Most major companies these days have business continuity and disaster recovery plans, albeit in different stages of completion and different realities of recovery capability. Much effort and resources, both personnel and financial, have been dedicated to making these plans the centerpiece of recovery capability for these companies. And why not? Either for good business practices, fear of business losses or simply compliance requirements there is an acknowledgement that the effects of disasters can be devastating on a company’s bottom line.
In all these plans, the one wildcard, the one unknown and the greatest assumption made is that the employees, critical for the execution of these plans will be available to perform the recovery. Those forward thinking executives and planners attempt to mitigate this exposure by making detailed plans and having back ups and back ups to the back ups.
However, the question still exists. Will a key employee be there when needed? In the face of a regional disaster, when their spouses, children, parents and pets are also potentially impacted, will they put aside their fear and concern and stay at work to recover their systems and business units? Will they leave their homes to come to work when staples like water and food are not readily available to their families for a period of time?
In a disaster, fear and emotion are the enemies of recovery, taking resources and critical time away from the recovery a company needs to survive. These fears and emotions may drive your employees home or make them stay at home following a disaster.
So what can be done?
Just like any other risk, mitigation can be put in place to reduce potential loss. However, mitigating human emotion is a bit trickier than mitigating against the loss of a server.
No, we cannot guarantee that an employee will work when their family is affected. All we can do is put in place processes that allow them to feel more comfortable that their families are taken care of. By doing this we can increase the likelihood that the employee will be available. This leads us to the one plan that almost all companies have ignored in their disaster planning, the family support program.
What is a family support program?
A family support program is like any other business continuity/disaster recovery plan. It is a plan, put in place in advance of a disaster, which provides a process to support a specific purpose; in this case, to provide comfort to employees that their families are okay so they can stay or report to work to perform their critical job in a recovery situation.
What are the components of a family support program?
A family support plan can be made up of many components depending on how much a company is willing to spend on the plan. Granted, financial resources are limited in most companies, but there are some things that can be done with little or no cost. And we have to evaluate the risk of a key employee not being available for recovery against the cost of putting mitigation in place. After all, few would argue that we should not spend money on putting business continuity/disaster recovery plans in place because of the cost.
The possible components of a family support program are:
- A family disaster plan
- A disaster awareness program
- A disaster team dedicated to family support at the time of a disaster providing communication between employees at work and their families
- Providing resources to families following a disaster
- Providing housing to families in a disaster
- Providing staple supplies to families that can remain in their homes
The Family Disaster Plan
Everyone in the business continuity industry is aware of the importance of having a disaster plan at home. The minimum required is to have supplies stored away in case of a disaster. However, for most people the fear of such a disaster has made it impossible to even think about the possibility of a situation that would require such supplies. This has led many people to avoid putting those supplies in place and putting other plans such as a family communication plan in place.
Since the common wisdom is that, if we do not plan in advance we will worry more about our families in a disaster, it is in the interest of any company to make sure that a family disaster plan is in place for each of their key employees. Again, the theory is that an employee will be more likely to stay at work or come into work if they know their family is prepared and taken care of.
So what should a company provide to their employees?
At a minimum, a “fill in the blanks” template for a family disaster plan should be provided to their employees. Other pieces of the plan should include:
- Information about the possible and likely disasters that can occur in the area.
- Provide preparedness information regarding:
- Creating a family financial recovery plan
- Developing a list of emergency numbers & contacts available
- Developing an emergency kit packed and ready
- Identifying possible escape routes and meeting locations determined
- Safe and secure archival of important legal documentation
- Ways to protect your home
- Where to go to acquire more information
- What to do during a disaster
- What to do immediately following a disaster
- First aid and safety information to tend to family and pets
- Who to call for help and services following a disaster
- Note that there is minimal cost to create, produce and distribute the above information.
