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Avian flu possibility shifts IT's focus to people

A potential avian flu epidemic causes IT to shift its focus to the people within the organization.

As companies develop business continuity plans that address the possibility of an avian flu pandemic, people issues are taking center stage.

"We have a moral obligation to protect our employees because they spend most of their days with us," says Andrew Spacone, crisis manager at Providence, R.I.-based Textron Inc., the $10 billion manufacturer of such products as Cessna airplanes and Bell helicopters. The company began its planning process in November, focused on the company as a whole, and individual business units across the United States and the world.

"We have two primary objectives," says Karin Borchert, CIO and COO at Factiva, a joint venture between Dow Jones and Reuters that aggregates business news and information from 10,000 sources. "The first is to ensure employees and, to the extent we can, their families, a healthy and safe environment. We also need to keep the business running with as little disruption and interruption as possible."

Should the Avian bird flu strike, technology that's in place at most companies will help employees stay in touch remotely as they work from home, as Factiva has discovered. Like Textron, the company began planning last fall. A pilot program to allow telecommuting where it makes sense was expanded both in terms of number of participating employees and their job functions. In the event of a pandemic, the company knows how many of its 800 global employees are needed in each job area to continue to operate.

"We challenged work processes and habits to allow more working from home," Borchert says. "Most employees can and are happy to [telecommute]. It's great for work/life balance."

Factiva has a number of ways that telecommuting employees can stay connected, including an employee portal as a central information hub, instant messaging tools and collaborative tools such as SharePoint. The company recently expanded a pilot project around Voice over Internet Protocol and videoconferencing over the Internet. Factiva also made sure it had sufficient network bandwidth to handle increased remote usage.

The company did not overlook low-tech ways to keep in touch with its employees at 30 offices, including compiling employee home phone numbers and private e-mail addresses. "We want to use as many ways as possible to track the safety and well-being of our employees," Borchert says.

Planning for an avian flu outbreak must start now, stresses Len Pagano, president and CEO of Safe America, a nonprofit focused on emerging issues that affect the safety and health of Americans. The Marietta, Ga.-based foundation kicked off a series of informational meetings in May, working with the Department of Homeland Security to brief business leaders across the country on what they can do in their business to prepare for the anticipated pandemic influenza. After the kickoff in Chicago, Safe America plans to conduct similar events in Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta, San Diego, Denver, Dallas and Tampa, Fla.

"We believe preparedness can make a difference, and people can weather the storm," Pagano says. "But companies should be prepared to work with 30 to 40% fewer employees."

Because of the unpredictable nature of outbreaks, Pagano says companies and their employees should devise workaround plans that last weeks and take into account the inevitable ebb and flow of infection. Preparedness plans also should address those issues related to grief and getting a business back to full capacity.

"There are a myriad of employee-related issues surrounding a pandemic," says Spacone, pointing to such human resources questions as pay and sick policies, emotional issues, union-related issues and protecting the health of employees and the facilities where they work.

Textron plans to staff call centers to create a central hub for communications on a corporate level. Eight-hundred corporate office employees have received training about the avian flu, its potential impact on Textron's business and what they can do to lessen the effect.

The company also plans to leverage its technology, including e-mail communications, an avian flu link on its medical emergency response Web site, backup telecommuting plans and workaround plans for those who can work remotely.

"We like to think we're better prepared than most to get through this," Spacone says. "If you can't communicate with your employees, it's very difficult to sustain your business."

Matt Bolch is a freelance writer based out of Atlanta. He can be reached at

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