For anyone responsible for purchasing deploying, maintaining or even using technology in anything remotely approaching a business setting — meaning all of us — the real impact is only just beginning to be understood. And the lessons are frightening indeed. The calendar may very well confirm that we’re already well into the spring season, but companies that ignore the lessons of one of the most extreme winters in recent memory may be paying for their mistakes long into the future, and the time to begin fixing a fundamental business planning problem is very much now.
A meteorological productivity hit
As Mother Nature did her best to paint the landscape white, we did what we do best: we hunkered down. Employees stayed home to avoid treacherous drives into the office in hopelessly gridlocked morning rush hour traffic. If they made it in at all, they often arrived to near-empty workplaces and ended up idly chatting with the few other staffers who showed up about how long it would be before liability-concerned leaders inevitably sent everyone home again.
The telecommuting set wasn’t immune, either. Many of them couldn’t log in from their remote locations because their neighbourhood power and broadband infrastructure had gone dark. The local Starbucks or Tim Hortons may have worked in a pinch for a quick recharge and FaceTime-based conference, but you can only drink so much coffee before the baristas begin to give you the stink eye.
Even for those employees who managed to find a working wall outlet and decent Wi-Fi, they often found themselves speaking to no one, as customers, suppliers and other stakeholders were just as affected by the weather as they were. So in the end, phone calls, emails, and instant messages went unanswered. Meetings were cancelled. Deals were delayed, if they happened at all. And now that we’ve had a bit of time to sift through the wreckage, we’ve got plenty of data to prove the damage.
Restaurants, for example, took winter on the chin. The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association's (CRFA's) Restaurant Outlook Survey for Q4 of 2013 reported 61 per cent of operators said December’s bad weather hurt their business, and 37 per cent said their fourth-quarter sales were below those of the year-ago period. It’s a trend that touched every other sector, as well: fully 34 percent of US small businesses said the weather had negatively impacted their bottom line. In Canada, one-quarter of small businesses said the weather cut into productivity, revenues, and profits.
This same depressing cadence played out in widespread regions across the continent. Ice storms crippled Toronto while back-to-back-to-back blizzards buried some east coast communities for weeks at a time. US locales didn’t escape winter’s wrath thanks to a polar vortex that reached into the deep south and paralyzed major cities like Atlanta and New York.
Simply not ready
The frightening thing about this weather-borne hit to the bottom line is how terrifically unprepared we both were and remain. While most companies have disaster recovery plans in place to handle catastrophic events like fires, floods, earthquakes, and even rogue employees and mass hack attacks, the extreme winter of 2013-14 seems to have uncovered an uncomfortably wide gap beneath the radar. Companies seem to have no plans for less-than-catastrophic events like sustained storms and their related broad-scale fallout, and as a result are unnecessarily exposed to the business-killing impact of what, up until now, has been a largely ignored threat to business continuity.
Again, the numbers tell the tale. According to a Sage North America survey, only 25 percent of Canadian small businesses have contingency plans in place to handle weather-related emergencies. Given the relative ability of smaller businesses to absorb weather-related impacts to revenue and cost — meaning they have none because most of them live staggeringly close to the line of day-to-day survival — this gap in planning is especially alarming.
Although most companies agree they need to do a better job planning for unpredictable weather, few of them are acting on it. Ignoring the realities of Mother Nature is akin to playing fast and loose with the laws of business probability. Sooner or later, organizations that fail to plan for weather-related emergencies will pay a significant — and in many cases fatal — price.
Thankfully, that planning process need not be onerous. In most cases, it can use existing DRP as a baseline. Dave Rumer, Sage Canada’s VP of market development, told Insightaas.com that businesses should consider doing the following:
- Develop a focused policy for inclement weather that includes different weather scenarios and specific guidance around who’s responsible for announcing closures and how they will be communicated. Rumer says social media, email, websites and even voicemail greetings can be highly effective.
- Know the risks by assessing business liability in case the business chooses to stay open. Employees could sue the company for negligence if the office stays open during a significant weather event.
- Have contingency technologies in place — mobile devices, remote network access, virtual private networking, collaborative technologies and cloud-based services — to leverage when employees are forced to work remotely for any length of time. Inevitably, these tools and processes could and should be leveraged year-round regardless of weather conditions to drive productivity.
"It really helps if businesses have a detailed plan in place, outlining all of the information that employees need to be informed and that details a clear way to communicate with employees — on an ongoing basis to make sure employees are clear on policies and when an actual weather event hits," Rumer said. "It’s better to prepare for extreme weather than to complain about it after."
The culture of IT has evolved tremendously since the early days of big iron, when white coat-clad technology professionals toiled in temperature-controlled, glasclosed environments and the technology gurus’ word was God. The DRP has justifiably become a fundamental component of the technology landscape, tightly woven into the fabric of strategic plans and tactical processes. In doing so, it has become a standardized form of insurance to increasingly risk-averse organizations, a framework of last resort should the unthinkable happen. You wouldn’t run a shop of any size without one.
Yet when it comes to less unthinkable events like winter storms — or, let’s not kid ourselves, spring, summer, and autumn-related storms too — we seem to have let random atmospheric chance take control of the business agenda. You don’t have to lose the office entirely to a raging inferno. Simply having it buried in snow for a few days while your employees sit in dark, disconnected homes could be enough to push a vulnerable business just enough into the red zone to finish it off for good.
Is it really worth taking that chance? Or should you be dusting off the old DRP and adding another chapter or two before the next major storm rolls into town?
I think we already know the answer.