The COVID-19 pandemic upended workforce management. Some people are doing their jobs from home while others go into the office, and still others are on hybrid schedules. With many pandemic protocols still in place, a hurricane, tornado or wildfire could further scramble workforce management.
So how do HR professionals and other managers maintain some semblance of normalcy during both a pandemic and a natural disaster? Experts provide the following six tips.
1. Develop an emergency communication plan.
Hector Ruiz, founder and president of CorporateShields.com, an IT company in Windermere, Fla., relies on his company's emergency communication plan when a hurricane is bearing down on the Orlando area.
Your plan should tell employees how to keep in touch with their employer during a natural disaster, Ruiz said. For instance, who should employees contact when a disaster disperses the workforce? And if power, phone service or Internet service were to go down, what is the process to ensure workforce communication continues with as little interruption as possible?
"E-mail alone won't suffice, so make sure you have the ability to communicate via text, phone call, push notification and more," said Peter Steinfeld, senior vice president of safety solutions at AlertMedia, a provider of emergency communications software.
2. Assign tasks ahead of time.
Once a natural disaster strikes, it's too late to adequately map out a response. Start making your plans and coordinating your response team now, Ruiz said. Each member of this team—ideally a manager or administrator—should be assigned certain roles and responsibilities.
Disaster preparedness expert Donna Childs, author of Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses (Wiley, 2010), said one of those responsibilities should be proactively identifying employees with special needs to ensure they can be evacuated in the event of a disaster.
3. Be flexible and understanding.
Sara Bandurian is operations coordinator at Online Optimism, a marketing agency in New Orleans, a city that has seen its fair share of hurricanes. She said your company's disaster preparedness plan should incorporate flexibility and address the needs of office, remote and hybrid employees.
"It's worth remembering that … disasters can be distressing for anyone," Bandurian said. "Having remote capabilities is great because there is the option to work anywhere, but if there is a hurricane warning and our employees begin evacuation, they become scattered—not only physically from the office but also emotionally. No one does their best work when they're living out of a hotel room with half their things, so it's important to take those emotional needs into account."
4. Conduct emergency drills.
Remember those fire drills in school? Well, even as an adult, you should be participating in emergency drills at your workplace.
Childs said preparedness drills—even if they're just tabletop exercises—can keep people sharp when it comes to properly coping with a disaster.
"As disasters recede into memory, we become complacent, and it is best to make sure preparedness measures are top of mind," Childs said. "Remember that in a disaster, people will be stressed and not functioning at peak efficiency, so plan for that."
5. Evaluate your company's technology.
Technology can be a bond that helps keep your company connected before, during and after a natural disaster.
David Pearson, senior vice president of people and culture at ExtensisHR, a national HR outsourcing provider based in New Jersey, recommends that employers assess their servers, co-location facilities, Internet capabilities and other tech-related functions in advance of a disaster.
Childs added that laptops for employees working from home or for in-office employees who may need to evacuate in the event of a natural disaster should be company-issued and be reserved solely for business use. "This helps the employer protect confidential company data," she said, "and ensure appropriate cybersecurity protocols are followed."
6. Lift employees' spirits.
A natural disaster can wreak havoc in employees' work and personal lives. In light of that, Cecile Alper-Leroux, vice president of product and innovation at HR software provider UKG, suggests that managers regularly check in with their team members amid a disaster, whether that's through one-on-one meetings, employee surveys or other means.
Employers also can strengthen emotional ties with workers, both in-office and remote, by rallying them during a crisis, said Alper-Leroux, who works at UKG's office in hurricane-prone Weston, Fla. At UKG, employees consistently raise money for causes or donate to co-workers in the wake of a natural disaster or unexpected tragedy. UKG then matches 100 percent of employees' contributions.
"Proactively creating opportunities for emotional connection during a crisis helps strengthen the culture of an organization overall, regardless of whether employees are working from home, the office or some combination of the two," Alper-Leroux said.
John Egan is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas.