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Dilemma: Normal Work During a Hurricane? (videos)

What do you do when your bosses demand attendance at an office during a hurricane?

That’s the dilemma some of you faced last week in the US, when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast.

You don’t need to watch all of New York Mayor Bloomberg’s speech about preparations to understand his key points.  He clearly warned the population that he’d ordered the evacuation of various areas (known as “Zone A”), closed all the city’s public schools, and that chunks of the subway were closing down.  And that was only in the City of New York:


The warning was issued to the whole of the Eastern Coast:

As Business Continuity Planners we’re paid to think of the likely “what next” scenarios.

There was a distinct possibility that the public transport would close in many areas.  Schools would be shut.  Roads would be compromised.  Areas would be evacuated.  First responders would battle to get to required zones and the evacuated would need to come back to less affected areas.  In short, the potential for extreme disruption to life safety was forecast in many areas.

So, what should the concerned business continuity planner do when their bosses order staff to attend the office when a hurricane is about to hit the local area?

This can be a trickier dilemma than it sounds.  Most of us would agree that:

  • Risk must be assessed based on local circumstances
  • Different employers have different views on whether staff attendance is essential during such an event
  • Staff of some organisations are responsible for providing life support, e.g. fire service, hospitals, coastguards, shelters, infrastructures and utilities
  • Some staff will abuse situations where work can be unnecessarily avoided
But what if you, as the business continuity planner, are concerned about the orders your employer gives?
We know of some organisations in Manhattan that ‘required’ staff to attend the office.  With links to and from the island bound to be compromised, some areas evacuated and schools and transport closed, this could be considered an ‘interesting’ stance for any organisation that doesn’t maintain life safety in some way.  Nevertheless it happened.
Here are some lessons learned by other continuity planners that may help you decide the way forward in such a situation:
  • Employers may take on liability if they issue orders
  • Employers that take the ‘sensible’ approach receive more ongoing respect from their staff
  • Employers that don’t follow the advice of the local authorities are bound to lose any case brought against them following an incident
  • Staff aren’t stupid: if it’s not safe for them to travel they are unlikely to travel
  • Families will be prioritised: those with dependents will usually deal with those issues before dealing with work issues.  They will also leave work if they need to deal with those issues
  • Some people need their jobs badly enough that they will jeopardise themselves to do what they are told to do
So what’s our practical advice?
  • Realistically assess the risk: if you aren’t sure what’s going to happen, remind everyone it’s your job to assume a reasonable worst case scenario
  • Research all the local advice: this is usually as easy as watching you local tv or radio station, looking at local news websites or asking your local authorities
  • Speak with counterparts in other organisations: your neighbours and local colleagues will be facing the same issues – working together is no bad thing
  • Write a clear list of options on what position the company could take: e.g. Tell people not to come to the office; work from home; attend the office if it’s safe for them to do so; attend their families before they attend work; bring their family to work if needs be, and so on.
  • Highlight the options that seem like they are most sensible and, if they conflict with your employer’s suggestions, ask if you could offer a little more information
  • Point out that it’s often the most vulnerable staff who will put themselves at risk if the company suggests (even inadvertently) that they do so – these may include those who are less well off and/or who don’t have close family
  • Remind your employers they make take on liability for demands that could be considered unreasonable in hindsight
Research often suggests that in most cases, during a crisis, people are very sensible and will make their own, sensible decisions.  Reverting to the basics most will decided to be alive and jobless, having taken care of their families, than dead and employed.
Things you can do to make it easier for your company to have a flexible policy are:
  • Understand working from home capabilities
  • Ensure anyone who may need to work from home is equipped well before an incident
  • Understand the continuity arrangements for compromised operations
  • Ensure you are able to communicate with staff, at a minimum, before and after an incident

As for what happened with Hurricane Sandy, here’s a summary, including NASA’s time-lapsed footage of the storm from 22300 miles above the earth:


And we couldn’t resist bringing you this one: 
Were you involved?  Do you have any tips?  Please include them in the comments box below:



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