The Way We Work
January 21, 2013 by Julia Camenisch

Lost productivity is expensive — just ask the legions of East Coast companies whose businesses ground to a halt when Hurricane Sandy made landfall on Oct. 29. Early estimates of the storm's impact on commerce pegged it at $35 to $40 billion.

There's no escaping the devastation that a natural disaster like Sandy causes. However, as the United States government's telework initiative proved, having a plan for off-site work can go a long way towards minimizing productivity loss. According to the Office of Personnel Management, almost one-third of federal employees in the area kept working during the storm, even though their brick and mortar offices were shut down.

The government wasn't the only organization keeping its virtual doors open when its physical doors were shut: TheLadders, an online job-matching service based out of Lower Manhattan, discovered that online work was the key to keeping productive. Thanks to the hurricane, the company’s office was without power for 10 days. But with a previously prepared remote work plan, TheLadders didn't miss a day of operations.

Christina Kane, the support center's director, said that as soon as she heard Hurricane Sandy might hit New York City, she kicked into contingency mode. "We [had] an emergency plan in place…we created a phone tree, distributed instructions for accessing our systems remotely, and ensured that everyone knew to check for Sunday's company-wide email regarding possible complications for Monday morning travel to the office."

Even though the office was closed, Kane knew it was of paramount importance to keep communication channels open with their clients. Having their main email management system in the cloud helped keep customer support online.

"Our phone lines remained down due to loss of power in our office building [in Lower Manhattan]. However, since our site never faltered once throughout the hurricane, our customer support team was able to use our Help and FAQ sections, as well as Facebook and Twitter, to provide daily communication to [our clients] regarding the best ways for reaching us while we worked remotely."

It's all about the plan

Some businesses already integrate online work into their existing model; for others, creating a remote setup will be more time-intensive. But even if telework isn't a part of your company's current policy, it’s worth taking the time to set up an emergency preparedness plan.

If your business doesn't regularly use online work, a key step is deciding which positions are mission critical; those workers will then need to be set up with remote network access and trained to use it.

It's also important to have a communications system that can still function when everyone is working from home. Based on their Hurricane Sandy experience, Kane said that keeping the phones open is one part of the disaster plan that they are reevaluating. "Our tech team is focusing on having calls forwarded to other lines in situations where the office is closed so we can continue providing support via all three channels (social media, phone and email)."

If your company already uses online work, you still need a contingency plan. As Hurricane Sandy proved, even online work is vulnerable when cell service and electricity is disrupted. If you want to keep work going, you have to be proactive and provide a Plan B for your team members. You could find hotels to put your staff in while power is out, or you could provide backup generators and mobile wireless network cards so they can stay online even if their community is in the dark.

Second, make sure you have alternate communication lines to rely on. If someone on the team can't get online, do you have their cell phone or land-line numbers so you can check in on them? Do they have yours? If you know a potential disaster is on the horizon (such as with a hurricane), talk to your team ahead of time to go over the plan together.

If you have a plan in place, have you tested it yet? Mid-disaster is not the time to discover that half of your workers didn't understand remote workflow procedures. Or that your virtual private network (VPN) can't handle the load of everyone in the organization trying to log on remotely at once.

Kane reiterated that preparation is key. "Go back to basics! Make sure that your teams review all the conveniences that you take for granted (internally accessed sites, logins/passwords already saved on your computer, etc.). Assume the worst and plan accordingly, and you will be in good shape."

Prepare now, benefit later

As Benjamin Franklin once famously said, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Without remote work contingency planning, you'll find yourself in the position of one New York investment bank; their operations ground to a halt in the storm's aftermath. It's that kind of failure to plan that makes the price tag of lost productivity so high.

Especially given current climate change forecasts, the appearance of another superstorm like Sandy isn't so much a matter of "if" as a matter of "when." With the certainty of future natural disasters almost assured, now is the time to put an online work contingency plan in place.

Is your business prepared for a natural disaster? What type of contingency plan have you put in place? Share your advice in the comments section below.

Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.

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