Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have provided real-time stress testing for the disaster planning of many businesses. Not all have fared well; many are now doing things differently.
Amid the stories about a possible worldwide flu pandemic, one planning difference becomes apparent: while hurricanes and other severe natural forces impact people and physical structures, the flu only hits people. And keeps hitting–a flu pandemic comes in waves and can last for months.
A white paper written from the perspective of the banking industry has a pandemic timeline on page 3 that extends for more than a year. (The banking and securities industries tend to lead the pack in disaster planning due to regulatory requirements).
So the first thought for many businesses will be to expand and enhance technology that enables workers to work remotely, either from home or from secondary facilities that may not yet be in the path of the epidemic. Imagine during the onset of the pandemic what will happen in the workplace when people show up coughing and sneezing. Employees may demand that people are checked by medical personnel before they are admitted to buildings.
One complication may be that the flu could have a significant impact on company IT staff, causing a crash in the remote-working scenario.
What really prompted this post was a line from a story in that essential paper for long airline flights, USA Today:
“[an expert] advises companies to consider having employees stay home if they are sick, bringing in food and water so essential workers could be quarantined on the job…”
What if their family members are sick? What if they stay at work and get sick?
I think many employees will simply refuse to come to work if things get bad. Will businesses order them to show up to work when the flu is in full force? And fire workers who don’t?
In the nearly 90 years since the last major flu pandemic, the world has become much more interconnected. Witness the disruptions to travel and commerce from the SARS scare a few years ago. A flu pandemic will likely make SARS seem like the sniffles.
Each business needs to think through what it would do if major groups of employees are unavailable for significant periods of time on short notice. Most simply don’t have a plan for that right now. There may not be an optimal one.
There’s a good BBC overview if you have the stomach for more flu information.
And please eat well, drink your orange juice and get plenty of rest.