It's time to expand our definition of emergency preparedness to include a focus on productivity improvement. Unplanned work stoppages caused by disasters or weather shutdowns are unavoidable for most employers. But well-managed organizations striving to minimize the impact of such stoppages are learning that telework is one of their most effective allies in protecting workforce productivity.
Unplanned work stoppages caused by disasters or weather shutdowns are unavoidable for most employers. But well-managed organizations striving to minimize the impact of such stoppages are learning that telework is one of their most effective allies in protecting workforce productivity. This paper explores a range of telework strategies to avoid work stoppages in the federal government and offers ammunition for overcoming the inevitable bureaucratic resistance such novel out-of-the-box solutions are bound to generate.
Work stoppages crop up in a wide variety of forms and configurations. In fiscal year 1999, there were 63 Presidentially declared disasters, some involving shutdowns of federal facilities. In addition to disasters, shutdowns result from bad weather conditions, high security risks (e.g., a NATO meeting in Washington DC), traffic congestion problems (e.g., during the summer Olympic games in Atlanta), miscellaneous events (such as the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and the nation’s capital), and facility problems (such as fires, building contamination conditions, construction, remodeling, organization relocation, etc.).
Often, work stoppages involve government-wide or organization-wide shutdowns. However, a more common and frequent type of unscheduled work stoppage takes the form of unscheduled employee leave, such as sick leave or leave for special appointments. The cumulative impact of sick leave usage for a given period is quite significant. In 1998, federal employees used approximately 23 million days of sick leave. This translates into over 100,000 person years of effort lost due to sickness-related absence, or roughly a five percent productivity loss in a workforce of approximately two million civilian employees. In budget terms, the value of this total sick leave was nearly $4 billion. Moreover, in a separate study of the general workforce, it was found that teleworkers could reduce the amount of lost work time associated with sick/miscellaneous leave by 50 percent or more (Pratt, 1999).
These work stoppages adversely impact the organization in many ways. They cause reductions in organization output, productivity, and customer service. Such interruptions of workflow, especially with on-going projects, can mean additional workflow impacts caused by the necessity of implementing recovery or catch up procedures. Finally, there can be additional bottom line impacts in that the organization’s budget resources continue flowing to it’s permanent employees during a work stoppage, while additional resources may be necessary to bring in temporary support to complete time sensitive tasks.
Strategies for dealing with these work stoppages can be categorized as emergency response and emergency preparedness. The former focuses on responding to emergencies after they have occurred (that is, reactively), while emergency preparedness strategies are aimed at warding off emergency impacts before they occur. Clearly, organizations need both types of strategy to manage today’s public workplace environment.
Through experience with telework, we are learning that telework is an effective, efficient, and practical strategy that serves both emergency response and emergency preparedness functions. As an emergency response strategy, telework is being used to put disrupted organizations and their employees back in a work status prior to the actual resolution of the cause of the work stoppage. Appropriately applied as soon as possible after the onset of the work stoppage situation, telework minimizes workflow problems and bottom line impacts.
The federal government has more than ten years of beneficial experience in the use of telework as an emergency response strategy:
One of the earliest examples of federal telework as an emergency response mechanism was triggered by the 1989 San Francisco earthquake that reduced the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region IX office building to an uninhabitable structure. Suddenly, 700 EPA employees were without a work site. They would never return to their former office building, and it would not be until a year later before they would move into new facilities. In the interim, EPA faced and overcame numerous unexpected challenges. The agency’s anchor strategy for resuming operations was to set up a work-at-home program. But due to the unplanned nature of the event, there were significant adjustment and logistical problems (e.g., supplies and services; access to copiers, faxes/fax machines, files, etc.; arranging meetings; and psychological adjustment problems for some employees who had no time to prepare for working at home).
Despite this unrehearsed scenario, EPA came through the experience with flying colors. Reports conducted by both internal and external evaluators indicated widespread appreciation for EPA’s post earthquake performance. These reports also indicated strong support for a continuation of the work-at-home program as a permanent employment option. To quote one report:
“For EPA, the most important outcome of the disaster was a positive shift in perspective: They learned to manage by results instead of by counting noses. (The agency’s) accomplishments for the year following the earthquake are remarkable, given what they had been through... Each of us might challenge ourselves in our own work by considering what it would be like to be without an office or the routines and procedures on which we rely (Landon, 1991).”
In January 1994, an earthquake in southern California significantly damaged the transportation infrastructure as well as numerous facilities. The damage not only displaced employees, it created a commuter’s nightmare exemplified by round trip commutes of six hours or more. In response, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) established three emergency telecommuting centers in the Greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. These emergency centers, which opened only weeks after the earthquake, were located in Valencia (38 workstations), Westlake (30 workstations), and Sherman Oaks (30 workstations). GSA identified, leased, and equipped the telecenter sites and arranged for the provision of administrative and programmatic support.
While these centers provided tremendous relief for federal commuters, they also spared agency customers the long and arduous trip into downtown Los Angeles to obtain services. For example, at the peak of that year's tax season, taxpayers in the Santa Clarita Valley (SCV) could get help from IRS employees at the Valencia Telecommuting Center (VTC), only five or ten minutes away. Similarly, SCV military veterans seeking guidance from Department of Veterans Affairs benefits counselors were able to substitute tedious drives into west Los Angeles with short, pleasant trips to the SCV (Master & Joice, 1994).
