By Ron LaPedis
Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery professionals tend to be perceived as the “Chicken Littles” of the world. We’re always running around exhorting people to be prepared for the “unthinkable.” Sadly, the unthinkable happened in Boston last week. Tragedies like these can take a psychological toll that lasts far beyond the time it takes for you to get back into your building once the “Do Not Cross” tape is taken down. People are companies’ most important assets, as they are the ones who help get the systems, databases, and applications back up and running — and they are frequently the ones most overlooked when companies are building their business continuity or disaster recovery plans.
I am encouraged to see that more and more often, companies ARE including their workforce in their BC/DR plans. What happened in Boston got me thinking more and more about cases where your IT systems are up and running, your building is undamaged, there is no physical reason why your employees cannot enter the building, and yet your employees STILL require somewhere else to work. You might be thinking, “How can this be?”
Well, think about what happened in Boston – let’s imagine that your company had offices near the site of the explosions, or within the perimeter of the lockdown. First of all, your employees COULD NOT have returned to work due to the initial investigation, followed by the order to stay home on Friday, April 19th (which affected nearly 5 million Bostonians and cost the city some $333 million, according to some conjecture by Bloomberg Businessweek). But there is also a psychological cost, in addition to the financial: wouldn’t it be understandable if some of your employees were reluctant to return to “the scene of the crime,” due to the fears and memories they may still retain?
I have another example from several years ago. I was working for a Silicon Valley company whose accounting department was moved to a multi-story building away from the main campus due to lack of space. When the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake struck, most of the employees were so shaken (no pun intended) that they wouldn’t return to the building. A skeleton staff returned to recover essential functions like payroll and accounts receivable until alternate work space was located. And because this event could have seriously impacted our financial future, I got the funding that I had requested the previous summer to put together my first ever disaster recovery plan – that included people.
Dr. Robert Chandler, director of the Nicholson School of Communication, has stated that employees might be emotionally blocked from entering a building if it triggers unpleasant memories. In addition to the examples above, an act of workplace violence such as an active shooter incident could also keep employees away from their workplace. Dr. Chandler talks about how the cameras focus on the SWAT team and the shooter, but completely ignore the survivors who, after entering the building, go into their office or cubicle, curl up, and cry.
While we’re on the topic of workplace violence, I will just mention that there are many actions that you can take to minimize the risk, even if you cannot 100% guarantee it will not happen. For example, new-hire and ongoing background checks, physical security, and employee harassment training are obvious requirements that are sometimes mandated. I also recommend that you consider active shooter response training and exercises, pre-arranged employee counseling services (perhaps as an extension of your EAP program), and adding work area recovery to your BC plan.
But no matter the actual cause, there are good reasons to have alternate workspace in the event of a disaster. Depending on the industry in which your company is engaged, work-from-home or work-from-Starbucks® might not be appropriate strategies. Your company might be in an industry where your employees cannot work in a non-private place like home or their local coffee shop due to regulations like HIPAA or other mandates for information security.
We can never guarantee against the unthinkable. But we CAN prepare and get our employees the help and resources they need to come out the other end of the dark tunnel. We owe it not only to our employer, but also to our co-workers.
Finally, I want to say that my heart, thoughts, and prayers are with the victims, our courageous law enforcement officers, and everyone else affected by the Boston tragedies. May all of you all get whatever assistance you need to come back into the light.