Swine flu threat raises telework questions

Another reminder of the need for business continuity plans that include telework, analysts say

The possibility of a swine flu outbreak is prompting companies to think about business continuity and how options such as telework may become a necessity.

The possibility of a widespread swine flu outbreak is prompting companies to think about business continuity and how options such as telework may become a necessity.

Companies that have solid telework plans in place are in good shape, says Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of The Telework Coalition in Washington, D.C. Those that aren't prepared to have employees work offsite may find operations at a standstill if the swine flu threat were to escalate to the point of widespread absenteeism or building closures. "This is a really lousy economic time for businesses to have to go cold turkey and not be able to carry on," Wilsker says.

So far, most businesses that are inquiring about telework to address swine flu concerns are curious, but not overreacting, Wilsker says. "I'm seeing interest and concern, not panic. But people are asking if telework is something that can be used to offset this."

Wilsker sees the swine flu threat as one more reason for companies to get serious about enabling telework. Just as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the 2005 New York transit strike and the Minneapolis bridge collapse highlighted the need for business continuity plans, "it's one more thing to make organizations realize that once you're prepared for something like this, you're prepared," he says.

Research firm Gartner said the recent outbreaks of swine flu highlight the need for companies to have in place pandemic plans that address workforce absenteeism rates of 40% or higher.

The good news is that today's workforce is very mobile, and many companies are in a position to enable telework, even if they haven't formalized their telework policies, says Cindy Auten, general manager of Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership focused on promoting telework.

"Look at telework if you're not already. It's never too late to look at telework," Auten says. "Many organizations already have the infrastructure and capabilities in place, it's just a matter of outlining guidelines for employees and making sure they're ready to work in their environment."

At the best organizations, telework is incorporated into standard operating procedures and tested often -- not simply reserved for emergencies, Auten notes.

In the federal government there have been numerous grassroots and legislative efforts to increase teleworking. To date 60% of federal agencies include telework in their continuity of operations planning (COOP), but only 7.62% of federal employees telework on a regular and reoccurring basis, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management.

"In order to make a really effective telework program, and make it work for your employees, you really need to use it," Auten says. "Encourage your employees to telework, and test not only the infrastructure but also the cultural issues, such as how comfortable your employees are working remotely,"

"If you declare an emergency telework situation, and you haven't really tested it before, you can run into a lot of problems," Auten says.

Resources available online from Telework Exchange include tools and advice geared for teleworkers, teleworker managers, and IT staff related to COOP, security, best practices and legislative developments. The group also offers a calculator to help estimate cost savings and environmental benefits associated with telework.

"We don't believe that telework is the silver-bullet answer, but it really can help support a lot of the issues that are coming up," Auten says.

Telework is like a corporate insurance policy -- but one you can use on a regular basis and benefit from daily, adds Wilsker. In addition to addressing business continuity plans, "employees are going to be happier, plus telework is good for the economy, it's good for the environment, it's good for all these wonderful things."

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