I’ve written about business continuity management (BCM) and disaster recovery for years. It turns out my research had a blind spot all along: people.
This dawned on me talking with a neighborhood friend in Austin, Texas, a fellow parent and a solid individual who serves in an operational VP role for a small company that is headquartered on the Long Island Sound. Prior to Hurricane Sandy, my friend visited his Connecticut headquarters to double-check on backup plans and BCM processes. A week after the storm, I asked him how everything went.
“Oh, our plans work fine and all of our system backups worked well -- we had a diesel generator running 24 hours straight at one point,” he said, before sighing. “But, man, the people challenges were something else…” He trailed off, shaking his head. He meant this in an empathetic way.
My friend has always lauded his company’s culture, and he still does. He recounted how hourly workers had volunteered for overtime prior to the storm to ensure all manner of backup plans and redundancies were ready to go. The company equipped employees who wanted to work at home, if the storm closed HQ, with laptops and extra screens (the researchers in the company tend to have several screens mounted on their desks).
What blew away my friend was the volume and magnitude of unique, individual personal challenges the storm caused – challenges that he and his colleagues were scrambling to address. Some employees needed to help elderly parents who had lost power for four days; others were bailing out flood-damaged homes, finding childcare in response to lengthy school shutdowns, frantically attempting to track down accurate information (e.g., when power would be restored, how to file claims, where to get housing assistance), and much more.
The organizational BCM processes had been executed and, by and large, worked very well, my friend reported. The personal hardships and challenges were much more difficult to manage – and nearly all of them spilled into the professional environment. This is not uncommon, as it turns out. A Mercer report indicates that while 62 percent of companies have BCM plans in place to address workforce readiness, only 29 percent of those companies that experienced disasters (or continuity disruptions) in 2011 followed their workforce readiness plans precisely; 20 percent of these companies report that they did not follow their workforce readiness plans at all.
The report, “Survey Report of Workforce Readiness: When Disaster Strikes,” also describes a “fact gap,” which sounds like a major cause of the low workforce readiness plan usage/success rate. In the wake of disasters, employees often suffer from a lack of access to credible and timely information from government and local information sources. When this occurs, they turn to their companies for help filling this gap.
My friend responding to an array of personal employee difficulties in the wake of Sandy experienced this gap firsthand. The communication lines between a company and its employees may be more resilient and accurate than the other lines of communication (e.g., media, neighbors, local government) that employees tap in times of distress. This places great pressure on companies and their BCM capabilities.
This makes sense, of course. In recent years more work has spilled into private lives thanks to ubiquitous Internet connectivity, smart devices and changing expectations regarding global working hours and Internet-era response times. Where we work also has undergone dramatic change in the past decade. My friend the vice president lives 1,800 miles from many of the people he manages (many of the other people he works with are in different locations around the country) .
The Mercer report identifies several lessons learned from the 142 global companies (the largest portion of which, 30 percent, are U.S.-based) in the survey that experienced disasters in 2011. Many of the following lessons can help strengthen workforce readiness plans and the increasingly important human element of BCM capabilities:
• Advise local employees to work from home until it is determined to be safe to travel, work and office, etc.
• Better define disaster measures.
• Communicate clearly and frequently.
• Do not expect all employees to follow business continuity plans.
• Ensure that employee emergency kits are fresh.
• Have in place internal employees who can help navigate language and cultural barriers.
• Reach out immediately to affected employees to determine whether they are safe.
• Put a plan in place to help local employees, even when local office space is unaffected.
• Put a plan in place to prepare for customers and/or suppliers affected by events.
• Prepare for the established recovery zone to be affected by the disaster as well.
As any seasoned BCM professional or BCM writer (even those who neglect the people element) will tell you, these lessons barely scratch the surface of all the considerations that need to be identified, managed, tracked and regularly rethought … if companies are to manage continuity as effectively and as humanly as possible.