Work, after Sandy
Teleworking and low-tech alternatives allowed many people to continue working in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
By Kyra Cavanaugh and Jaime Leick
Work&Place Journal Issue 2 – February 2013 Pages 32-35
Tags: business continuity • telework
As “Superstorm Sandy” loomed, off the coast of North Carolina USA in late October 2012, we thought of all the telework pieces we’ve ever written about maintaining productivity in a disaster. This storm was no different, and as Sandy subsided, media outlets everywhere began reporting on the benefits of remote work. Sometimes, of course, work can’t continue as planned. Jaime Leick, a member of the Life Meets Work team, learned this lesson from an old college friend:
“Julie Broihier was a college friend of mine and bridesmaid at my wedding, but I rarely get to see her since she left the Midwest to become a bona fide New Yorker. She married a local boy and now lives on Long Island. I waited days to hear how her family fared in the storm. Finally, her sister posted an update to Facebook. All was well, but internet was out and phone was spotty. It took four days before Julie and I could trade text messages and three more after that before an actual phone call was possible.”
Julie is a project manager with the World Trade Center Health Program at Stony Brook University. The governor asked all non-essential state employees to stay home immediately after the storm, but Julie’s team felt the clinic should be available.
Getting to work wasn’t the issue—she had a full tank of gas. Although a week after the storm she still had coworkers waiting two hours to get gasoline and counting themselves lucky to be among the “first” in line.
For her, the real hurdle was childcare. Roughly 900,000 Long Island customers were without power, her children’s school and daycare included. She was able to drop off her girls with the in-laws, although they too lacked electricity.
Julie says many of her coworkers live alone, and for them coming into work was preferable to sitting in a dark apartment. But for her, she admits, she was glad when the clinic closed early. “I was torn,” she says. “As a manager, I felt like I needed to be there. But I was also thinking about my community and all their needs.”
Clearly telework won’t always work—not when power and communication services go down and not when people are coping with anxiety and loss. But, for every employee who couldn’t work after the storm, there were hundreds more who could. All over New York, work was still getting done.
Many employees were able to log in remotely from home. Others simply did “thought-work,” drafting letters, creating action plans. And still others—like Julie—did inadvertent team building in the office, coming together to assess the organization’s needs and capabilities.
As Superstorm Sandy loomed, organizations began rolling out their disaster plans, topping off generators with gasoline, and warning employees to bring their laptops home in case the storm made travelling unsafe.
The reality, of course, is that the storm knocked out power to roughly 8.5 million people across the east coast. And many of those that did have power didn’t have internet or phone service.
So for many organizations, telework (in the technical sense) wasn’t an option. But for plenty, work continued in different, “less modern” ways. Here are some quick thoughts on how work can still be meaningful and productive, even when your systems are offline:
• Tackle projects that require big picture thinking—the kind we never slow down long enough to do otherwise.
• Work on strategic planning, writing, visioning.
• Do goal-setting for you and your team.
• Take advantage of the camaraderie and team building opportunities that come from weathering the storm together.
• Envision new initiatives that would improve the meaningfulness of your job—something you’ve always dreamed of starting but never had the time to plan out.
• Clean out files, organize your work space—purging tangible stuff often makes room for ideas.
• Catch up on industry magazines and journals that you have had the best intentions to read
If you have phone but no internet, make calls to contacts you’ve been meaning to reach out to but haven’t taken the time—old colleagues, coworkers from past jobs, etc.
Or collaborate over the phone with coworkers on a current project. Going back to older forms of communication can change the dynamic of the work you usually do face-to-face or via videoconference.
While telework is a cornerstone for business continuity plans, it won’t always work the way you plan. What we learned with Sandy is that work can still happen, even when IT systems go down. The everyday takeaway, then, is for all those organizations who think they can’t telework because they don’t have a virtual private network, cloud file storage, video conferencing—or any of those other tech tools we associate with virtual work. Don’t let technology hurdles get in the way of your company’s work-from-home plans. Go old school. Consider what it used to mean to take work home with you, and think about how you could free your employees from
In the week after the storm, we were able to trade email messages with Kelly O’Neill, a program manager with the Families and Work Institute (FWI). Headquartered in Manhattan, FWI was in the blackout area, so email and file servers were down for the week.
Luckily, O’Neill reported that most of the team still had internet access and power at home. “This meant that all of our staff worked remotely. It looked a little different for each one of us depending on what kinds of services you still had available at home and the type of work you were doing,”
Eve Tahmincioglu, another member of the FWI staff, sent this message: “When our office email wasn’t working, we were able to text each other and also utilize our own private email accounts to keep the work flow moving.” Tahmincioglu, who commutes to the city by train, had no way to get into work following the storm. Childcare was also an issue. “Given my kids were not able to go to school because of the storm, telework worked out great,” she wrote.
Among the work O’Neill accomplished from home was to draft a disaster preparedness plan (she acknowledges the irony) with strategies on working from home. For other members of the FWI team, the blackout was an opportunity to focus on writing and strategic thinking in lieu of busy travel and meeting schedules.
Later, we were able to learn about strategies other companies had in place to work after the storm. At KPMG, for example, on-site childcare was set up so employees could tend clients or even run personal errands. The office was open on the weekend, as well, so employees and their families had a warm place to relax, charge their electronics, and enjoy a hot meal.
PwC provided bus transportation from a severely impacted office to an alternate work site and made conference rooms available to clients displaced by the storms. They set up a database for partners and staff to help organize carpools, generators, and lodging.
Many companies kept their cafeterias open, made arrangements with area gyms so employees could use the shower facilities, organized shuttle services, extended paid time off for affected team members, flexed start and stop times, and stepped up community contribution efforts.
