Teleworking Essential in Managing, Preventing Pandemic

By Naomi Graychase

April 29, 2009

Government strategies for managing the swine flu (H1N1) national health emergency and future possible pandemics or natural disasters include implementing new and better telework strategies for federal employees.

The “swine flu” (influenza A H1N1) outbreak that was first identified in San Diego, CA, but was then traced by Canadian scientists to its roots in Mexico, claimed its first victim Monday when a Mexican toddler died in a Texas hospital.

While not yet at pandemic levels, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared Sunday a national public health emergency. With cases officially reported in seven countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the level of influenza pandemic alert from Phase 3 to Phase 4 on Monday. The number of affected countries has since risen to ten. The elevation of alert level indicates that the outbreak has moved from predominantly animal infections with few human infections to sustained human-to-human transmission. According to the WHO’s Web site, Phase 4 “indicates a significant increase in risk of a pandemic, but does not necessarily mean that a pandemic is a forgone conclusion.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which had reported 91 U.S. cases of swine flu infection as of this morning, recommends six things people can do to prevent the spread of the disease. The first two items on the list are  “avoid close contact” and “stay home when you are sick.” For those with the ability to work remotely, teleworking could be an essential tool in preventing the spread of the disease. Should the disease reach pandemic levels, teleworking could also become the safest way to keep essential government and other crucial services running.

Crafting a plan

In a joint press conference held Wednesday morning by the HHS, the NIH (National Institutes for Health), and the CDC, Dr. Richard Bresser, the acting Director of the CDC said that we are in a pre-pandemic period and that communities should be focusing on planning for possible school closures. The CDC has recommended that schools close when an effected student has been identified.

With some schools already closed in New York, the state worst hit by H1N1 thus far, the possibility of parents being unable to make it to work, either for lack of child care or for fear of further transmission, is a real concern.

“At the start of an outbreak, you don’t know what the course will look like. It could fizzle out in a few weeks or become more or less virulent,” said Dr. Bresser. “We have been undertaking as a global and national community intensive planning in the event that we enter a pandemic. We are asking people at the state and local levels or faith-based communities to look at the planning they’ve undertaken and move forward, so that if this were to develop into something more severe, they would know what they are going to do…We are being aggressive and forward leaning and adjusting our strategy and approach.”

Preventing the spread

With a trial vaccine still months away, a large part of community planning necessarily includes containment. It makes sense that this should include creating or updating telework policies for those in both private and public sectors.

In a memo dated Sunday, John Berry, Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) advised the heads of all government executive departments and agencies “to review previous preparations for the potential for absenteeism of Federal employees or contractors due to illness and the ability to care for sick family members or for children if schools/day care centers should close. Based on our pandemic influenza work, we know that in the most extreme circumstance, we could encounter fear of going to work, need for social distancing, and disruption of agency operations.”

Today, Berry announced an official plan to increase telework among federal employees. According to OPM, only five percent of the nation's 1.9 million federal employees telecommute. The new plan would “substantially increase” that number.

In a statement today the OPM said, “While promoting the general efficiency of operations, viable telework programs have long been suggested as an important feature of agency Continuity of Operations (COOP) Plans, as they can be implemented in short order during a national health or weather emergency.”

In addition to the health and safety advantages, Berry cited environmental benefits and increased productivity due to improved employee morale.

"I'm here to put some giddy-yap into telework," said Berry. "I was raised in the D.C. metropolitan area, so I know a little something about the traffic congestion that frustrates commuters and saps them of energy even before they get to the office. With a sensible approach to creating model telework programs, thousands more employees will work from home one or two days each week on a regular basis—and thousands fewer will be on the road. Gone will be the anxieties of commuting for these folks, and they will ‘show up for work' refreshed and ready to go. Taxpayers will benefit; and with less commuting time, employees will have additional quality hours to spend with their families and friends, or to pursue outside interests."

The components of Berry's plan are drawn from two bills which have been introduced in Congress: H.R. 1722, the "Telework Improvements Act of 2009," introduced by Representative John Sarbanes (MD), and co-sponsored by Representatives Gerald Connolly (VA), Danny Davis (IL), Stephen Lynch (MA), Tom Moran (VA), C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (MD), and Frank Wolf (VA); and, the "Telework Enhancement Act of 2009" (S.707), introduced by Senator Daniel Akaka and co-sponsored by Senator George Voinovich (OH).

First, a committee

The NIH said today that it will be several months at the earliest before a trial version of a swine flu vaccine becomes available, and an indeterminable time after that before it is ready for human use. Given the procedural hoops that must be jumped through to create new agency guidelines for telecommuting, it may be just as long before a significant percentage of federal employees find themselves able to work from home, as well.

Before taking any action, the OPM will first convene an advisory group of telework program managers “to draw on their knowledge and expertise in formulating standards for telework policies.” It will then direct agencies to submit telework policies for review against a set of standards crafted by the advisory group.

Director Berry is also encouraging each agency to establish a new Telework Managing Officer, “who would ensure telework policies are applied fairly and supported by agency managers.”

The right tools for the job

As workers shift from being entirely office-based to teleworking scenarios, having the right equipment is a major part of the equation.

Wi-Fi Planet recommends netbooks as useful and affordable second systems for part-time teleworkers. The HP Mini 2140 ($499), for instance, is durable and lightweight enough to transport back and forth to the office when necessary, and is powerful enough to handle basic work loads. It features Wi-Fi, as well as an ExpressCard slot to accommodate a cellular modem.

Setting up a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is also essential, in order to protect any sensitive data, such as WiTopia’s personalVPN software/service ($39 annually, available for Windows and Mac).

Remote access is also invaluable to workers splitting time between home and the office. For $13 a month (or $124 a year paid in advance) WebEx PCNow enables users to view and control off-site PCs as if the user were sitting in front of it, all from a Web browser. It also lets users transfer files to and from a remote PC, print out remote files without having to transfer them first, and access a Web cam, in order to can keep tabs on things while physically away from a location.

Voice over IP (VoIP) solutions can also keep telework costs down. There are several reliable and inexpensive voice over Wi-Fi possibilities on the market today. For more on that, read Wi-Fi Planet contributor Gerry Blackwell’s account of how he successfully escaped his home base in Canada and teleworked from Sicily this winter by relying on VoWi-Fi, and also visit our sister site, Enterprise VoIPPlanet.

More advice, specifically for small businesses looking to offer teleworking opportunities to their employees is here.

Naomi Graychase is Managing Editor at Wi-Fi Planet. She has been successfully and safely teleworking from her home office and various other locations since 1997.


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