As COVID-19 continues to spread at a relentless pace around the world, the disease has demanded an unprecedented emergency response. Healthcare workers, grocery store and pharmacy employees, transit staff, delivery workers, and others have been indispensable on the front lines of the pandemic—and a number of unexpected specialties and skills have taken on new urgency. South Yorkshire, UK–based Adam Bark, regional head of building technology at WeWork, was surprised—and humbled—to find that his line of work was among them.
As of mid-April, the United Kingdom has the sixth highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, with about 100,000 confirmed cases. The situation developed rapidly, including an abrupt nationwide mandate to shelter-in-place in late March and an intensive-care stay for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who contracted the illness late last month (he has since recovered). In response, NHS England (the National Health Service) took action to avoid the overcapacity that’s crippled hospitals and healthcare workers in other parts of the world, such as China, Italy, Spain, and the United States.
To address the crisis, the NHS launched an initiative called Project Nightingale. It sought to convert large facilities such as convention centers into temporary hospitals. The first Project Nightingale site is the ExCeL London convention center in East London. The space of more than one million square was transformed into an intensive care unit hospital with 4,000 beds. It was hosted by Barts Health NHS Trust, who worked on the space in collaboration with its strategic technology partner, Block.
Block, a technology innovation business that offers services to organizations across Europe, including WeWork, welcomed Bark’s offer to join the team. Bark oversees design, implementation, and support on the WeWork building infrastructure team. He has a background in electrical engineering, IT infrastructure, and project management, and had experience improving network efficiency at traditional hospitals, broadcast corporations like the BBC, and retail behemoths like Selfridges before joining WeWork in 2018.
“I look after all technology, from the design of the product to its implementation, as well as Wi-Fi,” he says of his current position, which covers IT duties for WeWork facilities in Europe, the Middle East, Russia, and South Africa. “No day is ever the same—it’s great fun.”
For Project Nightingale, Bark joined the Block team and, along with several tech leads, managers, and network engineers, was tasked with implementing a technology architecture that could support the software and Wi-Fi needs of the temporary hospital. The technological infrastructure they installed needed to buttress crucial in-house services such as an admissions center and emergency services such as the ambulance networks.
ExCeL had an existing IT foundation and equipment, Bark explains, but his team’s mission was to expand the network and get it working at a speed suitable for NHS employees and their future patients. It’s an undertaking that could take up to 12 months under normal circumstances, says Bark, but the pandemic necessitated an extremely compressed timeline.
The team managed to get the network up and running at a breakneck pace—within nine days. That period included many phone calls and multiple field visits, all of which were made slightly more complicated by social distancing guidelines.
“Imagine looking at a piece of paper, everyone a meter away from it, and trying to understand what’s on it and explain it to the team,” he says. Motivated by the gravity of the situation, however, they were able to adapt and work more quickly than they thought possible. “There’s a real can-do attitude along with an exceptional level of skill and dedication,” he says of the team.
Soon after getting the ExCeL field hospital up and running on April 3, Bark began working on other facilities, which are to be opened later this month. A total of 5 potential facilities are planned, says Bark, but he’s optimistic that the full slate won’t need to be fulfilled.
“Luckily, the curve seems to be evening out,” Bark says. Government officials have indeed indicated that the lockdown has begun to flatten the rate of COVID-19 cases in the UK, and recent reports state that the ExCeL facility is well under capacity because London’s traditional ICU facilities haven’t been overwhelmed.
“The best thing would be to get a phone call where they say, ‘We don’t need you—there are no more cases,’” adds Bark.
Despite his hard work on Project Nightingale, when Bark hears his role characterized as “essential,” he still reacts with surprise. “I work in construction IT—I don’t save lives,” he says. “The doctors and nurses and support staff—they’re the real front line. To receive the call and to be asked to get involved was a privilege. We’re just giving them the ability to use their skills.”
Rachel Mosely is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Town & Country, Elle, and more.