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Sunday, 01 March 2015 06:00

Alternate Workspace Strategies for Extreme Winter Weather

Written by  Brandon Tanner
New York City’s Transit Shutdown Reveals Need for Winter Preparedness

The extreme winter weather New York experienced recently revealed that snowstorms can be devastating to business continuity efforts. In fact, the blizzard that swept across the Northeast on Jan. 26, 2015, dubbed Winter Storm Juno, was responsible for “creating havoc for more than 60 million people and forcing New York City to shut down on a scale not seen since Superstorm Sandy devastated the region in 2012,” according to Reuters. One of the most publicized aspects of the city’s preparations for Juno was the mass-transit shutdown, after which the economy lost an estimated $200 million. After the transit system was closed, businesses whose employees and customers rely on public transportation to make it to work were faced with the possibility of revenue loss and decline of workforce productivity. This event serves as an important reminder for businesses to evaluate how they can achieve business continuity when extreme winter weather renders their primary facilities inaccessible.

An alternate workspace strategy is a necessary component of a business continuity plan. Some businesses invest in local backup office space and equipment to address this need. Their intent is that in the event of a disaster, the business would simply redirect employees to the alternate facility. The problem with this solution is the backup office space itself could be affected by the same weather conditions that impacted business headquarters. For example, Juno was predicted to affect up to 20 percent of the U.S. population, meaning businesses with backup facilities in the Northeast risked losing access to their secondary facilities as well.

Alternatively, businesses have the option of contracting office space in a region that is unlikely to be affected by extreme winter conditions. While this solution is workable from an availability standpoint, employees might not be willing or able to travel in severe winter weather to reach the secondary facility.

The backup equipment that is necessary for both of these scenarios is also a problem, because purchasing and maintaining additional equipment can be costly and time-consuming — particularly if the hardware is in a different location. Based on these considerations, an effective alternate workspace strategy needs to be adaptable, local, and feasible.

To create an effective local workspace recovery strategy, businesses need to invest in the right virtual office technology solutions. Cloud-based workstations provide the most flexibility for remote workers, allowing them to access their desktop configurations from any computer or mobile device while maintaining data security controls. Backup PCs and servers can be pre-contracted through a business continuity services provider, eliminating the hassle of maintaining hardware in a specific location. Businesses that have a bring-your-own-device program might also choose to have employees use their own devices.

Having a virtual office solution enables workers to continue providing services from a location such as a hotel or mobile recovery unit stationed in an easily accessible area. In this scenario, businesses strategically select one or more locations to resume business operations, taking into consideration factors such as where the majority of employees live and whether or not the location can be conveniently reached without public transportation. Ideally, preferred hotels and mobile recovery unit deployment locations should be determined in advance. If a storm’s path is expected to affect any of the predetermined recovery sites, however, businesses can select an alternate site — an option not available with brick-and-mortar recovery facilities.

If travel to any of the alternate workspaces is not feasible, employees can temporarily work out of their own homes until they can access the secondary facility. Businesses following this continuity strategy in the New York area were able to continue providing services by telecommuting after the city’s transportation was shut down, according to Associated Press source Adam Kamins of Moody’s Analytics. It should be noted, however, that work-from-home strategies should not be companies’ primary alternate workspace model. The type of wintry weather that made the New York transit shutdown necessary often leads to widespread power outages, which would limit or prevent employees’ ability to work from home. For this reason, businesses should ensure they have access to a strategically located alternate facility with generator power.

One of the most important features of a successful alternate workspace strategy is heavy reliance on a secure data protection framework. When evaluating virtual office solutions, businesses should look for a technology provider that has completed a SOC 2 attestation, which helps ensure that the vendor follows the trust principles for handling sensitive data: security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality and privacy.

Besides verifying that vendors adhere to strict data security controls, businesses should define and enforce an internal data management protocol when granting remote workers access to confidential company and customer information. For example, sensitive documents accessed from a remote device should be saved within the company’s own secure network, with no copies of sensitive documents stored on personal devices. Data mapping should also be an important aspect of any company’s alternate workspace strategy, enabling the company to track changes to all documents, whether a document is accessed inside corporate headquarters or from a remote location. Companies’ data management models should provide a strict set of protocols describing how employees handle sensitive data and documentation from any device or location. As companies strive to maintain services during snowstorms, protecting sensitive company and customer data at all times should remain a top priority to avoid the risk of a data breach.

To maintain business continuity during winter storms, companies should also consider investing in a VoIP-based voice continuity solution. A voice communications solution is particularly important if employees’ day-to-day jobs involve speaking on the phone with clients or prospects. Using automatic call distribution, businesses can reroute phone lines to alternate locations according to a predefined plan. When working from an alternate location, maintaining the same phone number and phone capabilities allows businesses to provide a consistent customer experience, despite dealing with challenges such as a mass transit shutdown.

Interestingly, the blizzard that was predicted to drop up to three feet of snow on New York shifted paths, leaving a mere six inches in Central Park. The transit system resumed normal service on Wednesday, Jan. 28, two days after the shutdown. Although Juno was not as severe as anticipated, it illustrates the fact that weather is unpredictable, and during the winter months, businesses need to be prepared for both municipal shutdowns and crippling snowfall.

Before winter weather disasters hit, businesses should consider the type of business continuity solution that best fits their needs. While some businesses rely on alternate brick-and-mortar locations and a supply of backup hardware to continue providing services during a localized weather disaster, this solution is more limiting than cloud-driven alternate workspace strategies. Using third-party-attested virtual office technology along with a VoIP communications solution, businesses can allow employees to work from a remote location while maintaining strict data security standards — whether they have access to public transportation or not.

Tanner-BrandonBrandon Tanner is senior manager at College Station, Texas-based Rentsys Recovery Services, a provider of comprehensive business continuity and disaster recovery services for banks, credit unions, mortgage lenders and other organizations. For more information, please visit rentsys.com or contact Brandon directly at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.