How to Implement Telecommuting in a Hurryby Brian McConnell
Editor's Note: In the interest of disseminating this information as widely as possible the author grants all reprint requests without the need to obtain any further permission as long as the URL of this original article is included. This article is a companion piece to For SARS Press 1, for Bird Flu Press 2... and Building Your Own Teleconference System with Asterisk and Gizmo.
This article outlines a series of simple measures that businesses can implement so they can close their offices and send their workers home to telecommute during the peak period of a pandemic. I'll give some practical and technical advice that businesses can use to continue somewhat normal operations, even if their buildings are closed and their workers are all working from remote sites. This advice won't be very useful for industrial operations where workers must be on site, but for many information- and service-oriented businesses, this is advice worth considering.
In the event of an influenza pandemic, or any contagious disease such as SARS, public health authorities will consider restricting movement and public assembly as a way of slowing the spread of a disease. Modern office buildings, with their open floor plans and often dense concentrations of people, are not places you want to be in this situation.
Businesses should be implementing plans to proactively close their buildings, send their workers home, and continue more or less normal operations, preferably before they are told to do so by the local government. A good preparedness plan involves both practical and technological preparation. I'll start with some practical advice.
We can make some reasonable assumptions about how a moderate to severe influenza pandemic will impact business operations. A local outbreak will last four to six weeks, possibly a bit longer, although the period of maximum risk will be relatively brief. A large percentage of your workforce will either be sick or boycott the office for fear of becoming sick. Using the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic as a benchmark, roughly 2% of your workers will die (although the H5N1 strain currently circulating has killed more than 50% of the people infected, this figure is widely believed to be overstated due to sampling bias, and a much lower mortality rate would be expected since the flu would typically become less lethal over time). In brief, pandemic flu will be highly disruptive to your business and ability to continue normal operations for at least one to two months.
Think first about what essential services you need to provide during this period based on what business you are in, and how customer demand is going to change during a pandemic situation.
First, ask yourself what business functions can be disrupted for one or two months without wrecking your business. Not everything is equally critical, so you can probably let a lot of tasks pile up for a month or two without noticeably affecting service to customers. Yours and every other business will be focused on essential services. Make a distinction between tasks that require employees' immediate attention and tasks that can be put off one or several months later when you've had time to catch up.
Second, think about how this is going to affect demand for services. If you run a retail store, demand is probably going to approach zero for a while. If you run a home shopping service, plan on a surge. I am not telling you anything you don't already know, but spend some time seriously thinking about how this is likely to affect your aggregate demand, as well as how it might displace demand (for example, customers may avoid your stores but go en masse to your web site). This will help you figure out your staff plan.
Third, think about whether it might make sense to shut down completely for some period of time. If you run a bar or restaurant you may be forced to close, but if not, you may do so as a public service. In that case, plan ahead so you have funds to cover lost income, plans to furlough employees, and plan to get back up and running quickly after the threat has passed.
Lastly, if your business will be adversely affected by a drop in demand, form partnerships with businesses that will benefit from this. A retail bookstore, for example, could refer customers via an affiliate program to an online store and make some money in the process. Educate your customers and ask them to support these programs while you're unable to serve them.
If you have an information- or service-oriented business you'll also need to think about how to continue operations, even if your employees are widely dispersed. Fortunately, it is much easier to telecommute today than it was even a few years ago. There are tools you can use to quickly enable most of your workers to telecommute. This advice is most potent when combined with some practical thinking about what your employees really need to do.
For example, let's say that you have several corporate accounts salespeople who take orders from key customers. They normally enter orders into an enterprise-wide accounting system that is only accessible from a few terminals (not an uncommon situation in large corporations). The elegant (and expensive) solution provides all of these employees with some sort of remote access solution that enables them to access the corporate accounting system from anywhere. It should be that easy, but it often isn't.
This is where I opt for a low-tech "duct tape" workaround. Set one person up so he can get into the accounting system. Set the salespeople up so their office phones are forwarded to their home phones. Have the salespeople take orders down on pen and paper and then phone the orders to someone who can enter them into the legacy system.
I mention this because IT departments in most corporations I have dealt with have become reliant on over-engineered solutions that are often more easily done with this ad-hoc type of approach. This is particularly true in a disaster recovery situation where you really don't know what you are going to be dealing with or what resources you will have to work with.
My general advice is to set your operation up so that your phones and email are forwarded to employees at home and to improvise ways for them to get at in-house information systems via whatever method works. This way your customers and vendors will be able to talk to your people. Even if things have ground to a standstill, they will be able to explain what is going on and hopefully figure out a workaround. Automatic systems, by comparison, are very brittle. They may perform brilliantly in normal situations, but they can't explain your supply chain problems to a customer who is trying to place an order.
The important bit of this advice is to bypass your normal systems and focus solely on routing customer calls and emails to employees where ever they are. Figure out how to deal with the fulfillment, accounting, and other functions later on. If all else fails, revert back to pen and paper. Paper isn't obsolete and it doesn't require a VPN connection to the accounting system.
Configuring Your Phone System to Allow Telecommuting
In most cases, configuring phone systems to allow telecommuting is as simple as enabling off-site call forwarding for your users (except for call center workers, which is a different subject entirely). Your phone system should allow each extension owner to forward his or her phone to a remote number. If this feature is turned off, enable it. Don't worry about long-distance charges. If you have to close your building and send everyone home, the phone bill is the least of your worries.
Now, is also an opportune time to renegotiate your outbound long-distance service for your office. If you have not done this for several years (most companies are lazy about this), chances are you are getting screwed by your phone company. You should not be paying more than a few cents per minute for domestic phone calls, as well as most international routes.
The one trick with most business phone systems is that is difficult or impossible to reset call forwarding settings remotely (usually to prevent long distance calling fraud). Here is a simple tip that will spare you and your employees much hassle if they must work offsite for extended periods of time. Simply instruct your employees to forward all of their calls to a phone that has flexible call forwarding settings that can, in turn, be re-forwarded to another phone if needed. Have your employees give your IT department these primary offsite numbers. Then, if you need to activate this plan, you can send someone around to manually reprogram everyone's phones. Low-tech, but it works even with ancient phone systems and it's a lot cheaper than buying whatever over-engineered software package your PBX vendor wants to sell you.
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