When emergencies like snow storms or flu outbreaks strike, even organizations that are reluctant to let employees work from home will (or should) consider telecommuting or telework as part of their business continuity or emergency preparedness plan. Although ad-hoc workarounds in times of emergencies are possible, having an established telecommuting policy or contingency plan in place--before the emergency arises--could save businesses from substantial losses in productivity and revenue.
For employees, working for a company that has a telecommuting plan in place is a major plus when you have deadlines to meet but a driveway full of snow or a minor personal emergency like a sick family member to take care of at home. Here are some tips for both employees and employers on using technology to keep working even through emergency situations, no matter how big or small.
Employee Telecommuting Tech Requirements
Some companies shy away from telecommuting because they fear it will require a major investment in technology. But employees who have telecommuting-friendly jobs usually already have the 3 basic equipment and services needed to work from home, namely: a computer, phone line, and Internet access (and even the phone line is optional, thanks to VoIP services).
For those employees who don't have these resources already, the company will need to provide these devices and services (provisioning laptops and services to the telecommuter may, in fact, be more beneficial for companies anyway because the devices can be more securely managed and tracked). It's a good time now for both staff and management to evaluate what equipment the telecommuter may need to get the job done from anywhere.
Company Telecommuting Tech Requirements
On the employer side, access to company email and remote access to internal documents and special applications need to be established. Make sure employees know how to--and can--access their email from outside the internal network. For internal documents access, most companies set up VPN access to the office network. With some emergency situations, however, (e.g., blackouts) the internal servers may be down or inaccessible, so companies need to plan for this contingency as well, maybe by using cloud-based services including online collaboration tools where documents can be remotely stored as a backup.
Telecommuting Tools and Emergency Workarounds
If employees don't have the equipment necessary to work from home or the internal infrastructure isn't yet set up for remote access, there are many tools companies and staff can use to still work during emergency situations:
- Telework Centers: Telework centers are alternative locations where employees can work outside of the main office. These public workspaces provide a computer, phone, conferencing, and Internet access, in easily accessible locations in major metropolitan areas. The Washington Metropolitan Teleworks Center (WMTC), for example, contracts with the U.S. Federal government's General Services Administration to provide GSA Telework Centers.
- Office Lounges and Internet Cafes: Business lounges and office rentals like those provided by Regus or public Internet cafes offer similar public workspace services but are usually paid for by the individual rather than the company.
- Emergency Internet Access: Pay-as-you-go mobile broadband devices like the Virgin Mobile USB modem can be good backup Internet devices for both regular and emergency telecommuters. Tethering, or using a cell phone as a computer modem, is also a viable workaround when Internet access is down.
- Remote Access Software and Hardware: Many programs and devices make setting up remote access and file sharing easy. SharePoint, for example, is a great enterprise-class collaboration system for Windows Server, but there are also third-party solutions like LogMeIn, for example, that can let users log into their remote workstations and transfer files.
- Online Collaboration and Conferencing: As long as the employees have Internet access, Web-based collaboration tools like Huddle and online meeting tools can also make sure distributed team members stay in touch. Using online collaboration to maintain productivity in bad weather is just a smart practice.
Regardless of the specific tools used, telecommuting can be a great business continuity solution, as long as everyone: knows what resources are available in times of emergency, has access to those resources, and is able to use them. In other words, it's never too late to start implementing a telecommuting plan or evaluating your resources for working remotely.