Of course there are lessons to be learned as well. Families and Work Institute is keeping a collection of post-Sandy stories on its website so that companies can share best practice information. The American Montessori Society, for example, shared that leaders needed up-to-date contact lists for employees available at their homes—not just on work computers. Several other organizations reported a need for better communication plans, with some considering social media tools as a way to disseminate information.
Telework and business continuity
A short list of major news events that have caused workplace disruption and distribution.
• Superstorm Sandy (2012)
• NATO protests (repeated)
• Olympics (repeated)
• UK riots (2011)
• “Snowmaggedon” (US East Coast, 2010)
• H1N1 (“swine flu” epidemic, 2009)
• Minnesota bridge collapse (2007)
• Hurricane Katrina (US Atlantic region, 2005)
• H5N1 (“bird flu” epidemic, 2004).
Planning ahead for telework
For many companies, telework was already a part of day-to-day operations, and they had the advantage in responding to the storm. When we talk to clients about implementing a telework strategy as part of a business continuity or disaster preparedness plan, we emphasize that the system must be used on a regular basis. It’s not enough to put remote work tools in place but reserve them for emergency situations.
Without regular testing and practice, remote work systems can fail on so many levels. Employees forget how to log in and bombard IT with basic help calls. Networks that were thought to be adequate go down when overloaded with too many remote work requests. Employees and managers miss critical communication exchanges because they’ve never really learned how to operate in a virtual environment. Essential information, files, and databases turn out to be inaccessible because the process was never tested.
For telework to work in a disaster, your employees have to use it regularly. They need to be comfortable with both the technology and the interpersonal skills required to remain productive outside the office. At O2, Great Britain’s telecommunications giant, company leaders took “disaster planning” one step further in the run up to this year’s summer Olympics. Many months in advance, the company ran a one-day test in which nearly all of its 2,500 employees worked remotely for a day. The goal was to try out the company’s improved networks and collaboration technologies, ensuring everyone was able to get online and communicate as needed…before an influx of tourists tied up the city’s transportation infrastructure for weeks on end.
Telework, beyond disaster
The benefits to telework go far beyond disaster planning, of course. For HR, there are the obvious talent management benefits like recruitment and retention and expanding a company’s geographic talent pool. For real estate, there’s the opportunity to shrink the company’s office space through hoteling and fulltime remote work options.
For those concerned with corporate social responsibility, telework is an opportunity to shrink commuter miles, reduce the organization’s carbon footprint, and support other triple bottom line (profits, people, planet) objectives.
For those in wellness, telework is a way to reduce stress, give employees more control over their schedules (which increases health habits like proper diet, sleep, and exercise), and encourage employees to log in from home when they are sick and contagious. And then we have diversity and inclusion benefits, ADA compliance, and the many, many examples in which telework triggered increases in productivity.
If the lessons from Superstorm Sandy weren’t enough to convince leadership that your organization needs an active telework program, point to other bottom line benefits that align with current strategic initiatives. W&P
Hurricane Sandy and operational building resilience
Nigel Griffiths calls for a sharing of experience
The impact of nature looks as though it can still bring down business operations – and it seems despite the efforts across the facilities management (FM) profession. For those of us in the relative safety of the UK watching events unfold on the east coast of the US, it did seem that much operational resilience built into New York hospitals and corporate buildings was compromised. Perhaps this is unfair, but the news clearly showed a hospital having to be evacuated as a result of power outage and the lights going out across the city as the hurricane struck.
Many of us in the corporate real estate profession which includes FM, have experience of having to evaluate and advise businesses on the risks, and actions to be taken to achieve desired levels of operating resilience. For the major banks in the UK operating globally, it is usual to find resilience requirements ranging from n+1 to 2n depending on the activities within each area of the building. Typically the solution can involve the use of uninterrupted power supply to batteries of heavy duty standby generators kicking in the moment the external power source goes down. In my experience there are even secondary generators to back up the first bank with sufficient fuel based on worst case scenarios. So I was surprised to see vast areas of black out on our TV screens. From the country that often sets the standard for leading on quality real estate service levels this was surprising. So something appears as though it went wrong.
From disasters such as this though comes opportunity for us to all learn from the experience of others. Why did the levels of resilience fail? Was it a lack of maintenance or investment? Or was it that the standby generators and their switchgear and fuel were positioned in building basements and were vulnerable to the tidal surge? We need to know so as we can best advise our clients based on the real experience of our colleagues across the water. This may require all of us to rethink our approach on building future operational resilience for the work place.
And lastly, is this not a lesson for all those at senior business levels who think corporate real estate and FM has no impact on business?
About the Authors
Nigel Griffith FRICS is a director of Aslan Corporate Real Estate Services
Kyra Cavanaugh is the founder and president of Life Meets Work, a Chicago-based workforce innovation firm specializing in dispersed and flexible work. Life Meets Work helps organisations create preferred workplaces, building successful flex cultures that attract the best talent and maximise productivity. The online membership community (lifemeetswork.com) is the place for human resource and work/life professionals to keep pace with best practices and trends in workplace flex. Kyra also offers speaking, training and consulting to companies implementing flexible work
Jaime Leick is the content manager for Life Meets Work. She is a writer, helping B2B and B2C companies create compelling content and share thought leadership.
Changing weather patterns, security incidents, transport collisions, industrial and civil unrest…we saw it all in 2012, and we will probably (sadly) see it again this year. Workplace strategists must consider both avoidance (as Kyra & Jaime discuss), and where absolutely necessary to ‘be there’, appropriate levels of building services resilience.
Go old school. Consider what it used to mean to take work home with you, and think about how you could free your employees from the office’
Without regular testing and practice, remote work systems can fail on so many levels’
Metropolitian Transportation Authority/Patrick Cashin
Metropolitian Transportation Authority