You can also arrange with a vendor of disaster supplies to provide a discount to employees who purchase through them. If you have a larger budget you can supplement the cost of these kits providing a lower cost to your employees or pay for them outright.
At no additional cost you can provide information about how to get trained in first aid and CPR. The Red Cross offers courses all over the country. Many companies offer these courses to their employees for free. These programs can be expanded to include family members at low or no cost.
Disaster Awareness Program
Some companies are already involved in a disaster awareness program with their employees. Many are not. What gets forgotten is that the information usually does not filter down from the employee to the family. Also, the program is usually a once-a-year shot. Then it’s out of sight, out of mind.
First, every company should participate in a disaster awareness program. September is National Preparedness Month. It is important for every company to participate and a company’s disaster awareness program can dovetail very well with this national program.
At a minimum, each company should put up posters, have disaster awareness meetings at work and send a note home so that their employees are reminded about the need to be prepared at home.
To take it to the next step, how hard would it be to include disaster awareness in the company’s monthly newsletter so the reminder is there all of the time?
The Family Support Team
All company disaster recovery plans include many teams that support employees in a disaster and recovery activities. However, few plans include a designated team for communication and support of the employees’ families.
Why is this necessary?
It’s necessary because an employee, who is needed for the company recovery, is worried about his home and family, not the company’s needs. So, if we can make that employee feel his family is taken care of, he/she is more likely to stay at work or leave their home to support the company’s recovery.
The purpose of the family support team is two-fold.
First, it provides a channel of communication between the employee at work and their family at home following a disaster. A team made up of human resources professionals could attempt to contact family members to for employees who chose to stay at work to make sure they are safe and secure. This can be done via telephone or, in certain situations, with a team member going out to the home to make contact. The communication can be passed along to the employee so they can feel more comfortable in staying. The team can also facilitate voice communication between the employee and their family.
Providing Resources to Families
The second purpose of the family support team is to provide resources to families following a disaster.
After a regional disaster hits, families have certain needs that may not be readily available. It may be as simple as knowing where the nearest shelter is, where they can board pets or where they can find services that are provided by local, state and federal agencies or the Red Cross. Armed with this information, employees can assist their families with settling into a situation that is safe, secure and has resources to provide to those affected by the disaster.
The family support team can arrange in advance with local hotels to reserve a group of rooms at a corporate rate so the families can be near to where the employee is working following a disaster. Should funds be available, a company could actually pay for the hotel stay of the family.
For those who can and wish to stay in their homes, resources such as fresh water, food staples and other necessities may be in short supply. The local supermarkets may also be affected and closed or their shelves may be empty due to disruption in their supply chain.
Many companies stockpile these resources at work for their employees to use if necessary. It is a part of their business continuity plan. This program can be expanded to include delivery of supplies to the homes of employees.
One final thing a company can do to make sure they stay in business following a disaster is to make sure that those who can work remotely are set up to do so. This requires an investment on the part of the company, often to set up home offices for employees with computer, network access, telephones, VPN, etc. But in doing so, the possibility an employee will be available for work is increased exponentially.
Obviously nothing a company does will guarantee any employee will stay at work or show up for work following a disaster. However, risk management teaches us that we can put things in place to increase the likelihood that that will occur.
By doing some or all of the things expressed in this article, it will increase the likelihood of an employee being available when needed.
Also, do not underestimate the goodwill value of this program. In a time when employees feel unappreciated, putting a program like this in place will go a long way towards making employees feel valued and appreciated. When that occurs it is more likely that an employee and their family will feel a bond with the company that will generate more loyalty to the company.
The family support program should be viewed by companies as important based on enlightened self interest. It is in a company’s best interest to make sure every effort is made to keep employees available following a regional disaster. A family support program will help do just that.
Finally, much of the information required to put together a family support program can be found on the Internet at the Red Cross and FEMA websites.
Stuart L. Wagner holds an MBA in technology management and is a Certified Business Continuity Planner and senior risk manager in the Southern California region.