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CIOs slow to make telecommuting part of DR plan

A growing number of midsized companies are enabling employees to work from home. There are tremendous cost savings: it helps to retain workers and boost productivity and morale. But the idea that a laptop and access to the VPN can save you millions during a disaster is still new to most CIOs.

It was during a blackout that Richard Ridolfo saw the light.

Three years ago yesterday, on Aug. 14, a power plant outage in Ohio caused a cascade effect that forced power plants all over the Northeast to shut down. New York was in the dark for nearly three days.

No hurricane had ripped through town. Terrorists hadn't struck. But it was still an event of huge proportion for which very few companies had prepared.

We've built everything around the idea that we could shut down the office tomorrow and have people…work remotely.
Richard Ridolfo
CIOSimat, Helliesen & Eichner Inc.
"What we learned very quickly is it's not necessarily the big disasters we have to worry about," said Ridolfo, CIO of New York-based aviation consultancy Simat, Helliesen & Eichner Inc. (SH&E).

Ridolfo was one of the lucky ones. On the day after the blackout, when trains weren't running, offices were closed and there wasn't a cab to be found, 85 of his company's 100 global employees were working from home. The New York office was still in the dark, but the company's core systems were available through a hosted facility outside the city.

Although productivity dropped off dramatically at SH&E's New York office on the first day, it was practically business as usual by the second day. It was then that Ridolfo realized how telecommuting could fit into a business continuity plan.

"We weren't prepared three years ago," he said. "Now as we have developed new systems and enhanced old systems, we've built everything around the idea that we could shut down the office tomorrow and have people call in from home and work remotely."

His company sends its consultants all over the world and has invested heavily in remote access. It uses Redwood Shores, Calif.-based iPass Inc.'s mobile connectivity services on a global scale.

According to experts, a growing number of midsized companies are enabling employees to work from home. There are tremendous cost savings, and it helps to retain workers and boost productivity and morale. But the idea that remote workers are also integral to a business continuity plan is still new to most CIOs.

"I think [the concept of remote workers] is readily accepted among all my peers," Ridolfo said. "But the idea of leveraging that for business continuity is relatively newer. It's a concept that's started to gain traction, but I don't think everyone is taking advantage of that yet."

Ridolfo said many companies set up support systems for remote workers that do not account for business continuity. Often the infrastructure that supports remote employees is in a central location that is vulnerable to disasters. If the CIO doesn't provide a backup infrastructure in a remote location, those remote employees won't be able to connect to the company's systems.

In New York (and Omaha) it's different

Zeus Kerravala, group vice president at Boston-based The Yankee Group, said remote readiness in business continuity plans is still "somewhat on the edge."

Despite the noted benefits of telecommuting, some companies still can't get past the notion that if you're not in the office, you're not working. There is the "fundamental distrust of employees and an inability to measure productivity," said Brownlee Thomas, principal analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. "A lot of companies care more about the fact that the person is working, rather than how productive they are."

For organizations with this kind of mindset, enabling employees to work remotely as part of a business continuity plan is not even on their radar screens. But according to Kerravala, for the ones that already do offer telecommuting, it's not reluctance that prevents them from making it part of their business continuity plan, but rather a lack of foresight or imagination.

More on telecommuting

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"Only companies that have been through a disaster or witnessed a disaster do it, such as a lot of companies in New York," Kerravala said. In fact, it was only after 9/11 that many companies began to put systems in place to allow people to work remotely.

But like any component in a business continuity plan, working remotely has to be tested over and over again. Companies that make remote workers part of their business continuity plans should make sure those workers know how to work from home.

"I talk to some companies that mandate that workers work remotely a couple days a month to make sure remote systems are functional, but more importantly, to make sure that the remote workers know how to work remotely," Kerravala said. "A lot of times people, especially in IT, take technology for granted. But take the average worker hooking up to a VPN connection. It's not obvious to them. The only way to learn is through repetition."

Angelo Privetera, CIO at HDR Inc., an Omaha, Neb.-based architecture and engineering design firm, said 1,500 of his company's 5,000 employees are mobile. He said some of the mobile workers are on location with clients. Others simply work from home.

Privetera said having a remote workforce is essential in his business, where clients expect engineers and architects to be on site with them, able to make changes to designs on the fly. He said a remote workforce also makes his company more competitive as an employer of choice.

But Privetera also acknowledged that his mobile workforce is critical to HDR's business continuity plan.

"At any given time here in Omaha we have tornados [and tornado warnings]," Privetera said. "We tell people to go into a sheltered location, to work from home, or to set up in a preplanned remote location where people can work."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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