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SARS virus spotlights telework

Apr 15, 20033 mins

* Can your firm function when employees can’t get to the office?

Recently Gartner issued a report blasting enterprise companies for taking their business continuity plans only half way. Most have focused on infrastructure and the ability to continue business by relocation and or back-up facilities, and failed to address crises that result from biological or health threats that affect employees’ ability to travel to the office, the report says.

At issue, of course, is the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, which has struck parts of China, as well as Singapore, Hong Kong and Toronto, Canada, especially hard. As of April 9, the World Health Organization reported 2,722 reported cases, 970 of them in Hong Kong, where Gartner analyst Dion Wiggins, co-author of the report, works.

 “Intel and HP have sent staff home to work because there were cases of SARS in the office, on the floor, in the building,” Wiggins says. “But simpler, a lot of people just aren’t comfortable going into the office right now, or there are reasons they can’t. For example, the governments of Hong Kong and Singapore have closed down all the schools — from nursery school to university. Who’s going to look after the kids? And even though Hong Kong and Singapore have a very high level penetration of broadband, a household might only have one PC, maybe two, and they might be Macs. How are employees to get any work done?”

As a result, businesses are rushing to put VPNs in place and provide workers with laptop computers. “But these things should have already been part of the business continuity plan, so in the event of disaster, you simply turn around and increase capacity, rather than start from scratch,” Wiggins argues. “If you already have a VPN capable of carrying 50 users, now you just expand it to carry 200. This stuff isn’t rocket science. If employees are uncomfortable giving out their home numbers, firms should put a call-forwarding mechanism in place in the office.”

Gartner is taking the lead on SARS research. Last week it launched a SARS Weblog and is publishing dozens of articles on how SARS is affecting businesses. 

As it turns out, Intel, which has 15,000 employees in the Asia/Pacific region, was prepared for its recent SARS crisis. One worker in its Hong Kong sales and marketing office came down with the virus at the end of March; Intel responded by sending home to work all employees who worked on the same floor as the victim. Administrative staff was given paid leave, the offices were cleaned, no new outbreaks occurred, the employee recovered, and employees returned to the office one week later, according to an Intel spokesperson.

The company has since put travel restrictions in place, to and from the region, as well as between sites within the region. Travel must be business critical, and travelers must get management approval from their site as well as from management at the destination site. “This way people at each site know who’s coming and going. We’re not health experts, but we want to make sure we don’t get a problem or contribute to the problem,” the spokesperson says.