An organization’s ability to remain operational during a crisis depends on its ability to maintain the productivity, engagement, and safety of employees. A work-at-home strategy is an approach for maintaining operations when the organization’s facilities are damaged or if events disrupt normal work schedules. This article examines the role of work-at-home strategies in the context of workforce continuity, presents issues and challenges that the strategy must address, and recommends ingredients for successful implementation.
As LaPedis and Lindberg observe in their 2008 DRJ article Workforce Continuity: Emerging as a Separate, Urgent Issue, workforce continuity “is not an IT problem, but an issue that will pull resources from multiple departments.” Yet, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, only about onethird of business continuity plans include human resources as a critical component. To implement a work-at-home strategy, it is essential for an organization to proactively identify and address issues such as individual eligibility for work at home, compensation and benefits, and communication.
The Need for a Work-at-Home Strategy
Mercer, a human resources consulting firm, found that during normal operations, unplanned and extended absences average of 9.2 percent of payroll costs, most of it due to lost productivity. When a business is disrupted, the potential costs of absenteeism are much higher, depending on the nature and scale of the event.
For pandemics, the majority of the costs to businesses are human resourcerelated and triggered not by direct “hits” to the infrastructure itself but by the societal crisis. For example, the federal pandemic influenza strategy developed by the U.S. Homeland Security Council in 2006 recommends that employers plan for 40 percent absenteeism during two weeks at the peak of a pandemic wave, and lower rates for four to six weeks on either side of a wave. In turn, widespread absenteeism will put infrastructure and critical services at risk, worsening the crisis and its economic impact.
According to the Office of Personnel Management, the human resource office of the federal government, telework offset lost productivity during the historic snowstorms of 2010. Originally estimated at $100 million per day, the cost of lost productivity was revised to $71 million once increases in the number of employees teleworking were taken into account.
Much is at stake for employees as well. In a 2009 Harvard School of Public Health survey to understand Americans’ concerns about H1N1, 25 percent of respondents said they would be “likely” to lose their jobs or business if they had to stay home seven to 10 days; 44 percent say they would lose income and undergo financial hardship as they reduce their work hours. At the same time, some workers are covered by benefits policies which may encourage employees to show up to work sick. These range from having no leave benefits to being eligible for reimbursement for unused sick leave. A viable workat- home strategy may enable employees to earn a living in the wake of a crisis, while reducing their incentives to attempt to report to a worksite when they are sick or when it is unsafe to go to work.
Who Can Work at Home?
As is the case for normal operations, crisis-based work-at-home eligibility must be clearly stated and non-discriminatory. When an organization introduces a telework or work-at-home program into its normal operations, it determines eligibility criteria. Employers may limit participation to certain occupations or positions or to individuals who sign an agreement. We recommend that continuity of operations plans specify the criteria for inclusion in the work-at-home strategy, including expectations for “critical” personnel – those assigned to maintain key functions throughout a crisis event – and others. Every worker should know if they are eligible to work at home during a crisis.
Working at home may not make sense for employees who serve walk-in customers, who use certain types of equipment onsite, who work with sensitive information, or who handle regulated materials. The Bureau of Labor Statistics report in 2009 that among U.S. full-time workers with a single job, the occupational groups with the fewest hours worked at home are food preparers and servers, production occupations, building and groundskeepers, maintenance, transportation, construction, and healthcare workers.
Employee safety is a predominant concern in organizational crisis management and affects who can and should be eligible to work at home. In 2000, the Department of Labor issued Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Instruction CPL 02-00-125 to clarify health and safety regulations applicable to home worksites. OSHA does not inspect, require employers to inspect, or hold employers liable for employees’ home offices.
As an alternative to a work-at-home strategy, certain job roles may be more productively assigned to another work location available to the organization. Options suggested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency include remote or field offices, training facilities, or other “virtual offices” such as telecommuting centers and mobile offices.
