Expert Commentary

Ice, Ice, Baby! Maintain Productivity during Inclement Weather

With the wet, cold, windy, cold, snowy, cold winter weather we've been having, even as far south as the IRMI offices in Dallas, the subject of loss prevention is on everyone's minds. Well, not everyone's. But if you're reading this, you're one of the couple million people in the United States who work in or around the insurance and risk management business, and you're thinking about loss prevention. Weight of ice and snow, wind-driven rain, collapse, and black ice are all conditions you've thought about or mentioned to others in the past month. Even our Florida friends have had a terrible cold spell this year—it dropped below 50 in some places!


Leadership at All Levels
March 2015

Beyond the obvious physical dangers of inclement weather listed above, one that is often overlooked is lost workforce productivity. As one of your leadership and management experts, I want to talk about preventing lost productivity due to weather—whether from ice or flood or hurricane.

As with any prevention of risk, the basic five steps are the same: identify issues, analyze alternatives, select techniques, implement them, and monitor results. First, identify the processes and productivity that will be most affected by weather-related issues. Also determine when weather events are most likely to occur. In the north, winter ice and snow may prevent employees from safely traveling to the office. In Florida, or maybe Southern California or Texas, the time period may translate to hurricane season. Flooding in the spring, tornados during tornado season, etc. But don't forget to look outside of these obvious times. Just ask our friends up in the northeast after Superstorm Sandy blew through.

Consider Teleworking

A large majority of worldwide firms are allowing teleworking, which can be a major advantage during crazy weather spells. WorldatWork published its "Survey on Workplace Flexibility 2013," which surveyed 566 of its members. It revealed that 88 percent of companies are now offering teleworking at some level. The Huffington Post reported the "Top 100 Companies Offering Remote Jobs in 2014" by Sara Sutton Fell (January 13, 2014), doing a nice job visiting all the reasons remote working is a good idea. IRMI has a well-defined policy that we've had to put into action several times this winter, with much success.

But, if you are a smaller company, it may seem daunting to allow teleworking, remote work, or even flex time. The Small Business Administration (SBA) defines "small" in most cases as 500 employees. That probably fits a high number of insurance companies, but the average independent agency is just nine folks. In construction, legal, and other related industries, the story is the same; there are many more very small firms than there are large ones. According to a Monthly Labor Review white paper, "The declining average size of establishments" by Eleanor J. Choi and James R. Spletzer, published in March 2012, the average establishment size in all categories "fell to 15.6 in March 2010, followed by a slight uptick to 15.7 in March 2011." That's a long way from the 500 to qualify for an SBA loan.

Be Prepared

In analyzing where work processes could break down due to weather, perhaps we need to consider this in reverse: What can employees take home? How much work could be done from their couch or home office if there is a storm on the way? Weather patterns can be predicted down to the minute these days, and they are right at least as often now as they are wrong. So, be proactive, and develop a plan. Make the call in advance to have workers take 2 or 3 days of work home when they leave if weather-related disruptions are anticipated.

If you already have workers who are teleworking, even if it's only once a week or 2 days a month, they will be comfortable with the arrangement before the big crisis sends everyone home. This is recommended, because teleworking is a new and different routine from coming into the office, and the first few times an employee works at home will certainly present challenges. Technological setup takes a few tries to be consistent, and folks learn that they need a different headset or a faster Internet connection, etc. Perhaps you have employees try teleworking for a half day at a time at first until they have the exact tools they need up and running. It's reasonable to require that employees have their own equipment and Internet connection setup if teleworking is optional. That will help defer setup costs. You may decide to provide the equipment in some cases where you will require them to log in from home in an emergency. It's far better to work these details out early, pre-disaster.

Technology has caught up to a point that we can all afford to do this now—to some degree. Phones can be forwarded, and remote access into employee computers is relatively simple. (However, you do need a professional to help you guide that setup, so that you are in compliance with various privacy and security guidelines. That expense is often the reason smaller businesses aren't quite in line with the trend.)

Test and Implement

Once you identify the areas where your business processes can break down and determine what can be done at home and how, you need to create a policy around it for implementation. How many people can be away from the office at one time without crashing your information technology infrastructure? What are the critical positions that should have priority in access to your remote systems? If there are limited phone lines, how is that managed so the frontline folks have priority? Can the phones simply be forwarded to the employee's cell number? (You'll need to assess your device policy too; do you provide the cell phone, or are you a bring-your-own device company?)

Test the plan during initial implementation. First, test in small batches. Send a few people home; then send half. Once, you'll want to send all but a skeleton crew home at noon on a bright sunny day and have them log in or call in and see what happens. Be sure your system can handle it and that the plan holds up. Suck up the overtime, and do it on a Saturday if you feel you can't afford to do it on a weekday. Determine the impact. Then, of course, monitor the results.

Conclusion

In addition to weathering a crisis, you're likely to see several positive outcomes from teleworking: increased personal productivity, fewer requests for leave time, less gossip at the water cooler, and reduced stress, among other things. Watch for increased satisfaction from customers. If you don't see that, or a decline in satisfaction results, you need to modify the program swiftly.

Not only will you have the comfort of knowing your customers can still reach you when they need you, no matter the circumstances, but you'll be providing the kind of workplace flexibility that younger workers are simply demanding. And, when properly managed, teleworking has been shown to increase both productivity and profitability. What's not to like about that?

Are you still holding out? Why?


Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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