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Hurricane Sandy Forces Companies to Reconsider Telework
 

By Greg Wright  11/16/2012
 

The Transition Network is a small nonprofit organization near Wall Street that helps women 50 and older plan the next steps in their personal and professional lives.

When Hurricane Sandy struck the eastern United States on Oct. 29, 2012, Transition Network Executive Director Betsy Werley and her four employees had to scramble to find a plan to keep the business open.

The hurricane flooded parts of lower Manhattan and knocked out power over wide swaths of the region. It left thousands of people struggling to commute during mass transit outages and gas shortages—especially in New York. Werley had to shut down her office during the last week of October.

Telecommuting saved the day. Werley’s staff worked from home using personal computers and mobile devices. The only thing Werley couldn’t do was write paper checks.

“It was not a disaster,” Werley said. “We were well prepared and were able to stay in communication mostly by e-mail but also by phone.”

Unfortunately, the hurricane was a disaster for many other companies. Hurricane Sandy is expected to cost up to $20 billion in insured losses and $50 billion in economic losses to the United States, according to EQECAT, a catastrophe risk modeling company.

Some companies discovered that having telework policies and technology in place allowed employees to continue to do business during the storm—even if just on a bare-bones level.

Calls to Action

What’s more, telework advocates said Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Irene and other major disruptive events may be calls to action for the acceptance and implementation of the fast-growing telework movement.

Although federal government offices in the Washington, D.C. area closed down for two days during the hurricane, about one third of government workers were able to continue working remotely, said Cindy Auten, general manager of the Telework Exchange, an Alexandria, Va.-based public/private partnership that promotes telework and worker mobility.

“Anytime an event like this happens there is more chatter about telework and productivity gains,” Auten said. “I think it was a wake-up call for businesses that are very information-technology dependent,” said Ian Meklinsky, a labor and employment attorney and partner at Fox Rothschild LLP in Princeton, N.J.

After disaster strikes, it’s really too late to devise a telework plan, experts said. Those provisions should be in place as part of a business continuity plan.

“Telework should not be taken lightly,” said Barbara Goldberg, owner of Back on Track Solutions, a St. Augustine, Fla., business that helps businesses overcome disasters to better serve customers. “Companies need to start practicing now.”

After all, a natural disaster is not just a hurricane or blizzard, Goldberg said. For instance, a construction project in front of your office could knock out power or keep customers from getting to your door, she said.

Pitney Bowes, a customer communications technology company that serves clients in more than 100 countries, had to shut down three major offices in Connecticut due to Hurricane Sandy.

Employees teleworked, however, even if that meant working from a friend’s or relative’s home, a Starbucks, or a local high school where they plugged in their laptops or mobile devices, company officials said.

Kim Tuffarelli, PHR, a Pitney Bowes HR executive and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) who has led the migration of that company’s workforce to more mobile/agile technology in the past few years, said companies must have telework disaster plans in place well before storm clouds gather.

“We have pushed the program and it’s becoming ingrained in who we are,” she said.

Before Disaster Strikes

Here are tips Tuffarelli and other HR experts said companies can use to ensure their company can continue to operate during a natural disaster:

Train employees on how to telework. Show them how to log in remotely to a company’s e-mail or file sharing system—well before a real disaster strikes, Tuffarelli said. This avoids confusion if the office closes and employees have to work remotely. “You can’t expect them to pick it up on day one,” she said.

Conduct a disaster simulation before a crisis occurs to ensure that your telework plan really works, Auten suggested. “Telework isn’t ‘break glass in case of emergency,’ ” Auten said. “It has to be ingrained in what you do.”

Decide beforehand which company services are essential and what employees will perform them; then, create a plan, so that these employees can work remotely in case of disaster.

Consider using cloud-based systems, such as Google Docs to store company documents and allow employees to access them if your office shuts down, Meklinsky said. Companies should invest in backing up their computer servers at a remote, secure site in case a flood or fire takes out servers in the office, he said.

Set up a plan to guarantee key people in the company can communicate if a disaster hits, said Andrew Marshall, chief information officer and senior vice president at Campus Housing, a Philadelphia-based company that was affected by Hurricane Sandy. Consider a cloud-based communications service such as Ring Central, which allowscompanies to forward calls to employees’ mobile or home phones if the phones at the home office are shut down due to a power outage or natural disaster.

Always be concerned about the welfare of the staff and their families during a crisis, even if employees are able to work remotely, Elliot Lasson stated in his blog. Lasson, an HR professional for more than 20 years, is executive director of Joblink of Maryland, a nonprofit organization that helps job seekers in the Baltimore area. He said employees should be given flexibility to deal with personal matters during disasters.

Companies with multiple locations should consider having workstations and support staff available in each place, so displaced workers from one office can work in another if disaster hits, Meklinsky added. For instance, Fox Rothschild was able to shift workers from offices without power in New Jersey to functioning offices in New York City and Philadelphia.

Don’t just focus on technology. Other experts advised making sure employees take home paper documents they may need to do their work. Make sure employees have access to paper checks or petty cash just in case a storm knocks out power and ATMs and corporate credit cards don’t work.

Form relationships with neighboring businesses before disaster hits, Goldberg said. Neighboring companies may loan office space or allow employees to power up laptops and mobile devices in the event of power outages.

Greg Wright is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who has covered Congress, consumer electronics and international trade for major news organizations, including Gannett News Service/USA Today, Dow Jones and Knight-Ridder Financial News. He can be reached at GLW522@gmail.com.

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