If it is not possible for an employee to accomplish important tasks at home in normal times, a crisis is unlikely to make it feasible. Workers and employers that use work-at-home strategies successfully on a routine basis may be more likely to find it a positive solution in times of crisis. Thus, the Office of Personnel Management recommends as part of its disaster plans that “employees designated to work from home during an emergency event should telework frequently enough to ensure all systems are working smoothly.” This means a business continuity plan that involves a work-athome strategy must consider and overcome the factors that limit working at home outside of emergencies. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which has evaluated the adoption of the telework in federal agencies, ingredients for success include supervisor awareness and support, technology that meets security and accessibility needs, appropriate equipment, and technical support.
Compensation and Benefits
During a crisis, employers must continue to manage compensation and benefits in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act, which prescribes standards for the minimum wage, overtime pay, and time recording, regardless of the location of work.
Leadership must assess the incentives that the compensation and benefits policies are creating. Even if a work-at-home option exists, individuals may report to an unsafe worksite if they are concerned about forgoing pay, depleting their leave balances, or being subject to disciplinary action. Compensation and benefits policies should be articulated for working at home during a crisis. Throughout the crisis period, leadership must be prepared to state expected hours of work; whether leave must be taken if employees do not follow the normal schedule at home or at the job site; and any performance measures in place for those working at home. A crisis leadership team may need to designate a “work-at-home period” with specific start and end dates (subject to revision as the crisis unfolds). This may involve expanding telework agreements already in place or extending formal agreements to all affected employees.
To remain productive at home during a crisis, employees must know they will be paid. Remotely accessible leave tracking and time reporting systems will support continuity of financial reporting and payroll processing, including the calculation of pay, benefits, and taxes. Adoption of direct deposit will enable employees to receive pay when they can’t get to work or mail delivery is disrupted. If no real-time tracking system exists, payroll systems can continue to pay the employees as they were in the pre-crisis period, with adjustments made in a future pay period based on employees’ recorded hours. If this is not possible, or if concerns about adjustments are overwhelming, a work-at-home strategy is unlikely to succeed.
Employees who are affected by a crisis will want to know what is expected of them, how their actions will affect their pay and benefits, and how they can contribute to resolving the crisis. They will wonder, first, about whether they should go to work and how to find out. Should employees check a Web site, call a hotline, or watch the local news? Second, they will want status reports about the crisis so that they can make informed decisions about whether to attempt to go to work. They may expect status reports on work in progress (e.g., a delivery). Finally, employees may look for guidance about how to go about their work, including what messages to convey to customers and suppliers, what networks and technical support will be available, etc.
To maintain workforce continuity during a crisis, a means and protocol for the two-way flow of information (inbound and outbound) with, between, and from all employees is essential. Inbound communications may be defined as messages from employees working at home to coworkers, supervisors, leadership, and crisis managers who may be working at the regular job site or an alternate site. Outbound communications are messages to employees working at home. A central message system that both receives and sends messages allows both and can support meaningful dialogue throughout an organization. New and emerging technologies and improved connectivity can be employed to enhance and maintain an effective two-way communication capability.
Electronic communications systems are the bedrock of work-at-home strategies. Yet if work-at-home strategies are to be sources of continuity rather than confusion, they must address non-IT issues as well. Leadership should anticipate the concerns of employees and supervisors regarding fairness, safety, productivity, work schedules, and pay. The strategy should be specific about job titles and/ or individuals’ eligibility, pay and leave policies, and how information will be communicated and secured. Expectations and policies for working at home during a crisis should be stated in the employee policy manual in addition to the continuity of operations plan. A crisis communication plan should reiterate these expectations and also discuss modes of communication. Most importantly, a work-at-home strategy must be regularly practiced, reviewed, and refined if it is to be successful during a disruptive event.
Carol Moore is an economist at The Lewin Group, where she specializes in workforce planning for national security and emergency preparedness. She is a student in the masters certificate program at The George Washington University Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management.
Gregory Shaw is the co-director of The George Washington University Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management and an associate professor in the department of engineering management and systems engineering. He teaches graduate levels courses in business continuity and crisis management for GWU, Florida Atlantic University, and Massachusetts Maritime Academy.