools, but they only present changes in state,” McKeeman said. “It takes human intervention to see patterns in the data and work out the cause and effect of issues and to know who to contact.”

Ten people make up McKeeman’s team. They are scheduled to maintain a 24/7 presence on campus.

To protect their health while working on site, the Operations Center enacted generally accepted safety measures for COVID-19. Two-person teams work staggered shifts. They practice social distancing.

While the UNC-Chapel Hill housekeepers diligently keep ITS Manning clean, the Operations Center staffers opt to minimize contact with others by cleaning their workspaces.

“The housekeepers are doing a great job keeping Manning clean in this era of COVID-19. We’ve noticed that extra effort,” said Ray DeCristofaro, Director for Enterprise Operations within ITS Infrastructure & Operations.

Op Center staffers have also modified something as simple as going out to lunch to ensure reduced exposure.

“Normally we can hop over to the hospital cafeteria to grab some food, but I think none of us have been really wanting to expose ourselves to a COVID hotspot,” said Systems Programmer Keith Makuck, a 15-year veteran of the Operations Center.

Strictly adhering to safety measures protects the team and others on campus.

“We’ve adjusted our schedule to minimize overlap,” McKeeman said. “Basically, you only come into contact with your shift partner and your shift partner is always the same. As long as your shift partner stays well, you can have some degree of comfort being at work each day.”

Customers’ needs change

This altruistic concern for the University community’s safety is a prime motivation for the team. Along with their regular duties, the Operations Center staffers take on small but meaningful tasks they know will keep other University personnel from having to travel to campus.

“We are doing more in the data center now — whether it is moving cables, working on equipment, getting things installed such as a power supply in a system that normally a technician comes in and replaces,” said McKeeman. “Those are things that we have the skill set to do and we are doing that for people now.”

The increase in duties has not just come from the team’s proactive measures, however. McKeeman noted that because remote work has changed the nature of an average workday, there has been an increase in service requests made during parts of the day that previously had not experienced a high level of traffic.

As the University prepares for a return to campus for the Fall semester, the Operations Center will maintain its consistent and dependable presence as it has all along.

Said McKeeman: “I’ve never been prouder of my group.”

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