After the Storm: Communication Key to Full Recovery
"If you're not prepared, you're at the [mercy] of the crisis," said Gartner vice president Jeff Vining. "Your people scatter like everyone else scatters. You don't have a mechanism to track down your employees."
Disaster recovery planning is becoming a core part of business, and there are many steps a company can take to reduce the impact of a catastrophic event, as Part 1 of this two-part series points out.
Yet even when companies prepare for the worst, unexpected circumstances are bound to occur when a disaster actually hits. After such an incident, companies must shift modes -- from bracing for the calamity to planning for business continuity.
One of the most important aspects of that planning is opening communication lines to keep everyone updated.
"People need to know what to expect," Mark Martin, CEO of NetMass, told the E-commerce Times.
"With so much going on, this is an overlooked aspect of emergency management. When people do not know what to expect, they become anxious, get angry and can be prone to panic. In the case of a disaster, it's easy for panic to trample over common sense," he noted.
"Effective communication during and after any unplanned business interruption is imperative to getting back to normal," added Dave Palermo, vice president of marketing for SunGard Availability Services.
Companies should be proactive about communicating their recovery plans to customers, partners and employees before disaster hits. "That way, everyone is reassured that there is a plan in place, and understands what the expectation is for recovery timing and who is handling what," he told the E-commerce Times.
Communication options are usually limited after the storm due to power outages and connectivity problems for phone and cable companies. The key is to create detailed documentation before the storm that clearly spells out each employee's responsibilities during a disaster so customers aren't left in the dark.
"The sooner you can connect with people, the better -- even if it is just to ask for patience while you are getting up and running again," Scott Cutler, vice president of sales and marketing at AppRiver, told the E-commerce Times. "A helpful tactic is to distribute a customer list to employees and set a time frame for employees to touch base with their customer list."
Customers should not be the only focus, though. Last year's storms taught companies to concentrate as well on suppliers, business partners and employees themselves. Businesses are training call center agents to deal with all kinds of relationships.
"It is critical to make suppliers part of business continuity planning -- they need to have them in the loop," Jeff Vining, Gartner's vice president of public sector worldwide, told the E-commerce Times. "During the hurricanes, you had lots of do-gooders coming down with supplies, and they were stuck on the interstate because they didn't have the right credentials."
When normal modes of communications fail, companies turn to other channels, such as paging and text messaging, to provide business status updates or redirect staff to other locations.
Services such as SunGard's allow companies to synchronize their contacts, which can help ensure that they are accurate and current, and that the appropriate rules are applied to backup methods for contacting people. They also can blast out a message asking employees to communicate whether they are OK and report their locations.
"If you're not prepared, you're at the [mercy] of the crisis," Vining said. "Your people scatter like everyone else scatters. You don't have a mechanism to track down your employees."
Companies should plan to remain operational with 30 percent to 75 percent absenteeism, Martin suggested. To facilitate working at home, key employees should have access to broadband, and essential workers should have portable computers.
Having an up-to-date personnel list and backup staff is crucial, as is cross-training so others can fill in when an employee with a particular skill is missing. Some organizations are hiring people with a background in emergency response to lead the effort.
"Last year's hurricane season exposed some flaws in even the best-laid plans," Palermo said.
"Many organizations had not communicated their disaster recovery plans well enough throughout their companies," he pointed out. "Consequently, employees were not aware of who was in charge of declaring and activating their disaster plans -- or that the person with that responsibility couldn't be accessed at the crucial moment."
Working with local government on evacuation procedures helps companies shelter employees and know what the city expects of them in case of a disaster.
"The partnership aspect of dealing with the government is also changing [with the realization that] our local government affects our business," Vining said. "That used to not be done. You have a lot of federal objectives. Realize that you can be part of a national protection plan, but when a bomb goes off in your building, the local government [is there to help]."
Conducting regular exercises every quarter, with business continuity teams running through various scenarios, can help. Many such events are sponsored by the government and really push employees to see how they would react in certain situations.
"Businesses tend to plan for the last disaster," Palermo said. "Our advice is to learn from the last disaster but plan and test for all eventualities."
Following are some ways to prepare immediately for a disaster, according to Palermo:
- Establish a conference bridge and provide key personnel with the conference bridge number and pass code.
- Establish a voice mailbox for employees to monitor for status updates.
- Set up a cash account fund with debit cards that authorized employees can access when a disaster is declared.
- Pre-arrange travel logistics to, and lodging agreements nearby your recovery location.
- Top off emergency generators and arrange for additional fuel deliveries.
- Acquire battery-operated radios with spare batteries.
- Practice plans frequently, learn from mistakes and make the necessary changes.