As we get started this week, we seem to be facing a very real possibility that a pandemic is breaking out. One hundred dead and 1,600 infected in Mexico, with instances (so far mild) across the U.S. and showing up in parts of Europe drive home the point that this is now a worldwide event. Practices that have been in place for decades could become killers, not just of people but of companies. It is time we asked ourselves whether we are ready.
Coming to Work Sick
People commonly are expected to come to work when they are sick and are often viewed as slackers or fakers when they stay home with an illness. Granted, there are those who take advantage of sick-day policies, particularly when there is a fixed number of paid sick days allowed. But when you have a disease where there is a lack of natural immunity spreading fast, all it takes is one person to infect a department -- and that department a company, community or nation. If people don't feel well, they should stay home. Pandemic or not, this is something that should stay changed.
Staying Home Well
One of the ways to limit the spread of diseases like this one is to avoid forcing a lot of people into the same small space. If you have an outbreak, the people who weren't at work will likely survive it and can keep the company running. This would suggest that if there ever was a time to suddenly get liberal when it comes to work-at-home policies, now would be a good time to make that happen. Over the years, more and more companies have allowed people to work from home; doing it successfully is no longer the exception it once was. In the past, is was considered a job perk and a way to eliminate office capital costs. Now it may be a way to save the company.
Enabling Work at Home: Where Is Your Plan?
Outside of IT's own policies about allowing IT employees to work from home, IT can proactively look at ways to inexpensively enable remote workers. Laptop pools can be enhanced, the shift to laptop computers increased, and procedures to allow employees to gain access to certain company resources remotely prioritized and, if needed, implemented.
Do you know how quickly and by what method you could shift a substantial portion (say 75 percent or more) of your employees to a work-at-home system? Do you even know what the maximum percentage of employees who could effectively work at home is? The hardware/software/services they would need? Do you have a plan to put this together in hours? You should because if this goes vertical you won't have months, weeks or days; you'll have hours to protect the company and you need to have a plan in place before the CEO says "execute." In fact, ideally you'll want to provide him or her with a set of options prior to this outbreak becoming a catastrophe so that measured decisions can be made.
Now would be a great time to propose cancelling all non-critical travel and putting in place a policy that requires 48 hours' (incubation period of the swine flu virus) work at home after a trip on an airplane. Any airplane.
You see, it doesn't really matter where the plane came from; it matters where the people who are on it were and what they picked up. Generally, when people get sick, they want to go home and planes are the place they go to first. Planes are closed environments where lots of people, from all over the world, sit together. You may want to circulate virus safe plane travel suggestions.
If you have a Web conferencing or telepresence system, it will likely be in much higher demand shortly. If you don't, you may want to see if there are options where you can use a partner's or rent time in one to keep employees out of planes. At this point, you don't really have the time to get budget justification, buy one, and get it installed, but next budgeting cycle, you may want to up the priority on this as the pandemic problem is likely to reoccur.
Wrapping up and Reading Material
There is a book out written for the avian flu, "Preparing for Pandemic Avian Flu: Family and Neighborhood Readiness Workbook," recommended by the New York Times. It appears to have good recommendation interspersed with comments (suggesting firearms and tasers) that will probably scare the crap out of you.
The Pandemic Web site (focused on governments and still the avian flu) has a number of strong recommendations. And an OSHA site is focused on this subject for business (also based on the similar avian flu concerns). This last tosses around numbers like 40 percent of people being unable to work at the peak of an infection and employee deaths probably not being reported in a timely manner. Not comfortable thoughts, but ones you should be having now so you can limit the damage to both the employees and the company.
I know we seem to be constantly worried about threats that don't actually result in massive death. The problem is that if one of these things does reach pandemic proportions, the excuse for not being ready of "I didn't take it seriously" will not only seem lame but clearly not offset the very real possibility that the life you didn't save was your own. Don't put this off; make sure your organization has a plan that can be executed in hours to protect your most important asset.