A hackathon is helping people return to work after long-term illness – here’s how

By Martin Smithen, - Employee experienceProductivity

This blog is co-authored by Martin Smithen, Head of Offerings and Capability, Digital Workplace Services EMEIA Fujitsu; Daniella Levinson, Business Consultant at Fujitsu UK; Kevin Collins, Channel, Alliances and Partnerships Manager at Fujitsu EMEIA.

How long does it take to come up with a good idea?

You might think it takes a month, or six, or twelve. A really brilliant idea might even take a lifetime.

Well, at the hackathon this year, we had one week.

In the space of just five days, it was our job to devise, build and test an idea that would fulfil our brief: to support employees returning to work after a period of long-term illness.

Read on to find out how we got on.

What is a hackathon?

The hackathon method (or ‘innovation sprint’) is designed to bring the best ideas out of the most talented people.

We start by gathering people with relevant skills or experience. They could be partners, SMEs or internal Fujitsu colleagues: as long as they bring value to the table, we invite them to the hackathon team.

We spend a week in the same room, collaborating and co-creating to address the challenge at hand.

And this year, the challenge was to enable employees with cancer to return to work.

Fujitsu recognises that there is a lot of talent leaving the workplace due to illness. It’s hard, after a period of illness, to come back to work at the same level. Many employees struggle to be as effective as they were before their illness, or they can feel so isolated by their period of absence that they choose not to come back at all.

We wanted to solve this problem, allowing our organisation to retain valuable talent – and making the workplace a better environment for everyone.

Working with CLIC Sargent

CLIC Sargent is an amazing charity that supports young people who have been diagnosed with cancer. We were privileged to have them as our charity partner in this year’s hackathon.

Cancer is a really important issue for us at Fujitsu. As 1 in 2 of us will experience the disease in our lifetime, most people have been affected by it directly.

It was really moving to be working for such a worthwhile aim, and it definitely kept our spirits high when the relentless hackathon pace started taking its toll!

During the challenge, we were joined by a few members of the Fujitsu team who have cancer. They provided their perspective on the ideas we were developing. This helped us really focus on what mattered for our users.

Most of all, it was really inspiring to hear their stories, and to think that our solutions might make a difference for people going through the same thing in future.

We were also joined at the hackathon by two representatives from CLIC Sargent: Anna Thomson and Michael Wilkinson. Since hackathons are all about bringing experts together, it was fantastic to have the pair of them with us.

And we think they enjoyed it too, as Anna told us:

“I thoroughly enjoyed representing CLIC Sargent at the hackathon with the teams from Fujitsu and Nodes. As an organisation, we know from speaking to young people that how they are treated when taking time off work varies massively. Having a tool to guide both the manager and the employee through this process will provide consistency and prevent any added stress being created for the employee. We are really looking forward to seeing how the project develops and we have no doubt that it will benefit a lot of people.”

And our team didn’t end there: we were also supported by Nodes, who are experts in delivering hackathons. They helped us with user experience and the app design and production – a crucial piece of the puzzle.

The winning idea

Ultimately, the hackathon was all about developing the best ideas, and this is something we definitely managed.

The concept that won the judges over was a simple mobile app, which allows employees affected by cancer to stay connected with their workplace, managers and colleagues.

They can stay in touch as and when they want, using their preferred communication channels. The user’s choice was paramount for us: we don’t want them to feel under pressure to keep up to date with things. Instead, it’s all about helping them still feel part of the workplace and the supportive community of colleagues.

The key features on the app include a connected community, informal news feed, story sharing, forums and a status tracker. We’re especially excited about the community features. Hopefully it will help bring together a community of people with cancer within our organisation.

Now the app has just gone through a user-testing phase. One user during testing said: “I definitely would have used this, it would have been nice to have something familiar to use during darker days and it makes a very good communication tool”. We’ll soon be starting a full-scale trial – and then the app will become part of our portfolio.

In developing our ideas, we were very inspired by BuddyConnect, the solution produced by the team in last year’s hackathon.

BuddyConnect has been a very successful early product. It’s been referenced in analyst meetings and is recognised as demonstrating Fujitsu’s ability to implement innovation in high value applications.  So far, it has generated 21 leads across industry sectors including public sector, IT Services and Financial Services.

Having BuddyConnect on hand as a template has allowed us to move from Hackathon, MVP to Trial Version in a more agile way and with less risk.

What was it like as a participant?

The hackathon was a hard process. By the fifth day you have to create a mock-up of your ideas – you certainly couldn’t work at that intensity all the time!

But it was worth all the effort. When we had finished the week, we felt we had created something that would really make a difference.

At Fujitsu we often talk about human-centric innovation and the hackathon was a great example of this. Our app will not only assist people suffering from cancer return to work but will also help them still feel like part of the team while away. This includes all the purpose, community and independence that working entails for many. It will also prevent valuable skills from being lost from the workplace.

This is very much in-line with our vision of the future workplace and our goal of setting the industry standard for employee experience. By focusing on bettering the health and wellbeing of a diverse workforce, we can ensure employees are always positively engaged. Hopefully our app will be a part of this effort and help employees feel supported through what can be one of the hardest periods of their lives.

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