A telework program can help you cope with a ‘Swine Flu’ outbreak

Looking at the long lines forming outside makeshift clinics offering H1N1 vaccines across Canada, a human resources (HR) professional would probably say: “If we hadn’t mapped out our business continuity plan in early spring, it’s probably too late now.”

And they would have a point.

Spring was in fact the perfect time to craft or more ideally “revisit” such plans, according to one HR industry insider.

“Business continuity planning should have been done in spring when we started hearing about the swine flu,” according to Claude Laude Balthazard, director of HR excellence for the Human Resources Professional Association (HRPA), a Toronto-based HR industry organization with more than 18,000 members in Ontario.

But if your firm hadn’t done that don’t despair. There’s still some time to quickly cobble together a low-cost telework program — and tools from hosted application providers can help you in this process.

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When the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic hit in 2003, many Canadian businesses were caught napping.

The Canadian economy was estimated to have taken a $519 million – $722 million hit between 2003 and 2006.

While many health experts believe governments are more ready this time, many businesses are worried about disruptions to their operations, according to IT research firm Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.. “It’s reasonable for managers to expect absenteeism rates of 40 per cent or higher in their own companies and among suppliers and partners,” said Roberta Witty, Gartner research vice-presidentm who is part of the firm’s compliance, risk and leadership group.

For some organizations, Witty said, this could create “severe operational disruptions”.

Quick fixes

There’s no substitute for early planning, but if you’re looking for help in setting up remote workers at short notice, hosted applications and hosted PBX systems from small service providers might be the ticket, according to Roberta Fox, principal of telecommunication consultancy firm Fox Consulting Group in Mt. Albert, Ontario.

“Traditional telcos may take anywhere from five to 10 days to set up an IP voice system, but smaller companies can probably do the job in one to two days,” Fox said.

There are four typical Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) models favoured by small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs):

  • Hosted, where users access the IP private branch exchange (PBX) through a Web-based interface
  • Managed, where the IP-PBX resides in the user’s company but is managed remotely by a service provider
  • Do-it-yourself, where the user buys the VoIP system and manages it
  • Broadband VoIP, which involves use of an analog telephone adapter to access VoIP through a broadband Internet connection

Fox said companies that have been implementing some form of remote program for all or some of their workers will generally find it easier to set up an emergency telework system to handle pandemic situation. She sites the example of a small tech firm in Etobicoke, Ont. where nearly half of the staff fell ill recently.

“Since everyone was set up for remote work even before the H1N1 situation surfaced, this company managed to accomplish a large percentage of its regular workload.”

Fox said employees could access company e-mails through Internet-connected laptops and have their client calls routed to their BlackBerry devices and home phones via a Nortel exchange system.

The company, she said, was able to accomplish many of its regular business processes because employees were already familiar with the organization’s telework policies and procedures.

Needs may vary from organization to organization, says Fox, but typically workers need the following basic remote capabilities:

  • Phone or text messaging
  • E-mail
  • Access to company network and database
  • Online access to applications used in completing regular tasks

Remote work philosophy

Setting up an SMB for remote work capability need not break the bank, according to Jeff Lorenz, vice-president of sales and marketing at Primus Telecommunications Canada Inc.

For example, Lorenz said a hosted PBX system from Primus can cost as little a $30 to $50 dollars a month per user. The system can be set up in less than a week, he said.

Various features can be added to the system including: automated attendant, voice mail to e-mail routing, and automatic call routing.

Lorenz also suggests setting up a virtual private network (VPN) to handle the company’s Internet-based communications.

A VPN is a computer network that is implemented as an additional software layer on top of an existing larger network. VPNs are often installed to provide organizations remote access to a secure organizational network.

“A VPN provides workers the ability to access core applications from an alternate location in the event that they can’t work in the office,” said Lorenz
Providing workers with remote access to the corporate network all boils down to a company’s readiness to let go of what Mark Lang, of Telus Communications, calls the “cubicle jungle”.

He said a recent survey of Telus clients indicate that more and more employees are already working outside the office.

“In most cases only 35 per cent of office cubicles are occupied. This means employees are working some place else, so why not give them the capability to do just that more effectively?” says Lang who is the architect of Telus’ Flexible Work Styles Program.

The Telus survey estimated that about 20 per cent of employees use their desks throughout the day; some 30 per cent of employees are mobile within the office and; another 50 per cent work remotely outside the premises.

Rather than provide a desk for every Telus employee, the company has shared hubs in the office, where mobile workers have use of phones and computers when they come into the office. The strategy cuts down on real estate and IT management costs, but at the same time boosts employee productivity, said Lang.

Providing mobile capability allowed Telus’ Vancouver office to weather heavy snow conditions last winter, Lang said. “Many businesses suffered major disruptions but because 80 per cent of out workforce was mobile ready, we didn’t miss a beat.”

So how do you implement an effective telework program? Lang says the following steps are essential:

  • Create a team to determine the company’s telework needs
  • Identity staff who need remote capability during normal times
  • Identify operations and personnel who need to continue functioning during a pandemic or other emergencies
  • Make an inventory of existing tools available for telework
  • Work with a service provider to develop a telework strategy that identifies which system is best for the company
  • Keep employees informed at every step of the program and develop appropriate training strategies

Not just about technology

But preparing your company to weather a pandemic isn’t just a matter of rolling out the right technology, noted Sonia Singh, human resources manager at IT World Canada Inc. a leading Toronto-based publisher of tech releated print and online brands, includeing ITBusiness.ca.

“The health and privacy of employees in the workplace is a primary concern of the HR department,” Singh said.

Telework arrangements also go through the HR department to ensure company operations run smoothly even when employees aren’t able to report to work in the office.

But the department is also responsible for preventing H1N1 or other illnesses from entering or spreading through the workplace.

At IT World Canada, this includes HR informing staff about the risks and other issues about H1N1.

For instance, Singh invited employees to take part in a flu prevention and wellness seminar at the office. The seminar will discuss issues such as the body’s immune system, viruses and how they spread, and what individuals can do to prevent infection.

Singh said the HR department also has to coordinate flu prevention policies with other companies that have employees who come into contact with IT World Canada staff. For example, Singh informs courier companies that deal with IT World about the company’s anti-H1N1 procedures.

Cleaners also need to be discreetly informed because they may unknowingly clean an infected employee’s desk and then inadvertently spread the virus to other desks.

HR departments also need to protect the privacy of the company’s employees.

For example, should a company employee come down with H1N1, HR cannot tell other employees that person is sick with the flu.

“We can only advise staff members who may have had contact with this person to consider having themselves checked by doctor if they are showing some symptoms or if they feel sick,” Singh said.

If five or more H1N1 cases hit the office, Singh said, the HR department needs to contact the Ministry of Health. “Their staff will come along to check the premises and it will have to be their people who will inform our workers that there is an H1N1 risk.”

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