Weather extremes and other disasters have become a part of our “new normal.” When remote work or flexible hours are part of an organization’s disaster response plan, employees can stay connected to work and businesses can continue to operate at some level of capacity.
However, as I observed firsthand in the aftermath of “Super Storm” Sandy, most employers hadn’t made flexible work an official part of their business continuity strategy. As a result, both people and businesses suffered unnecessarily.
To illustrate the difference a flexible approach to work can make in the aftermath of a disaster, here are the stories of three people from the same New Jersey town hit hard by the hurricane. Power was out for more than a week. Long lines for gas snaked for over a mile. Huge, uprooted trees lay across almost every yard. The trains into New York City were out of service.
Completely Flexible Immediately
Alex works for a technology company in Manhattan. The night of the storm, a 100-foot tree fell across her driveway and front yard, knocking out power and trapping her, her husband, and two small children in her house. Alex’s boss and her team immediately executed the company’s disaster response plan. Everyone would either work remotely or shift their hours until the power came back on and transportation was back to normal. Each day, Alex walked over to her neighbor’s house that had a generator or sat in her car and used her portable wireless card to get work done. As soon as the town opened a heating/powering station in the Town Hall, she, her husband and two kids, spent part of everyday warming up and working.
Flexible in Theory, but Not in Practice
Tom also works in New York for a company that is regularly listed as one of the “best places to work.” While his employer was very supportive right after the storm, Tom knew he needed to find a way to get to his job as soon as possible. The company has a telework policy, but the reality is if you aren’t in the office, senior leaders don’t think you are working. He felt he had no choice. The first day, Tom drove to New York and waited three hours in traffic each way. The second day, he waited two hours in the cold to board the backup buses provided by New Jersey Transit, and then sat in traffic. Even though he had a project to complete, on the third day, he was forced to take a vacation day to meet with the insurance adjuster, roofer, and tree removal service to repair the storm damage to his house.
No Flexibility at All
Not realizing how bad it would be, Jack left for a business trip the day before Sandy hit, leaving his wife and two kids to weather the storm alone. Trapped in Atlanta for three days, Jack finally arrived home and hoped to be able to work remotely the rest of the week. But his boss said he was needed in the office, which was a 45-minute drive each way. Because his wife had used most of the gas in both cars to power her cell phone and computer to get work done, he didn’t have enough gas to make the drive. Unfortunately, it was an “even” rationing day and both license plates ended in an odd number. Finally, he walked to the gas station with a can in each hand and waited in line for over an hour. When he finally arrived at work, his boss saw how tired Jack was and said, “If I didn’t think everyone would want to do it, I’d let you work remotely, but I just can’t set a precedent.”
Who got the most work done and took care of the damage and their family with the least amount of stress, during a very difficult period? Who was left with a positive feeling about their employer? Alex. And the reason she was able to work so seamlessly and effectively after the storm was that her company had established a disaster response plan that everyone clearly understood and that included the ability to work flexibly. Tom and Jack may have “shown up” physically but they were tired, distracted, and resentful.
Here are steps your organization can follow to make flexible work a key component of an effective disaster response plan:
Recognize that flexible work needs to be part of your disaster response plan. Assuming your organization has a disaster response plan, does it go beyond systems and communications back up? Does it include flexible ways people can work in order to keep the business up and running? Surprisingly, most plans don’t.
Don’t just focus on telework. Think about flexible hours too. Teleworking, whether at home or some other remote location, is the type of flexible work that gets the most attention in disaster scenarios. But for jobs that need to be done on site, why not use flexible hours to reduce time and energy wasted in traffic gridlock? Encourage some workers to come in much early before rush hour and others to leave much later in the day. This would have made the process of getting into work much less arduous.
Identify expectations and responses based on different “what if” disaster scenarios:
- What if the office is damaged but surrounding region is fine?
- What if the both office and much of the surrounding region are damaged?
- What if we only need to implement the disaster response plan and work flexibly for a day or two?
- What if we need to implement the plan and work flexibly for a longer period?
- Considering the jobs people have in the organization, how could people work flexibly in a disaster?
- How will employees communicate with each other and with customers?
- What type of technology  do you need in order for telework and flexible hours a successful part of your disaster response plan?
- Can employees use their own devices? What are the security concerns?
- What technology/remote workspace/transportation will the company pay for or reimburse?
- What if some people don’t have power and access to transportation but others do? What are the expectations in terms of accessibility and responsiveness?
- What if some people can work either remotely or in the office, but others can’t? What will be the policy related to compensation ?
Test the disaster response plan BEFORE an actual event occurs. Although it can seem disruptive, you have to set aside a day to test the system organization-wide before a disaster strikes. This includes having people work remotely and/or flex their hours.
Be ready to deal with the question, “If we can telework or shift our hours in a disaster, why can’t we always do it?” Good question. Once you try it, it may be hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Let success with flexible work in response to a disaster open the door to use more broadly. Otherwise you are missing out on the many productivity and cost saving benefits a more flexible approach to work can achieve.
When disaster strikes, make sure managers and senior leaders work remotely or shift their hours so employees see that it is safe to work flexibly. Otherwise, employees will not think the organization really supports it.
When the disaster is over and business is operational again, review the response plan including the use of flexible work. Gather stories of how people and the business benefited. Ask employees and customers what worked and what could be improved. Adapt the disaster response plan accordingly. For our organization, the follow-up to Sandy is that our office needs a backup generator, so at least we can have power at work.
What other steps would you include? Is the strategic use of telework and flexible hours a clearly articulated part of your organization’s business continuity plan? If not, why? If it is, how has it helped you and your organization continue to operate in the aftermath of an unexpected event?
For more details, read the remote worker disaster-response checklist .
Cali Williams Yost, CEO and founder, of the Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit, Inc., has been a pioneering expert on managing work and life in the new economy for more nearly two decades. She has shown hundreds of organizations, like BDO USA, Novo Nordisk, and the United Nations, and tens of thousands of individuals how to partner for award-winning flexible work success. Cali's second book, TWEAK IT: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day , will be released in January, 2013 (Center Street/Hachette). Connect with her on Twitter @caliyost , Google+  and Facebook .
[Image: Flickr user Ava Babili ]