Pandemic Preparedness: Teleworking Best Practices

By Jeff Goldman

May 15, 2009

Whether or not swine flu waylays your staff, it's important to develop telework strategies now, so that your business won't skip a beat when a crisis does hit.

Concern about swine flu is prompting companies to establish telework policies for their employees.


On April 29, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the pandemic alert level for swine flu (influenza A H1N1) to Phase 5, meaning that the virus has caused sustained outbreaks in at least two countries in one region (in this case, Mexico and the United States). As of May 14, there were 6,497 cases of swine flu officially reported in 33 countries—including 3,352 laboratory confirmed cases in the United States.

According to the WHO, “The declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.”

As a result, companies worldwide are being forced to act quickly in evaluating their level of preparedness for a possible pandemic—and organizations like Telework Exchange, WorldatWork and the Telework Coalition are facing an inevitable deluge of queries about telework policies.

“[Companies] are really looking at how to prepare for business continuity,” says Cindy Auten, general manager of Telework Exchange. “In the case that employees couldn’t come into the office, or wouldn’t feel comfortable coming into the office, how can you integrate telework into your business operations to continue operations—especially for those mission-critical employees that really need to continue working?”

Determining eligibility

The first step, Auten says, is to determine which employees are “telework-friendly”—i.e. those whose jobs are most conducive to working remotely. To that end, Telework Exchange’s Online Telework Eligibility Gizmo can be used to evaluate any employee’s telework eligibility on a scale from 0 to 100 by answering a straightforward series of questions.

And Rose Stanley, work-life practice leader for WorldatWork, says it’s crucial for companies to establish clear telework policies. “Those guidelines include such things as eligibility, what the agreed upon schedule will be (and for those full-time teleworkers, when they will make visits to the office), how family care will be handled (meaning if there are other people in the home during a telework day, it is recommended that the worker have a private area to conduct work, and that breaks and lunch hours are the designated times for visiting), and there should be some guidelines on terminating the arrangement, and that can be for either the employee or the supervisor,” she says. “There need to be clear expectations on how communication between co-workers, supervisors and customers will be handled, and a clear understanding of how the teleworker’s progress/performance will be tracked.”

While those kinds of policies might generally preclude setting up shop at, say, your local Starbucks, Wi-Fi Alliance executive director Edgar Figueroa notes that the advent of 802.11n now makes it possible for a home wireless network to deliver enterprise-level performance, “making it very simple and very comfortable for the telecommuter to work at home very effectively with Wi-Fi.” The Wi-Fi Alliance offers a series of tips on securing your wireless network here.

A new report from WorldatWork entitled Telework Trendlines 2009 [PDF file] states that the number of U.S. teleworkers grew by 39 percent over the past two years. The report credits the increase to three key factors: rising fuel and commuting costs, employers’ growing awareness of the importance of work-life balance, and “the proliferation of high-speed and wireless Internet access (which has made it both less expensive and more productive to work remotely).”

Telework Exchange’s Auten agrees that technology is key to telework adoption, particularly in enabling broadband access in remote locations. As an example, she notes that the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Office of Telework Promotion and Broadband Assistance was created specifically to bring telework opportunities to underserved areas—“and you can’t have telework, obviously, without broadband,” she says.

Don’t wait for the emergency

Regardless, Auten says, the most important thing is to start embracing telework now. “Have people start teleworking immediately, and don’t wait for the emergency,” she says. “You want people to know how they can access information, so if they have to work from home for weeks, they’re very comfortable doing it because this is already part of their regular work process.”

The point, according to Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Telework Coalition, is that any telework plan must be established well in advance of an emergency. “This is an insurance policy that you’re buying, and you can’t wait to buy life insurance until somebody dies—you can’t wait to buy health insurance until you get sick,” he says.

For several years now, Wilsker says, there’s always been a “reason du jour” for companies to take a new look at telework—whether it’s 9/11, anthrax, Katrina, bird flu, or swine flu. More importantly, he says, there are massive bottom line benefits that come with teleworking: a savings of approximately $20,000 per employee per year, not only thanks to lower real estate costs, but also due to everything from reduced utilities to increased employee retention. “You can save a fortune,” he says.

And with many companies serving an increasingly global client base, Wilsker says, the ones that have a consistent telework policy in place have a key advantage: if your office is closed due to snow or any other local issue, nearby customers might understand, but a customer across the world won’t. “It’s really a competitive situation—and those that have this capability are going to have a hell of a competitive advantage over those that don’t,” he says.

Jeff Goldman is a veteran technology journalist and frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet. For more of his work, read "Wi-Fi for your Car, Truck, or MPV."


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