Flu, Business Continuity, and Unified Communication

Concerning Symptoms in the Workplace

A study published this week in the medical journal, BMJ, concluded that the world is “grossly underprepared” for future disease outbreaks. The study was based on data collected from the Ebola outbreak of August 2014. While we generally think of this being the concern of epidemiologists, public health officials, and policy makers, it also needs to be the concern of business leaders and information technologists. At this time of year, with cold and flu symptoms abound in the workplace, it is easy to imagine how the workplace could accelerate the spread of an infectious disease.
In 2005, in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I, as a newly appointed Chief Information Officer, was tasked with developing a comprehensive disaster recovery and business continuity plan for a Houston-based company with offices around the country. The initial concerns were centered around avoiding devastation to our information infrastructure as was experienced by other companies in the Gulf Coast that were more directly impacted by the storms. However, in a climate that was now more aware of the potential effects of a natural disaster, the concern spread. Our West Coast offices worried about how to handle the inevitable next big earthquake. Our East Coast offices feared how they would respond to another terrorist attack like September 11th.
Another concern emerged that same year around the devastation that an influenza pandemic could wreak. There had been some outbreaks of avian flu in Asia and elsewhere in the world with some reports of crossover into the human population. In November of 2005, the White House issued its National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza. My new bedtime reading soon kept me up at night as the potential effects of a pandemic were devastating: American businesses might expect 20-40% of its employees to be out of work, either because they were ill or caring for family members who were ill; and a 2% mortality rate.
The scope of our Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity plan quickly expanded beyond IT infrastructure to staff and business operations: how could we remain operational in the event that corporate offices could not be used as workplaces either because they had been damaged by natural disaster or because workers needed to be isolated from each other to avoid the spread of disease? The conventional wisdom at the time was to contract with facilities in other locations to house mission critical employees in the event of a natural disaster.  In the event of a pandemic, the new federal guidance suggested, that in the case federal agencies required it, certain mission critical teams be quarantined in such facilities.

How Technology Is Making a Difference

In the intervening decade, the advances in personal productivity technology such as Office 365 and Skype for Business have made telecommuting a much more viable option than it was. It gives employees the ability to shelter in place at their homes in the case of a disaster, provided electricity and Internet are available. While natural disasters might still require a change in location, because of safety concerns or the lack of these services being available, sheltering in place at home would be very viable in the case of an epidemic. Sick workers could recover in the comfort of their homes, family members could care for those who were sick, and social contact could be minimized, thereby minimizing the spread of disease. Those able to work could use unified communication tools to stay in communication and collaborate with team members despite being isolated with each other. Presence maintains a sense of transparency often missing in a telecommuting environment. Chat and video calling help support connectedness between coworkers. Desktop sharing and conferencing allow teams to collaborate while separated geographically.
This week’s study in The British Medical Journal can serve as a reminder of our need to be prepared for disaster and to ensure that our technology and work processes have been designed to provide business continuity in the face of disaster. While our focus is often on protecting our information and the systems that house it, the specter of an epidemic reminds us that protecting our employees, our greatest asset, is vital not only to business continuity but to public health.

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