Last year, Yahoo made headlines for rescinding its once-liberal work-from-home policies in the interests of "productivity" and "accountability." But not having a plan in place for keeping the business running if your employees physically cannot get to the office -- in the event of a winter storm, hurricane or even day-to-day concerns like a family illness or car trouble -- could put you at a significant disadvantage.
Here's how you can prepare your workforce - and your business - for the inevitability of employees working from home.
Business As (Un)Usual
The good news is that most organizations already embrace technologies like the cloud that ease employees' capability to connect and collaborate from almost anywhere.
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The key to keeping "business as usual" when the weather is anything but usual is to make communication and collaboration possible regardless of their location, says Sven Denecken, vice president of SAP Cloud Strategy, and to make that anytime, anywhere connectivity the foundation of your business platforms, he says.
"Our strategy is to make it possible for people to collaborate and communicate whether they are offline or online, in the office, working at home, traveling -- wherever," Denecken says. "We've made this part of the design of our solutions, and it's not just about availability, it's about helping people cross barriers to productivity," he says.
In this respect, Denecken says, keeping employees communicating and collaborating should be the focus of your business strategy as a whole and is much more important than their physical location.
If you focus on collaboration and communication as the rule rather than an exception demanded by weather or other life events, these events will be much less disruptive when they do happen, he says.
"Our strategy is that there are many triggers that can set off business interruptions and anomalies -- weather events, changes in the organization, sick days, emergencies, what have you," Denecken says.
"If you've designed your strategy around anytime, anywhere access, you'll be able to handle that seamlessly; you won't have to make separate plans for 'one off' events and you'll always be able to connect and make crucial business decisions at the right times," Denecken says.
Think Beyond the Next Storm
"The tools and technologies that can help support employees coping with an adverse weather event have business relevance that extends beyond weather impacts," says Chris Duchesne, vice president of global workplace solutions, Care.com.
Tools such as conference lines and Web meetings, video and VoIP solutions, instant messaging, and collaboration tools like wikis and sharing platforms close the virtual distance and help teams feel like they're together even when they're not, Duchesne says.
These tools "support employees working remotely in the regular course of business, offering workplace flexibility that, studies have unanimously shown, increases productivity, engagement, loyalty and morale," Duchesne says.
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For example, these tools allow IT staff to assess, diagnose, discuss, and address outages or performance issues on the weekend, without having to physically be in the office. They are also key components of business continuity plans when services may need to be routed through secondary servers, or when employees cannot come into the office but business must continue, he says.
Having systems and technology in place to enable remote work is healthy for both your employees and your business, and it can be a powerful competitive differentiator, says Duchesne. If employees are set up to work from the safety of their own homes, business won't come to a halt when bad weather and road closures are a problem, he says. Not only that, but this translates into increased employee loyalty.
"Showing your employees that you trust them to work from home and that you care about their safety will improve company morale and your employees' loyalty to the company," he says.
It's good for your customers, too, Duchesne says. From a customer service standpoint, closing down shop for a couple of days can have huge negative impacts on sales and to your company's reputation, he says.
"Allowing employees to work from home means that they will continue to meet their deliverables and clients will continue to have their needs met. It's an opportunity to differentiate yourself to your clients," he says. "While other providers' services may falter, yours will not, and your clients will notice," Duchesne says.
How to Implement Remote Work Policies
But how you implement remote policies is just as important as offering them in the first place, Duchesne says. To make sure your remote-working policies are effective, you first must clearly communicate your intent to your employees, he says.
"When adverse situations come up where you want to offer the option for employees to work from home, have a clear plan in place and communicate it in a timely manner," Duchesne says.
The more notice you can give employees the better -- letting them know the afternoon before, if you can, is much more helpful than at 6 the morning of a weather event like a snow storm. It is also important that clear lines for communication are implemented, and that employees are well-versed in using remote connectivity and communication technologies before a crisis situation strikes, Duchesne says.
"Having instant messaging accounts, remote login information to access files and conference call lines set up before a snow storm hits will ensure a productive work day," Duchesne says.
It's also important to set guidelines and expectations for employees working from home, he adds. That can include physical space and setup - employees should have a quiet place at home to work free from distractions and disruptions, he says, which is important not just for productivity purposes, but to ensure your company's represented well by employees working from home.
"For example, dogs should not be barking in the background of a client conference call. Communication expectations should be set regarding how employees will communicate while remote, and with what tools and technologies? There should be a common understanding with regard to access and availability. Working remotely doesn't mean people are working less, but just that they're working in a different location. Working remotely should increase results, not be an impediment to them," he says.
Managers, Use Discretion
That said, it doesn't have to be an "all-or-nothing" situation, Duchesne says. There are times when it makes sense for some employees to work from home but not others, and that is up to each manager's discretion, he says.
"Give managers the authority to assess on a case-by-case basis what is appropriate based on an employee's individual situation. For example, where they live, or how far they have to commute," he says. It can also be helpful to offer backup and contingency plans for employees, even if you can't offer them the option to work from home, Duchesne says.
"You can offer services like back-up childcare, for instance, to help employees be prepared for the unexpected, even if you can't let them work from home. If you help them address the unexpected in their personal lives, they'll be able to focus on work and continue to be productive, and it'll improve moral, engagement, and company loyalty," he says.
Sharon Florentine covers IT careers and data center topics for CIO.com. Follow Sharon on Twitter @MyShar0na. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook.