Disasters and business continuity

The following are my comments as submitted to the 16th World Conference on Disaster Management in Toronto, ONT, Canada, June 18th. It is redundant for those of you who are telework adepts but some things are worth repeating.

    I have learned from direct experience that the best place to be during a disaster is . . . somewhere else.
    The First Law of Disaster Management is: Be Prepared.

    The Second Law of Disaster Management is: Don’t forget the First Law.

    There are some common characteristics of most disasters. One of them is that the transportation infrastructure is likely to be impaired, if not wrecked, for a considerable time, varying from days to months after the disaster event is nominally over. Another characteristic is that the telecommunications infrastructure is likely to be either unimpaired or quickly restored after the disaster event, provided that the electrical network is reasonably undamaged. This has been the case for the two most recent large earthquakes in California, 9/11, Katrina, and the tsunami in Southeast Asia. In all of these cases the telecommunications networks were restored well before the more solid infrastructure was. And in all these cases large numbers of people were unprepared to cope with their suddenly altered life situation. But some people simply kept right on with their lives and businesses, hardly missing a step. A growing number of these people enjoy that enviable position today, even though they might be in a potential disaster area.

    Who are these lucky stiffs? They are the people whose work doesn’t necessarily depend on where they are when they do it, whose main communications mode can be via telecommunications. They are the location-independents. Three-fifths of them are information workers, mostly commuting from home to office and back. When they get to their offices they spend a good part of their time on the phone or at a computer communicating with someone else — somewhere else. That commuting produces daily traffic jams and immense losses in productivity — to the tune of at least USD60 billion annually, even now — and even without a disaster. This is because many people — and their bosses — think that they need to GO to work to go to work. Well, many of them don’t have that need. They can telework.

    Telecommuting is the substitution of information technology for the daily commute to and from the office. The term teleworking expands that definition to include other forms of work-related travel — such as my talk to you today where I’m in Los Angeles and you’re in Toronto. About four-fifths of all information workers, roughly half of the workforce in developed countries, are potential part- or full-time telecommuters at today’s technology levels. In the US the average telecommuter works from home about half time; the rest of the time is in an office somewhere. The thirty-plus million US telecommuters will save about 4.4 billion gallons of gasoline and prevent almost 50 megatons of CO2 and 2.7 megatons of other pollutants from entering the atmosphere this year, not to mention the effect on the other commuters of those non-commuting vehicles and non-emitted gases. So telecommuting is one important way of stretching our dwindling oil supplies and forestalling global warming while we invent viable and sustainable alternatives to those portents of disaster.

    So what? What does this have to do with you and your organization?

    To paraphrase a former US President’s campaign slogan: It’s the bottom line, stupid. Telecommuting adds to the bottom line of employers. Telecommuters don’t need as much office space. The productivity of telecommuters is higher than that of their in-office colleagues. Telecommuters are more loyal to their employers; they don’t use as much sick leave as their non-telecommuting colleagues. They don’t even need to live near your facilities — or in your country, if you’re finding that quality talent is hard to come by locally. As a rough rule of thumb you can figure that each telecommuter adds a bonus of 20% of his/her salary to their employer’s bottom line. That’s net; after operating expenses. Every year. Even with the up-front expenses of starting a formal telecommuting program, the first year of active telecommuting will likely show a net benefit. You can do the math yourself on our web site: www.jala.com.

    The telecommuters’ bottom lines also benefit. For example, their car, clothing, day care and lunch expenses decrease. But of far greater importance to the telecommuters is the escalation of their feelings of being in control of their lives, of their ability to be creative. Family togetherness grows; they get to fit their work life into their personal life instead of the other way around. Their productivity increases aren’t magic; they’re the result of working more effectively. The communities in which they live benefit as well, through such means as greater citizen participation in local government and such intangibles as enhanced community spirit.

    In addition to the daily economics there’s the problem of coping with disasters. Floods, fires, terrorist attacks, earthquakes and just plain lousy weather are all occasions where telecommuting has proven effective in rapid recovery — to the point where a telecommuting plan is a necessary component of the disaster plan of every State of California government department. That’s because we demonstrated that State workers could keep right on working from their homes after their San Francisco offices had been demolished in the 1989 earthquake near Santa Cruz, CA.
    Similarly, many New York companies with lower Manhattan offices developed instant telecommuting operations after 9-11. After Katrina wireless telecommunications was able to help many companies maintain their businesses via teleworking. Is bird flu the next opportunity?

    Now, remember the First Law of Disaster Management? Well, the time to get prepared is now, not after it’s too late.

    So much for what good is telecommuting. How do you do it?

    First, the bad news. Unfortunately, telecommuting doesn’t work for everyone, only about every other one. It all hinges on location independence. That is, if a worker can do some or all of the work anywhere, then that work — and the worker who performs it — is location independent. So the trick is to see how much of each worker’s work is location independent and use telecommuting to move the location of that part of their work to or near the worker’s home. Then their commuting is reserved for those occasions when they need to be in the office for such things as face-to-face meetings or access to special equipment or files.

    As you can imagine, it’s a little more complicated than that. For example, for various reasons some people can’t or don’t want to work from home. Yet they might work quite effectively at a telework center close to home or easily reachable by transit. It is also crucial to mold the worker’s organization to accommodate telecommuting — or telework in general. The best way to do this is before formal telecommuting starts. So let’s look at those up front expenses.

    These involve setting up the appropriate organizational policies and work rules; finding suitable telework center locations if that’s a desirable option; selecting and training managers, telecommuters, and co-workers to work together effectively apart; selecting and testing the kinds of technology that will enable sufficient levels of transparency in the telecommuting process; and evaluating performance in order to fine tune the telecommuting process.

    Central to this is what I call Management by Results, a variant on Peter Drucker’s Management by Objectives. This is in contrast to Tom Peters’ Management by Walking Around. The problem with Management by Walking Around is that it can’t be done when your employees are scattered around the countryside. Managers can’t base their performance estimates on how busy their employees look if they can’t see them. So they have to change their focus to the mutually agreed upon results, not the process, of their employees’ work. This shifts the responsibility for work performance to the worker as producer rather than the manager as overseer. The focus of the manager’s job changes to leading rather than administrating. When this is done properly the benefits I mentioned earlier are sure to come.

    So if you subscribe to that entrenched basic assumption that you need to GO to work to go to work you need to rethink it, particularly if you can’t get to work through the rubble, water, snow, flood or mud. You’ll find that telecommuting can help clear the air, delay the impending global energy crisis, cut back on global warming, and contribute to your bottom line as well. Do your bit. Plan to start telecommuting today, if you haven’t already.

    By the way, my assertions are based on our own three decades of research that includes many telecommuting implementation projects, as well as national surveys. You can find out more on our web site. Canada, by now, should have more than 2.5 million telecommuters if y’all have developed like the US. There are likely more than 75 million teleworkers in the combined OECD countries.

Jack Nilles

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