Factoring teleworkers into business continuity planning

Incorporating telework staff and technologies into corporate disaster recovery plans

Savvy companies aren't just setting up employees to work from their homes because it's a nice perk to offer. They're also factoring these remote work sites into their business continuity plans.

Last week ITAC held a session at the WorldatWork conference in New Orleans about the opportunity to incorporate telework staff and technologies into corporate disaster recovery plans. WorldatWork is a nonprofit association focused on human resources issues such as benefits and compensation, and ITAC - formerly the International Telework Association and Council - is the telework advisory group for WorldatWork.

ITAC used the conference session to unveil the results of research it's been conducting to find out if telework can play a viable role in business continuity plans. It's not an obvious match-up, it seems, given that just under half (46%) of companies surveyed for ITAC's research had included telework in their business continuity plans. But there's a lot of potential in the idea, supporters say.

Jennifer Verive walked session attendees - those present in New Orleans along with virtual attendees like me - through ITAC's efforts to understand how the two disciplines could work together. Verive is CEO of White Rabbit Virtual in Carson City, Nev., which specializes in helping companies implement flexible work programs.

Verive warmed up the crowd with some sobering statistics about how disasters effect businesses. She cited research commissioned by AT&T that found nearly one in five U.S. companies suffered a disaster in 2004 that caused their companies to cease operations for a period of time. These companies typically didn't just experience one or two disasters: "The average was 9 incidences that either stopped operations or caused them to slow down. The impact of that is really significant," Verive said.

Disasters come in many forms - from terrorist acts, to acts of nature, to manmade problems. Even events that seem isolated on the surface can disrupt a company's operations. "When Britney Spears performed in Washington, D.C. it wreaked havoc on traffic in that area and people couldn't get to work," Verive pointed out.

To not include telework as part of the plan for dealing with such unforeseen events is a missed opportunity, she said. Disasters tend to affect businesses in three major areas: loss of work space, loss of technology, and loss of staff. Telework can address many of the problems that arise when a disaster causes operational chaos, according to Verive.

One reason is that teleworkers have an advantage over other employees who traditionally work in corporate offices. "Teleworkers have very strong communication and collaboration skills. They know how to interact virtually. They don't need to be face-to-face in order to do their work, or communicate important messages, or serve their clients," Verive said.

In addition, by enabling employees to work remotely, a company has already thought through many technology scenarios that could come in handy in the event of a disaster.

The trick is getting companies to weave their existing telework resources into disaster recovery plans. Companies in general focus business continuity programs on keeping systems operational and protecting data. But connecting employees and enabling them to work is equally important, Verive said.

Viewing telework as part of a continuity of operations plan is a relatively new tactic for many organizations. To find out what methods work best, ITAC interviewed representatives from a wide range of companies including Eli Lilly, JPMorgan Chase, Kaiser Permanente and MasterCard, along with government agencies including the departments of Justice, Defense, Agriculture Education, State, Interior and Treasury.

Next week I'll delve into the tips these organizations shared about how to incorporate telework as part of a business continuity strategy. If you want to learn more in the meantime, check out the ITAC Web site  for details about its new report, “Exploring Telework as a Business Continuity Strategy: A Guide to Getting Started."

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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