Work from home (WFH) has finally become an accepted business continuity/disaster recovery (BC/DR) strategy. And it appears that it is becoming a large and a permanent part of companies’ employment strategies.
I am personally very familiar with WFH on both counts. Though this practice has long been used by writers like me, it took a major disaster to bring literally home its value on a larger, global scale.
The 9/11 Experience
I, along with my wife, sister-in-law, and our colleagues were among the many who evacuated our New York City workplaces when terrorists struck the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
My wife and I had passed the twin towers on the bus from the Staten Island Ferry terminal when the first plane hit. We, the other passengers, and the driver gaped in horror at the smoke billowing from the north tower. Then, minutes after I had exited my stop, I saw the second plane smash into the south tower in an orange fireball.
My sister-in-law had taken the subway instead; she had heard a loud bang as her train passed underneath the towers. Meanwhile our son, a paramedic, was called in to perform triage at what will forever be known as Ground Zero.
When the Call Center Magazine management decided to close our offices, I carried my briefcase and company-issued laptop the many blocks to the New York Waterway terminal for the ferry to New Jersey, joined by my wife, sister-in-law, and, for part of the way, by my colleague, Joe Fleischer.
I also had slung on my shoulder a brightly colored emergency pack that had been supplied by my employer. Our publication had reported to management that was headquartered in San Francisco; they were no doubt thinking earthquakes rather than terrorism.
That evening, from a friend’s home in New Jersey, for the authorities would not let anyone cross the bridges from the state into Staten Island until two days later, I sent, and replied to, the “Are You OK” emails.
And I have been working from home for most of my career ever since.
I was not alone. From what I’ve been reading, other office evacuees, and those who fortunately in retrospect could not get into Manhattan, also worked from home.
But most workers did so temporarily and understandably so. The technology was not like it is today; there was much less residential broadband and video for conferencing was exceedingly crude and only practical inside offices. And, more critically, very few managers accepted the practice.
Yet the 9/11 attacks showed that there was a both a safer, disaster-resilient and a practical alternative to bricks-and-mortar offices, including for contact centers. That you could work and communicate with customers and colleagues remotely, even with the tools of the time.
And as much as I liked the famous Staten Island Ferry, such as kicking back on the way home on the outside deck with a cold beer on a warm summer evening, I did not missing having to spend 90 minutes or so each way to travel into my office on it and the bus. Only to perform the same tasks that I was able to perform at home, including staying in touch with colleagues. In fact in the office we used email to communicate with each other even to those who were in adjacent cubicles.
The Risks At Home
But I also knew all too well the disaster dangers at home.
I spent part of my growing up in northwestern Ohio tornado country, where we had tornado drills in school, with all of us climbing under our desks. And for good reason. The horrific Palm Sunday tornados wreaked deadly havoc around us in 1965.
Years later, while living on Staten Island, we saw a scary row of flames on a ridge in Clove Lakes Park that lay across the street from our home. Later, when we moved to Vancouver Island, we watched the helicopters siphon water from a nearby river and fly off to douse a forest fire.
But it was Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy that brought home the vulnerability of homes, and home offices. When the storm threatened our Jersey Shore community we heeded the mandatory evacuation order, loading our car with clothing, bedding, food, and bottled water.
I also let my colleagues know what was happening and shut down and packed my laptop. And I made sure I had the emergency pack. The same one I carried on 9/11, just over 11 years earlier.
There was a limited window to leave as we had arranged to stay in my late sister-in-law’s apartment on Staten Island while she was in a hospital there for some treatments. And we needed to get to her place before the winds became too high to safely cross the bridges that connected it with New Jersey and forcing their closure: which occurred a few hours after we had arrived. Fortunately there were multiple routes out of our community to the bridges and the traffic was moving well.
When my wife and I returned home, on Election Day at dusk, and with enough fuel for our car thanks to our son–there were shortages and long lines at the gas stations–the scene was eery. There was no power or lights. And there were armed National Guard soldiers at the barricades checking IDs.
Fortunately our building had very little damage, even though it was located across the street from the beach. And the owners had brought in a generator to power the sump pump, and ensured it was always fueled, so we had heat and hot water if no power, which was not restored until a few weeks later.
Only in the morning light did I see the extent of the destruction. The boardwalk and beachfront pavilions that had helped define our community were rubble or hollowed out shells and there was debris everywhere.
Even amidst this chaos I still had to work. Commuting to where the offices were, like northern New Jersey and New York City, was not an option. Sandy had ripped apart the New Jersey Transit commuter railroad tracks, twisting the overhead wires that powered the trains like spaghetti and tossing boats onto the rails. And there was a 5pm curfew to meet.
So I grabbed my gear and drove with my wife to the nearest Starbucks that had power, some 15 to 20 minutes away, found a power outlet and seat, and hunched down with the many others who were in the same situation. We switched to another Starbucks nearby early in the afternoon to avoid wearing out our welcome. Remembering to make sure we got back home in time.
How to Safeguard WFH Employees
These experiences led to this question: how best to protect WFH employees like myself, and contact center agents and supervisors, in the face of disasters?
And the answer lies, perhaps not surprisingly, in generally the same ways as ensuring the safety of those who work in bricks-and-mortar facilities.
Only in this instance it has to be a partnership between the employees—after all it is their homes—and their employers.
For employers these strategies should include, but not limited to:
- Training your agents and supervisors how to WFH, including how to engage with colleagues and manage staff remotely. Stress self-discipline and the ability to problem-solve by themselves, such as fixing minor technical issues
- Employing staff who live in different climatic and geologic zones from each other and from bricks-and-mortar facilities. This will enable BC/DR, and yes customer service, when a major disaster strikes in a specific locale
- Setting up a BC/DR plan that has been specifically written for WFH employees, including whom to reach, and stay in touch with them
- Equipping staff with the same tools that they use in bricks-and-mortar facilities
- Requiring or supplying remote staff with surge protectors in order to protect their computers, monitors, and other hardware, like routers and cell/smartphone chargers (more later on them)
- Consider having staff invest in or allot money for them to buy home office-sized battery uninterruptible power supply or UPS systems to provide short-duration power to support the hardware and peripherals they need to perform their work. In many instances the utility power will be out, but the voice/data connections will still be there
- Training and ideally dedicating IT staff to support WFH and mobile employees
Perhaps the best approach for employers is to go WFH-first, bricks-and-mortar second, and build their processes and procedures accordingly.
And for staff:
- Choosing a home, whether a house or multi-unit condominium or rental building that are in low-risk areas and which have multiple evacuation routes
- Looking for and be assured that the premises have reliable power and voice/data connectivity
- Selecting a new or remodeled or recently renovated home and well-kept building to be reasonably assured that they meet the latest building codes with no safety issues
- Have, train, adapt to the home, and follow the emergency preparedness guides prepared by authorities. That includes having enough medications for the duration; I carry a list with the name of my pharmacist
- Ensuring their vehicle(s) is in good shape, has enough fuel, and is ready for emergencies
- Staying in touch, especially including on social media, with the latest developments
- Finally, keeping the cell/smartphones charged at all times. But only use these devices when absolutely necessary in order to keep the networks free for emergency interactions
Michele Rowan, President, Work From Home Alliance, is seeing more companies gradually become involved with employees’ home office setups as WFH becomes a permanent workplace rather than only as a short-term BC/DR strategy.
“Companies need to change their BC/DR plans to view that the first place that employees are working are at home,” said Rowan. “And many companies are participating in the material shift in cost to employees, by furnishing stipends, allowances, equipment, and services.”