Sometimes situations make it dangerous or impossible for employees to come into work. If there’s no other option for job completion, operations will grind to a halt. Natural disasters or extreme weather can hinder travel or shut down a facility for days. The spread of the COVID-19 virus has added to the uncertainty businesses face. In areas where it becomes widespread, businesses may have to shut their doors or restrict on-site operations to essential personnel. The CDC has urged businesses to make contingency plans, including the expansion of telework options, while companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Apple have all begun to enforce remote work for their personnel.

A note on terminology: “telecommuting” and “telework” are closely overlapping terms. Telecommuting usually means routinely working from home or another remote location as a convenience. Telework can include this, but it’s more often used for remote work necessitated by special circumstances. We’re looking at this sense of telework here, though planning for it will also aid in normal telecommuting.

Do You Have a Telework Plan?

If your business is going to stay productive even when many employees can’t come in, you need to have a well-designed and tested plan for telework. The employees should have enough training and information to switch to it on short notice and be able to carry out their normal tasks.

Such a switch affects many stakeholders, and you need to consider the impact on all of them. When designing the plan, you need to consider many questions.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • What will happen if some or all of your locations become inaccessible? Is the company still able to operate? How long can it run that way?
  • Which employees can work from home, and which ones have to come in? There are almost always some people who have to work on-site, except in emergencies. Postpone physical maintenance. Someone might need to come in to reboot computers. Others may not be able to work from home for personal logistical reasons.
  • What will employees require to do telework? They will need devices to connect from, and not everyone has a desktop or laptop. Data may be on machines that are accessible locally. Paper records could be necessary. How much can the employees do given these limitations?
  • How will employees get notification of a telework situation? Will it be possible to reach everyone before they’re on the road?
  • How will employees access the necessary infrastructure, applications, and files? A VPN with accounts for all of them is necessary to reach on-premises servers securely. Cloud services present less of a problem, but you have to make sure that security restrictions don’t prevent them from using the cloud from home.
  • How will customers and business partners reach people? Can phone calls be re-routed to their cell phones? If video conferencing is important, is there a way to set it up from people’s homes, or will an alternative such as audio-only conferencing be better?
  • What location-specific issues are there? If one location has to be closed, can workers do their jobs elsewhere? Can they move needed items from the affected location to the alternate one?
  • What obligations are there? Do you have a legal or contractual obligation to keep the place open if possible? What requirements do labor laws and union agreements impose?

Emergencies

Emergencies, by definition, take you by surprise. O’Reilly learned this when it had to shut down its headquarters due to the 2017 wildfires. It has since moved much of its operations to the cloud and is in a much better position to deal with future telework situations. It’s better to have contingency plans ready before they’re needed.

What Should Your Telework Plan Include?

A plan for emergency telework starts with an identification of its goals. They will include things like what services will be maintained and what level of productivity is expected. Identifying what isn’t a realistic goal is as important as deciding what to include.

The Telework Enhancement Act, passed by Congress in 2010, provides direction for government agencies’ telework plans. It doesn’t have any legal force for private businesses, but it’s useful as a model to get ideas from. The site telework.gov has many resources available, including ones that private businesses can adapt.

A telework policy is an essential part of the plan. It should set the criteria for participation and the obligations of employees. Employees should know what is expected of them and what the company will do to facilitate telework.

The plan should assess the impact of moving to telework. What will the effect be on normal business requirements? Will remote hours work? What will have to be postponed till normal commuting can be restored, and how long can it be put off?

What technology is needed to support telework? Moving services to the cloud makes it easier, but any change to operations requires time and resources. A VPN is a central piece of a telework or telecommuting infrastructure, but securing it and making sure it includes all necessary components takes planning and testing. Work on these changes should start well before an emergency arises.

The plan has to include provisions for training. Employees should know how remote access works and what they’ll be expected to do. They need to have contact information and know the chain of communication.

Working at home is difficult for many people because of distractions. Training can help them to establish boundaries and learn how to deal with family situations.

Running Pilot Groups

woman working from home (telework)

Moving to telework is a big step, and any plan for it requires testing and refinement. Before trying it out on a company-wide scale, you should start by testing with some pilot groups. The test will run just a day or two, with a selected group of employees who have received training.

The members of the group should get notification at least a week in advance, so they can get ready and adjust their schedules. A real-life emergency doesn’t offer such luxury, but the point is to start with easy steps. The first attempt will turn up enough complications regardless.

During the pilot test, the employees should act as if a full telework situation is in progress. They can contact people on site for assistance if necessary, but they should log all such contacts.

The test will inevitably turn up issues that no one had noticed. That’s the point. The testers should get assurance that they won’t be blamed for issues which everyone had failed to consider. Items that are likely to turn up include information resources that are available only in the office. For instance, required images for a project might be only on SD cards at the facility. (That’s a problem in itself, since it indicates a lack of backup.)

The goal is to identify and remedy any gaps in the telework plans. After each pilot run, there will be a review where the participants report in detail what worked and what issues they encountered. A remediation plan will correct as many of the problems as possible. The process can repeat as many times as necessary, till everyone is confident that the company is ready for a large-scale test.

Running a Full-Company Continuity Exercise

The final step in testing is a company-wide test. FEMA has created a template that offers a starting point for planning such testing.

This type of exercise is necessarily disruptive, so it requires especially thorough planning. Qualified people need to be put in charge and know what they have to accomplish. Employees should get ample notification of the exercise. They should know in as much detail as possible what to expect.

In a real emergency, employees would not be able to come to the office to pick up the materials they need. However, to be realistic, the test shouldn’t let them do this. At the same time, it’s necessary to stay flexible. Emergencies and critical business needs take precedence over the exercise. If someone has to come in to avert a hazard, let them. Make sure there’s a way to get in, should it be necessary.

Reviewing the Pilot and Full Exercises

Following up with a review is as important as the exercise itself. All participants should be interviewed or fill out a detailed questionnaire on their experience. They need to understand that they won’t be penalized for any problems that arose, as long as they followed directions to the best of their ability.

Questions could include the following:

  • Did you have access to everything you needed to perform your job? If not, what was lacking?
  • Were there any breakdowns in communication, for either technical or logistical reasons?
  • Is it necessary to adjust the workflows to facilitate remote work?
  • Were there gaps in the software capabilities or network infrastructure that got in the way?
  • Did you have all the required hardware, devices, and documentation necessary to work from home?
  • If you communicate with customers, how did they respond to the change? Did they notice?
  • How good was the quality of the voice or video channels used?

Conclusion

More broadly, employees should give feedback on how the situation felt. Remote communication is harder than in-person discussions when it comes to emotional nuances and body language. An at-home situation isn’t always ideal for concentrating on work. It isn’t possible to solve all of these problems, but it helps to know how much of an impact they will have.

Cloud services give employees flexibility, and they can be a huge help in telework emergencies. Agile IT’s Modern Workplace service leverages the cloud so that your people have access to company resources anytime and anywhere. Contact us to find out more.