10 tips for swine flu planning

How CIOs can get their staffs, systems ready to respond to a possible pandemic

As the swine flu outbreak spreads, CIOs and other IT executives are dusting off their pandemic plans and preparing for the possibility of high levels of employee absenteeism and extended telework scenarios. 

The swine flu threat comes at a time when IT shops are already stretched thin as a result of layoffs and other cutbacks because of the ongoing recession. We talked to several experts in the business continuity and IT operations, and here's the advice they are offering CIOs:

1. Stay calm. Model the behavior you want to see from your employees. This includes continuing to be productive but also shoring up your supplies of hand sanitizer and bottled water. "What CIOs and other managers of a company have to do is say this is business as usual, but practice better personal hygiene," says Richard De Lotto, principal analyst in Gartner's Banking and Investment Industries Advisory Services Group. "Other people will pick up on the examples set by executives."

2. Involve the entire executive team in business-continuity planning. Planning for a pandemic is not an IT issue; it's a business issue. "IT doesn't need to be driving this because it's more than just data backup," says David Potterton, vice president of global research at IDC Financial Insights. "It needs to be driven by senior business leaders…You have to understand what are your core systems and that's a business decision, not an IT decision."

3. Update and test your calling tree. Many companies have had layoffs in the last six months, and they may not have up-to-date lists of employees and multiple methods for reaching them, including current home and cell phone numbers. Update your list and conduct a test of your emergency calling system to make sure it works. "You need a reliable channel of communications known to everybody," De Lotto says. "It's either a number to call to check if you need to come in. Or a lot of companies have outbound calling systems with robotic voice notifications."

4. Check access to your data center facilities. Call the building owners of your data center facilities around the globe and make sure you will have full access to them in the event of a local flu outbreak. You may need to establish a remote hot site or to shift work from one data center to another. If you outsource data center operations, include vendors in your business continuity plans. "One center might need to pick up additional work, or you may need to fly employees out of an area," Potterton says. "There are lots of scenarios that need planning."

5. Test your telework plans and systems. Many companies will rely on employees working from home in the event of a flu outbreak. However, their remote access systems may not be ready for so many employees using them at the same time. Experts recommend a trial run, where you allow a significant number of your staff to work from home for a day and then see how well your systems and applications function. You may need to buy more ports or cards for your remote access systems. "Make sure you have high availability for your remote access systems," says Phil Hochmuth, senior analyst with Yankee Group. "Make sure you have failover to secondary remote access technologies. You want to provide as many external portals into the enterprise as you can."

6. Ensure key employees have broadband access. Dial-up access won't cut it for employees who need to use enterprise applications for an extended period of time. Make sure key employees have broadband access from home as well as mobile broadband access. Mobile data cards are a good solution, Hochmuth says. "In a worst case scenario, people may not be working from home. They may be leaving the area for health or safety reasons, and they may need to take their laptops with them." Hochmuth recommends buying mobile broadband cards from multiple carriers. "If you get a lot of those to your most important employees, that's another high availability, load balancing tactic on the end user side," he says.

7. Test your Web-based applications. Make sure that your Web-based e-mail and other applications have up-to-date feature sets. "Make sure that your Web-enabled applications are on par with the level of service in the traditional versions of the applications," Hochmuth says. "Identify a few power users and have them go through the paces of the Web mail or remote access. At the other end of the spectrum, grab one or two novice IT users and see how hard it is for them to do remote access of these applications." Hochmuth says another idea is to look at consumer-based Web applications such as Google Docs for document sharing, Skype for VoIP or AIM for instant messaging as a back-up to internal applications.

8. Cross train your employees. Figure out which key applications need to keep running no matter what, and who can keep them running. Cross-train employees so that you have enough people with the right skills and certifications to keep your mission critical applications functioning. This is especially true in regulated industries like banking, where employees need to be certified to handle customer data. "Get people cross certified so you can keep the doors open," De Lotto says.

9. Develop a degradation plan. Consider what it would take for you to run your IT shop for 13 weeks with 60% of the current staff, De Lotto recommends. "Figure out what you're not going to do so you can degrade gracefully to a lower operational status," he says. Also create lines of succession, so you know who will run your department if the boss and his boss are sick. Delineate who will be in charge, and make sure these people have proper permissions and access to data.

10. Take care of your people. The proper response to a pandemic or other disaster is for executives to make sure their employees are safe and then worry about resuming business. "Companies need to think about their people first. They tend to look at plant and equipment and not look at their labor force," Potterton says. He adds that companies need to understand that employees will take care of themselves first, then their families, and then worry about their jobs and clients.

Overall, the swine flu outbreak can be an opportunity for IT departments to refresh their business-continuity plans and to win back some loyalty from employees demoralized by layoffs and pay freezes by being sensitive to their needs. "Businesses should do what they can to be model citizens," De Lotto says.

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