How Working from Home During an Emergency Is Different

Richard Long

There is a big difference between casually working from home from time to time, and working at home because a disaster has knocked out your regular workplace. In today’s blog, we’ll explain the differences and share some tips to help you make sure your organization has a viable work-from-home plan for use during emergencies.

 

 

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

The holidays are here, which means most people will be spending a little less time at the office and a little more at home. It also means more people will be firing up their computers at home to stay on top of work.

Of course, employees working remotely from time to time has become common in recent years, whether it’s at the holidays or at other times.

Obviously, our ability to do this has its positive and negative aspects.

Of the negative aspects, there’s one in particular that concerns us here at MHA Consulting, because we often see it impacting companies’ readiness to respond to emergencies. (Today’s post benefited greatly from the input of my MHA colleague Susan Diehl-Brenits.)

 

ONE OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHER

What is the negative aspect I’m talking about? It’s the fact that, at organizations where employees are able to connect remotely and work at home from time to time, upper management and the business continuity (BC) team frequently assume that this means their organization has a sound work-from-home BC plan.

There is something we would like to tell anyone who has made this assumption: They’re not the same!

Having a few employees log on and work from home when all other aspects of the business are functioning normally is very different from having a large number of employees connect from home when almost nothing at the business is functioning normally.

To put it a different way, a casual, light-duty work-from-home capability is not the same as having a resilient remote working BC solution that can be relied on to keep the company going in the face of the loss of the primary workplace.

 

WORKING FROM HOME IS NOT LIKE A BC PLAN

There are many reasons why having a casual work-from-home capability does not equate with having a robust work-from-home BC plan. The main reason is the two work situations are very different. Working from home during an emergency presents many stresses, loads, and challenges not seen during a more casual, routine situation. Here are some of the specific things that are likely to be different:

  • During an emergency, the number of people trying to connect and work from home will probably be many times larger than is usually the case.
  • During an emergency, the staff will likely not be doing normal business activities. They will probably be doing special, high-priority activities required by the emergency, such as contacting key customers and suppliers to notify them of the situation.
  • During an emergency, many people who rarely or never work at home might be required to do so. This means the usual difficulties encountered in using collaborative apps such as web conferencing will probably become a much greater problem.
  • During an emergency, apps and systems which the organization normally depends on might not be available.
  • During an emergency, people are taken by surprise. They might not have their work laptops or other necessary equipment.

 

9 TIPS FOR BUILDING A TRUE WORK-FROM-HOME BC CAPABILITY

 Now that we’ve established how a casual work-from-home capability and a robust work-from-home BC plan are different, we can move on to sharing our nine tips on how to make sure your organization has a true work-from-home business-continuity solution. Here they are:

  1. Provide the needed laptops and other tools. Implement the policies and training needed to make sure employees have the necessary tools to carry out a work-from-home plan—in an emergency, without warning—and know how to use them. This might include a policy requiring employees to take their company laptops home each night (as well as an explanation why: not because they are expected to work at home at night, but so they will be ready to work at home the next day if there’s an emergency).
  2. Make plans to obtain more laptops, if necessary. If there aren’t enough laptops for everyone, the BC plan should set forth how this will be dealt with in the event of an emergency. (For example, the plan might state that the IT team will obtain and distribute any needed additional laptops within the first 24 to 48 hours.)
  3. Make sure everyone can connect to the network and applications. Ensure that the employees are capable of remotely accessing needed resources, such as Citrix or your VPN. Train them and test them.
  4. Make sure everyone can meet and communicate. This requires tools (such as web conferencing), knowledge, a sufficient number of licenses, and adequate capacity. Web conferencing can be tricky under ordinary circumstances, with experienced people. During an emergency, with a large number of people, including many who have never used this kind of tool before, it can be very challenging.
  5. Define the critical work ahead of time. It will not be business as usual. Emergencies impose special needs, such as the need to call critical customers or suppliers or to pull certain information that needs to be available. Each department should work this out for itself, in coordination with the BC team.
  6. Ensure your remote access capabilities can handle the traffic load. Make sure you have a sufficient number of VPN or Citrix/Xen licenses. This is the responsibility of the IT department. Ordinarily, a hundred people might connect remotely. During an emergency, 500 might need to do so. Can your network handle the burdens it would face if your facility was out of use and everyone began working from home? Does your BC plan address how to handle this type of situation?
  7. Anticipate the impact of culture. Your solutions need to work in the context of the culture at your company that exists at the time of the emergency. If there are gaps, you’ll either need to change your plans or try to (gradually) bring the culture around. (For example, if the culture of your company is strongly oriented toward in-person meetings, you might occasionally have a meeting over the web, to help people get used to the idea.) Cultural issues can be overcome through communication, training, and understanding.
  8. Make sure the employees can get the assistance they need. Ensure that everyone knows who to get in touch with when they are having problems, whether it is difficulties in accessing a system or connecting to the network, or questions about a business activity. Consider adding staff to the help desk to handle the additional calls and needs.
  9. Practice ahead of time. If and when you do need to work remotely because of an emergency, you do not want this to be the first time the staff has tried working remotely. Allow employees to start working from home occasionally to ensure they know how to connect to the corporate network from home and how to work with the helpdesk to troubleshoot a connection.

 

CARRYING ON

The ability for employees to connect remotely and start working from home is great. But a casual work-from-home capability is no substitute for a robust alternative-workplace BC solution.

Following the tips set forth above will help your organization move toward a reliable work-from-home capability—one which would truly enable it to carry on for a prolonged period if the primary workplace were made inaccessible by some type of disaster.

 

FURTHER READING

For more on working from home and other hot topics in business continuity management, check out these recent posts from BCMMETRICS and MHA Consulting:

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