The importance of workforce continuity in a disaster recovery plan

Strong workforce continuity is important to have in a disaster recovery (DR) plan. Companies must prepare employees for disasters in order for a DR plan to run smoothly.

When asked if they have a disaster recovery (DR) plan in place, many companies who rely on IT for daily operations say they have a basic procedure to address disasters, but they often admit it could be better. Companies tend to forget about the people they rely upon to set the wheels of recovery in motion, hence the importance of having strong workforce continuity in your disaster recovery plan. Without workers, the best disaster recovery plans can't be executed. Workforce continuity is a people issue, and all the technology in the world will only take the recovery to a certain point unless the human factor is taken into consideration.

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Notification and communication in a disaster

In order to communicate effectively with employees during a disaster, companies should consider automated notification solutions. Also, companies must maintain an updated list of contact information not only for the employees responsible for the recovery effort, but also for those who will resume operations as soon as essential elements of the business are up and running. Companies must adopt ways to keep the information flowing beyond the initial disaster notification. This may include:

  • Secure an 800 hotline or website to provide status updates to employees
  • List an 800 number that employees report problems to
  • Define crisis communication and counseling capabilities
  • Clearly define employees' role, responsibilities and company expectations

Remote connectivity in a disaster

In some cases, disasters may prevent employees from accessing their work all together. Tremendous work may have been done to ensure that all critical applications and supporting IT infrastructure could be recovered quickly, however, it is of little use if the workers can't access the applications.

In these situations, virtualization and remote desktop technology can save the day by providing remote access to applications from home or remote locations. Citrix, Microsoft RDP, Microsoft V-app and VMware View are some examples of this technology. Remote access can be especially effective in several circumstances, such as the event of a pandemic-related disaster where employees could potentially be forced to stay home to look after children due to school closures, or a natural disaster that forces their building to be shut down.

That being said, ensuring that such technology is available and usable when needed requires a lot of careful planning. Technologies that are access point-agnostic such as the Web-based portal Citrix XenApp are easier to maintain than those that require the installation of client software on a supported workstation. You do not want to have to worry about users having the right software version loaded on their home computer to be functional.

Furthermore, organizations that have replaced their desktop computers with laptops to provide portability should reexamine how many are left behind at the end of the workday or how many employees would actually take the time to take with them in the event of an emergency.

Users should also have access to a form of internal instant messaging capability. People that are used to interacting with coworkers during the day to get things done efficiently may find themselves isolated when telecommuting.

Even in this age of technology, not everyone has access to a home PC, and that must be taken into consideration. This is where companies need to make provisions for alternate workspace with workstations and access to data network and telecommunication.

Hiring temporary workforce during a disaster

In the event of a destructive disaster, normal operations are obviously affected to various degrees. The popular assumption that fewer employees are needed when in recovery mode because the company is running at reduced capacity is false. In fact, due to a disaster, you may never be absolutely certain who will be available, and you may not be in a position to choose who will be available. Some of our key employees may be:

  • Tending to family or loved ones
  • On medical leave or vacation
  • Busy with the recovery effort

In a very serious disaster, a company may have to face the reality that some of its key people have been seriously injured or even lost their lives depending on the nature of the event causing the disaster.

Hiring temporary employees may be an option, but you should only consider it if you have a tested and comprehensive disaster recovery plan in place. Too many IT departments tend to cut corners when documenting disaster recovery procedures. The same applies to the business side of the house; hiring someone to answer the phone may be simple enough but hiring a staff with a good handle of daily operations is a different story. Unless each department has taken the time to clearly establish and document how things are done on a daily basis and how tasks will be assigned, the situation can quickly turn into another disaster.

Getting started with workforce continuity

Workforce continuity is obviously not something that can be taken lightly or planned overnight. At the same time, it does not have to be overly complicated. Here are some pointers on how to keep your workforce running smoothly in the event of a disaster:

Plan: The only way to ensure workforce continuity is to plan well in advance how people will keep working and what they are expected to do. In time of crisis, knowing what you have to do and the ability to communicate are key.

Test: Allowing some employees to telework on a regular basis is a good way to test your strategy and connectivity. It gives you a chance to troubleshoot any issues beforehand. That being said, you must also make the time to test the entire process including notification, recovery procedures, etc.

Maintain: Make sure your plan is constantly kept up to date, or you might have a group of people trying to recover last year's workflow in the event of disaster.

Communicate: The ability to effectively recover from a disaster is dependent on how familiar the workforce is with the plan and procedures. Disaster recovery is not at the top of the list in a busy work environment, so special efforts must be put in place to make sure people know what to do when needed. Newsletters, Intranet postings and other forms of communication are good vehicles to help keep knowledge current.

About the author: Pierre Dorion is the Data Center Practice Director and a Senior Consultant with Long View Systems Inc. in Phoenix, AZ, specializing in the areas of business continuity and disaster recovery planning services, and corporate data protection.

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