On April 19, 1995, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, an explosion destroyed the Alfred Murrah Federal Building and temporarily closed down two other federal buildings. Employees from more than a dozen agencies were suddenly displaced from work facilities. In addition to substantial emergency support and other responses provided by a variety of public and private entities, GSA established two telecenters and facilitated work at home arrangements for some displaced employees.
In the summer of 1996, Atlanta (Georgia) hosted the Summer Olympics. This international event produced a massive infusion of visitors (more than two million over a three-week period), traffic, and general disruption. Moreover, this turmoil was compounded by the slow local community realization of the impending disruption of the city’s day-to-day business. Eventually, the Atlanta Federal Executive Board (FEB) began assessing the potential impact the event would have on federal business. They determined that more than 12,000 federal employees were housed in buildings inside the imaginary “Olympic Ring.” This realization led the FEB to embrace the idea of workplace alternatives such as home-based telework and telecenters as an option for the Summer Olympics period. Finally, in May, a few agencies (such as the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, EPA, and GSA) began planning and implementing a home-based telework response for the Olympic period. In addition, GSA opened four telecenters to help federal employees avoid being affected by and becoming part of the traffic congestion challenge in downtown Atlanta. In addition to the GSA-initiated interagency telecenters, three agencies contracted with GSA to set up and manage temporary telecenters for their respective employees: the Social Security Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In 1996, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) headquarters building in Washington DC was found to have an unsafe level of bacteria in its ventilation system. In the fall of that year, employees were temporarily moved to other facilities, while the ventilation system on their respective floors was cleaned. DOT utilized home-based telework and telecenters as part of their relocation strategy during the cleanup period.
At the time of the work stoppage occurrences mentioned above, none of the affected organizations had an established operating policy, program, or procedure for using telework as an emergency work stoppage solution. Although these organizations achieved some benefits from unplanned workarounds, the lack of established telework solutions created unnecessary hardships and lost opportunities, including:
For a variety of reasons, federal agencies have not used telework to its full potential in preparing for work stoppage situations. Compared to the workforce at large, federal agency managers have been slow to incorporate telework into their normal operating procedures. Primarily for this reason, most of the federal experience with work stoppage situations has been with unplanned emergency response applications such as those discussed above.
Telework, however, holds significant promise as an emergency preparedness strategy. Agencies can set up a two-pronged approach that discriminates between regular teleworkers and telework-ready non-teleworkers (TRNTs employees who have been given the training and standby-tools (such as laptops, remote access, updated software, telework drills, etc.) to work remotely on as-needed occasions. The benefits of such a two-pronged approach include:
While few, if any, agencies have established full telework work stoppage programs, there has been some movement in this direction. Many agencies, for example, have established telework programs that could easily be modified to prepare teleworkers for work stoppage situations. Other agencies have allocated computers and other resources to non-teleworking employees for after hours use at home. GSA’s New England region has prepared its workforce by providing laptops to all employees, supporting mobile work, and enrolling 23 percent of its employees in regular telework. There are numerous other examples that demonstrate organizations are already on the programmatic threshold for realizing the benefits of related telework solutions.
Meanwhile, some private sector organizations such as Ford, Delta Airlines, Intel, and American Airlines are providing all of their employees with laptops and internet access for home use. These investments are deemed prudent because such measures would facilitate employee readiness to continue work (and customer service) in the event of sudden, unexpected disruptions. In a related action, under an unpassed bill introduced by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. (“The Federal Workforce Digital Access Act;” H.R. 4232; introduced 4/11/2000; currently referred to the House Subcommittee on Civil Service), federal employees would be provided free computers and Internet access for use at home. This legislation, which was modeled after similar private sector programs, included (1) an option for employees to receive web-based training to improve their use of information technology, (2) provisions for GSA to negotiate contracts to purchase computers and Internet access, and (3) provisions for OPM to set guidelines, monitor training, and promote the program.
Continuity of Operations (COOP)
It should be noted and appreciated that telework work stoppage programs can fulfill a substantial part of an organization’s COOP responsibilities. The Federal Preparedness Circular produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, FPC 65;July 26, 1999)
“provides guidance to federal executive branch departments and agencies for use in developing viable and executable contingency plans for the continuity of operations (COOP). COOP planning facilitates the performance of department/agency essential functions during any emergency or situation that may disrupt normal operations.”
This guidance calls for the establishment of alternate facilities that can be operational within 12 hours of an unexpected emergency and/or unannounced relocation of functions. The guidance also calls for tests, training, and exercises to prepare and refine an organization’s COOP capabilities. All of these provisions can and should be included in a properly designed telework work stoppage program.
It is clear that organizations can use telework, technology, and other modern applications to upgrade and improve their response to inevitable work stoppage situations. The benefits in terms of both productivity and customer service improvement are considerable. Agencies should develop, test, and implement applicable telework solutions for work stoppage situations and, in doing so, take advantage of technical assistance available from GSA, OPM, and FEMA. The prudent course is self-evident: Act now to assure continued operations and maximum worker productivity as opposed to waiting for the next emergency to muddle through.
This paper is a slightly updated version of the original article published in The Public Manager, Summer 2000, Volume 29, Number 2: pg 45-48.
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