Telework and Disasters 2015

The winter of 2014-2015 presented a new series of natural disasters that served to demonstrate the power of telework. The eastern half of the United States suffered record-breaking blizzards and cold waves while the west coast continued its millennium drought. What an opportunity for teleworkers — at least in the east.

In case your organization has yet to adopt teleworking for disaster preparedness it’s way past time to get the attention of your CEO. Even if you’re not in one of the weather-stricken areas. Start with the fundamentals:

  1. telework works — we’ve been demonstrating that since the mid-1970s;
  2. telework works even better in a crisis situation (unless all the power goes out) — the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California provided an early example of that;
  3. most mid-sized and larger organizations have many possible teleworkers and some small organizations are staffed completely by teleworkers;
  4. all it takes to make telework happen successfully is some policy development, technology selection and testing, and personnel training and evaluation.

But, if you’re the CEO, don’t just think you’ll get around to it when it’s more convenient; when the number of pressing problems on your plate abates. The problem with that attitude is that disasters probably won’t occur according to your planning schedule. If you’re not ready when they happen you can expect some career dysfunction ahead.

There’s lots of literature available about all of the points made above. Two recent studies published by the Society for Human Resource  Management are examples: one on the productivity impacts of telework in disaster situations, the other on the tendency of teleworkers to press on regardless of obstacles. These sorts of reports have appeared consistently for four decades in the United States.

So here’s how to proceed if you haven’t done it already.  At least six months before the next disaster do the following:

  1. Establish success criteria. In addition to sheer survival during and after a disaster teleworking* has some day-to-day bottom line benefits. Define those in some measurable way.
  2. Modify your organization’s policies and procedures, as necessary, to allow/promote teleworking without undue impediment.
  3. Realize that not all jobs are location independent and therefore teleworkable. Similarly, some individuals are not well suited for teleworking from home — or managing home-based teleworkers, although they may work well if your organization has remote or satellite offices. Identify the potential teleworker-telemanager pairs.
  4. Also realize that the ability to telework successfully may not be inbred in all employees. Therefore some formal training of those identified pairs may be necessary in both the applicable technologies and management practices. Ordinarily this training shouldn’t take more that a few days plus some later fine tuning.
  5. All set? Then start teleworking. Check progress after a few weeks, comparing actual results with the success criteria established in stage 1. Adjust as necessary.

This procedure has been a winner since the mid 1980s and probably earlier under the guise of good management practices. For more details consult my book Managing Telework. Sail untouched through your next disaster.

* Teleworking here includes telecommuting; telecommuting is the local operations version of teleworking; emphasis on normal commute times less than several hours.

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