The importance of workplace flexibility in a crisis

The importance of workplace flexibility in a crisis

Oct 3, 2014


Workplace flexibility is among the most important elements of disaster recovery, new research has revealed.

A Victoria University of Wellington study, which examined the performance of employees after the February 2011 Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand, found business continuity initiatives often don't go according to plan in real-life situations.

The project investigated the experiences of Inland Revenue staff in a post-disaster environment, with researchers claiming it was the first of its kind. Dr. Noelle Donnelly and Dr. Sarah Proctor-Thomson from the Victoria School of Management's Centre for Labour, Employment and Work led the study.

Many organizations have comprehensive disaster recovery protocols in place to help processes get up and running again as soon as possible. This may include standby database technology to ensure vital business data remains accessible at all times.

However, the study attempted to ascertain how well company staff recover when the main worksite is out of commission. During the Christchurch quake, Inland Revenue had one office in the center of town, which over 800 employees used.

Dr. Donnelly said: "When the earthquake hit Christchurch at 12:51​ p.m. on Tuesday, February 22, 2011, Inland Revenue immediately lost access to its main workplace in the CBD."

The disaster was an aftershock from a September 2010 quake that hit the city, but the damage caused by the 2011 event was more widespread - largely due to already weakened infrastructure from the initial incident. 

Disaster response

Once the quake occurred, senior managers at the tax office started assigning employees new tasks and roles. It was also important to ensure bosses contacted all personnel to check their safety.

Teleworking proved to be a boon for the Inland Revenue in the wake of the disaster, despite the organization being able to relocate some people to Auckland and Wellington.

"Some of the best laid emergency plans simply won't work in a real life situation, so a flexible workforce is essential," stated Dr. Proctor-Thomson.

"Prior to the earthquake, Inland Revenue had no formal program of flexible work, so everything had to be developed immediately."

According to the researcher, expanding the number of people working from home created various challenges. Not only did the organization need to find the right hardware to cope, it also had to decide which tasks could appropriately be handled by teleworkers.

New policies and procedures were developed on the fly, typically with very little preparation or lead-in times. Team leaders began to play an increasingly important role in communication, helping to shape the outcomes of this ad-hoc approach.

"For some team leaders they had to find new ways of managing their teams not based on visibility or presence in a central workplace," Dr. Proctor-Thomson said.

"Team leaders had to find new ways of communicating with dispersed workers, and keep things running despite their own individual circumstances."

Future disaster recovery preparation

The Victoria University of Wellington study suggested that organizations could enhance their existing business continuity plans by optimizing work-from-home procedures.

However, companies that embark on this method may encounter a number of challenges if the recovery process takes longer than expected. Inland Revenue employees cited isolation and poor communication as common drawbacks.

In fact, while many workers enjoyed the benefits of flexible working arrangements, they voted unanimously for a hybrid environment where teleworking was mixed with office time.

"For organizations like Inland Revenue that offer an essential service to the New Zealand government, continuity of operations following a natural disaster is critical," the researchers added.

"Having flexible work practices and policies in place will more easily ensure business continuity in a time of crisis."

For more information on how to build a comprehensive disaster recovery plan, please check out Dbvisit's guidelines

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