The World Health Organization recently elevated the H1N1 epidemic to “pandemic” status, meaning the virus has spread across every continent and still presents significant risks to public health. Few people realize that nearly half of all the H1N1 cases being tracked are right here in the U.S. We’re focused on things like washing our hands more often, but as employers and individuals, are we prepared for what happens next?

The problem is we don’t yet know what will be asked of us.

It is precisely for situations like these – in the time before an event like a pandemic escalates further and creates a series of challenges that happen in rapid succession – that employers draft formal business continuity plans.

Increasingly, companies are finding that teleworking is an essential tool in preparing for, and recovering from, a catastrophic natural or man-made disaster. Whether it is “home-based” or “remote-office based,” teleworking moves the work to the employee, rather than moving the employee to the work, which, in the event of a pandemic, can help prevent the spread of health risks.

Situations like the current swine flu pandemic have happened before. During the SARS breakout of 2003, many Hong Kong and Montreal based firms opted for teleworking to conduct “business as usual,” thereby minimizing human contact while still working closely with customers. In fact, SARS was a catalyst for many businesses that are integrating teleworking into their business continuity plans as a means of “social distancing” while operating critical functions within the organization.

Implementation Steps for Disaster Preparedness
Every employer is unique in the needs and considerations that must go into planning, but the key to business continuity is emergency preparedness, which entails having a program in place that has been tested prior to the emergency and an advocate that can champion the program. Consider these issues:

  1. Gaining support from all levels of management. Management will need to know how telework would impact productivity and the bottom line.
  2. Knowing which employees could work from home or a remote location. Some jobs may not seem appropriate for teleworking at first, but in an emergency, all employees may need to work from home or another location.
  3. Locating alternative facilities where employees could work. If your building becomes inaccessible, all work may need to be performed from an alternate location.
  4. Determining equipment needs and resources. At a minimum, you need to determine the types of equipment necessary for employees to accomplish their work. This can vary for each employee or work unit.
  5. Developing remote access to office files. Teleworkers may need access to information and software to perform tasks. Some companies have back up files stored off-site, which can be accessed in an emergency.
  6. Training employees and managers on teleworking procedures. Businesses have found that employees with prior teleworking training are able to respond quicker and more effectively to unexpected circumstances.
  7. Establishing a teleworking pilot program and monitoring results. A well-rehearsed plan is important to ensure your business can respond to a crisis. A pilot program for select employees can help polish your emergency teleworking procedures.


Lessons Learned From Recent Disasters
Employers that have had to put their business continuity plans into motion offer this wisdom:

  1. The telecommunications infrastructure may be more robust than the roadway infrastructure.
  2. Investments in technology and back-up systems are the backbone of many recovery programs.
  3. Pre-planning and testing of the plan are the key to quick recovery.

Employers can learn more about what makes a solid business continuity plan when they attend The Clean Air Campaign’s next Lunch and Learn event on telework, the telework tax credit and the role of telework in business continuity planning on July 16.