When business continuity (BC) professionals hear that the Polar Vortex is collapsing, they aren’t simply worried about the inconvenience of cold temperatures — they are focused on the impact of severe weather to business operations and workforce safety.
Natural disasters and extreme weather resulted in approximately $160 billion worth of damage last year, and reinsurance company Munich RE forecasts this figure will be surpassed in 2019. Abnormal weather patterns — the type that can cause extended cold weather snaps as well as more frequent and intense winter storms — require that BC leaders properly plan for this new weather reality.
And it appears that organizations are acutely aware of the role workforce communications plays with winter weather. In the survey conducted by research firm DRG last year, 47% of decision-makers said severe and extreme weather events are their leading concern when it comes to emergency communications and response — outpacing other events such as active shooters (23%), cybersecurity attacks (13%), IT outages (10%), and workplace violence (6%).
With extreme and severe winter weather raising the stakes for business continuity, it also raises the probability of mistakes: requiring that employees commute into work in unsafe conditions or failing to communicate with your workforce in a timely fashion can elevate human and business risk. Organizations can’t change the weather, but they can mitigate its impact through proper preparation and communication before, during and after adverse winter weather hits. This starts with eliminating six common winter weather mistakes.
The vast majority of organizations have an emergency response team in place whose responsibility it is to alert stakeholders of emergencies. Whether the structure of the team is formalized or not, it’s important to have these individuals plan for winter storms well before the season strikes.
Having a prepared team in place ready to respond to weather-related crises is a vital part of ensuring success. When creating a business continuity plan, it’s important that individual roles are clearly defined so that swift action can be taken in emergencies. The amount of time burned to assign roles and coordinating as winter weather breaks threaten rapid and effective action. Giving the team the tools they need to handle the emergency is another critical step, starting with a reliable way to communicate when landlines are down.
Winter weather emergency plans should also include contingencies, depending on the severity of the coming storm. A good rule of thumb is to have plans in place for each of the four National Weather Service winter-weather warnings (Winter Weather Advisory, Winter Storm Watch, Winter Storm Warning and Blizzard Warning). These plans should detail steps to be taken for each scenario, including protocols for deciding when the business should close, safely clearing snow and ice from organization buildings, and ensuring that all emergency vehicles have enough fuel and that the company has rock salt, sand and snow-removal equipment on premises.
The final simple step to avoid delayed storm response is to have a dedicated conference bridge line and individual(s) who trigger the invite notifications for the BC team. Not only will this eliminate confusion within the team, but it will dramatically reduce the time it takes to get updates out to stakeholders.
Organizations who don’t utilize notification services typically rely on call trees, email distribution lists or some other form of a manual communications channel. While this approach may be sufficient for a small group, most companies need to communicate with a larger number of individuals. Single mode, hands-on methods are usually very ineffective.
Because severe winter weather can easily cut off different forms of communication, it’s important to send alerts out through a wide variety of devices and channels to ensure everyone is getting the message even if, for example, their phone lines are down or they lack internet access.
Making sure that employees know how they will be notified of changes to the office schedule or access to a location is another crucial part of this process. Should they watch the news? Check the organization’s website? Wait for a phone call? Check their email? Getting everybody on the same page before the storm will be integral for success.
One of the key benefits of having an emergency mass notification system in place is the ability to send outbound alerts very rapidly. This tactic is extremely useful, especially when encountering winter weather because conditions can change on a dime. However, with such rapid outbound capabilities, communications managers often overlook the benefits of receiving feedback from recipients.
Having a mass notification system in place that allows emergency managers to ask recipients questions or capture feedback drives accurate analysis and rapid decision-making. This tactic can come in handy for recipients to report how poor conditions are in their area or to ask for clarification on instruction.
While winter storms often cover a broad area near the workplace, the associated damage is often localized. In dealing with severe weather incidents, resilience managers sometimes make the mistake of failing to leverage the benefits of geographically targeted notifications. While there are times that focused alerting during a winter storm is not required, there usually is a reason to use location precision when sending messages. Using a system that geo-maps notifications is important, especially if a storm is hitting Virginia, for example, and alerting employees in Seattle is unnecessary. Sending generic messages too broad or narrow to a group of workers invites chaos, puts employees at risk unnecessarily, and damages business productivity if workers who can work are told not to and vice versa.
Business continuity depends on the ability to rapidly reach the right people with the right message at the right time during an emergency or other business interruption. But employees come and go, and phone numbers change — as do the human resources and business process systems that organizations use to manage contact information.
In the previously referenced DRG 2018 survey, 25% of respondents said that having up-to-date employee contact information was their primary concern with emergency workforce notifications, and only 27% said they were ‘very confident’ the contact information they did have was up-to-date.
Creating an effective strategy to capture all key forms of contact information — from the time a new hire joins the company to periodic update periods — is an important first step. Among organizations using mass notification systems, 85% use email, 59% use text messaging, 52% use phone calls, 17% use a mobile app, and 13% use desktop alerts. In other words, according to the DRG survey, employees receive notifications through multiple channels, and they must be kept up to date.
Waiting until a storm warning is issued to get this information from employees can mean disaster, so preparation is key. Using an API (Application Programming Interface) is a great way to seamlessly extract data from an HR database or another source. Additionally, self-registration portals are great so employees can upload this information directly into the system themselves.
Finally, notification systems that enable two-way communication offer a further check that your workforce contact information is up-to-date. With two-way notification capability, IT and security administrators can collect responses of employees to ensure they are safe or to deepen event context. They can then report the results to the emergency response team and keep a running tally of who still needs to be contacted. This is critical during severe weather events so that employees scattered in multiple locations can account for their safety.
While rapid, automated outbound communication is a huge step forward when preparing employees for harsh winter storms, resilience managers sometimes fail to adequately plan for inbound communication channels. When storm statuses evolve, stakeholders may attempt to call the company’s main phone number to find out new information and instruction. This can bog down phone lines, consume already scarce personnel resources and delay information getting to people who need it the most.
One way to solve this issue is to provide recipient and shared message boards. Recipient message boards allow individuals to retrieve specific messages that were previously distributed. Shared message boards are useful for posting recorded messages or instructions to a wider audience. This tactic is especially great for storm status updates as this information is not sensitive.
Winter storms of any kind, from Winter Weather Advisory to Blizzard Warning, are a pervasive business continuity threat. Adding this to a myriad other hazards faced by organizations today and it’s clear why rapid and up-to-date communication is essential for response and recovery during the winter months.