War, pestilence, natural disasters

Although we usually treat telework as a means for coping with everyday business problems it often becomes a key tool for crisis management.

Two recent examples illustrate the situation: SARS and the war in Iraq. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) burst upon the world stage late in March 2003 with the revelation that this new pneumonia-like disease was a serious potential killer. Probably originating in mainland China, the disease spread to Hong Kong and, via air transport of infected individuals, to the rest of the world. Although (so far) not a massive killer like influenza, SARS provoked Hong Kong into closing schools and, you guessed it, promoting teleworking as a means of continuing business as usual while working from home. As one example, The Wall Street Journal, in a front page article on Monday, May 12th 2004, described Ms. Liu of Beijing. Ms. Liu "spends almost all of her time working from home with computer and telephone, leaving only for short walks." Ms. Liu works for a Danish company. For more on the possibilities of a bird flu pandemic click here.

The war in Iraq also has produced a new set of teleworkers: the command staff of US operations. General Tommy Franks oversees the conduct of the coalition forces from a base in Qatar via videoconferencing and other telecommunications technologies, according to press reports. Although the US armed forces have been using teleworking since at least the mid-1960s, judging by my personal experience, this is one of the few times when it has been publicly noted.

This recent recognition of the ability to telework follows a series of prior experiences where some form of disaster induces people to stay at or near home while still getting their work done. Two of the programs in which JALA has been involved serve as examples.

In 1989 the Loma Prieta earthquake, centered near Santa Cruz, California, caused massive destruction in the San Francisco bay area. Among the affected organizations was the California Public Utilities Commission, headquartered in downtown San Francisco. The PUC was participating in the California Telecommuting Project and had several telecommuters. Although the PUC headquarters were shut down for more than a week after the earthquake the telecommuters kept right on working from their homes. As a consequence, the Governor of California issued an executive order requiring all state agencies to include telecommuting in their disaster preparedness plans.

Just five years later the 1994 earthquake in the Los Angeles area caused widespread disruption of commuting patterns by the failure of several bridges and freeway sections. Thousands of Californians were cut off from their jobs essentially instantly. Yet the 1994 and 1989 earthquakes shared a common phenomenon: although the roads were disrupted for months, the phone lines were only out for a few minutes or hours. The inability of many of their employees to get to their usual workplaces convinced thousands of companies and government organizations to try telecommuting. Many, if not most, of them have continued that practice. Yet most were not properly prepared for telework and encountered difficulties in both management and technology. Some, but far from all, stopped their teleworking options after the roads were repaired.

The moral of all these examples is: use telework as a standard, everyday business option; you never know when you'll really need it.

Jack Nilles

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Last modified: Monday September 26, 2011.

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