Winter Storm Jonas and Business Continuity Make Strange Bedfellows

Figuring out how to deal with significant snow, ice and possible coastal flooding and power outages is not only on the minds of up to 50 million people along the East Coast and in the Mid-Atlantic, but also on the minds of employers.

Hopefully, organizations have had contingencies in place to allow them to operate and quickly recover from any disruption they may encounter from this incoming storm. And while Jonas may pass while many traditional offices are closed over the weekend, who knows what will come Monday morning. Not to mention the fact that there are many other businesses that operate 24/7 and will have to deal with the effects Jonas decides to unleash this weekend.

That's why plans are put in place ahead of time: to be prepared to deal with a variety of scenarios and, depending on the business you're in, make plans to account for both the infrastructure and effect on employees -- regardless of job circumstance. One thing is certain, though: Employees in Jonas's path will be serving double duty, figuring out the role they play as employees during the storm as well as family members thinking about their loved ones.

So many business continuity plans focus solely on corporate infrastructure; they tend to overlook the human factor. Employers that can see both sides of this situation, both the business side and the holistic needs of employees and their families, will fare much better when it comes to recovery and employee loyalty.

An organization's ability to maintain normal operations during a major interruption can mean the difference between success and failure. The effects of a disruption on business health are far-reaching, with revenue loss and diminished productivity leading the list of consequences. An unplanned closure can damage a company's reputation with customers, business partners, suppliers and shareholders. Among Fortune 1,000 companies, the average loss per hour of downtime is $78,000, and companies reported an average of 38 hours of downtime per year, according to a study by market research firm Find/SVP.

That's almost $3 million!

The potential business impact resulting from a business interruption included reduced employee productivity (62%), reduced profits (40%) and damage to customer relationships (38%). (Veritas 2004)

How can an organization's employees maintain productivity when faced with interruptions? One answer, depending on type of work, is in the increased use of a mobile workforce. In addition, remote work programs increase organizational flexibility and help companies rebound from crises more quickly. Telework helps organizations reduce recovery expenses and boost competitive advantage. And lest we forget: Teleworkers constitute a core group that an organization can mobilize in an emergency.

Many organizations do this ad hoc, telling employees to work from home during a disruptive event. But formalizing procedures produces better results. And even if an organization already has a formal, comprehensive telework policy, in most cases it doesn't address emergency conditions.

To amend a policy to include procedures for handling emergency events, include:
  • Security instructions
  • Emergency alerts
  • Expectations for different/reduced workloads
  • Expectations for help desk support
  • Reduced time on the network
  • Prioritized access
  • Software updates
  • Frequency of telework
And develop a communication plan. Communication is crucial during an emergency, but don't count on having a full complement of communications options available. Among the things that can go wrong:
  • The phone system may stop forwarding calls
  • The cell phone system may go down
  • Telephone circuits overload (if power is lost, telephones needing electricity also will be unusable).

Communication is critical when dealing with a dispersed workforce. Use a variety of means; think emergency Web sites, instant messaging, private chat rooms, Web conferencing, collaborative software and e-mail. Don't rely on one method of communication!

Ideally, organizations aren't going to try to implement a telework strategy as a reaction to Winter Storm Jonas, as there are many aspects that have to be considered for telework to be successful, regardless of whether it's a temporary fix. Aside from the technical and policy issues that need to be put in place, one of the biggest hurdles an organization will encounter is cultural. And remember: Employees might be dealing with their own crises at home due to the same reason the organization is down. If the cultural aspects of dealing with employees' needs as well as telework aren't addressed and meaningfully handled, the best technology or best-written policy are moot. A well-thought, well-structured plan is worth every minute spent creating it.

Will we recover from this event? Sure. But the devil's in the details, and a snowstorm isn't the time to start digging through them.