Telework deserves starring role in continuity plans

Telework is becoming part of the fabric of business continuity. Making it work effectively means implementing telework-friendly technologies before disaster strikes, and changing your mindset to see telework as “business as usual.”

Telework has become increasingly popular in government over the past several years, mostly due to the potential for cost savings, better employee satisfaction and less pollution. Arizona, for example, started teleworking in 1989, and today, more than 17 percent of the state’s workforce in Maricopa County work remotely.

And yet some experts say that most government agencies have not realized telework’s full potential, especially when it comes to business continuity planning.

“I haven’t always seen business continuity as a main driver for telework, but I can’t imagine a business continuity plan without telework as an essential part of it,” says Vanessa Godshalk, managing director for talent and organization in Accenture’s federal practice. “It helps build resilience in your organization when your people can work anywhere, anytime.”

During Hurricane Sandy, more than 4,000 GSA employees in affected areas used telework as a way to maintain continuity of operations. And during a massive snowstorm in the Washington, DC, area that shut down much of the government, more than 2,500 employees from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office were able to continue working uninterrupted.

State and local governments are also getting the message. In a November, 2012 memorandum about adopting telework in Montgomery County, Md., business continuity was a selling point. Likewise, Texas health and human services agencies are considering expanding the current telework policy, citing one major benefit as business continuity.

Laying the groundwork

The agencies that are most successful in using telework when disaster strikes are those that take business continuity into consideration when developing their telework policies and infrastructure. They implement the technology and policies necessary, they make telework part of the fabric of the agency, and they put their technology and plans to the test.

On the technology side, that means ensuring that all employees have some type of mobile device. The move toward notebooks in the office is a good example, but increasingly employees are using smartphones or tablets for work purposes as well. If they are expected to use these devices from home, it’s important not only to have a secure network but policies that stipulate what data and applications employees can access depending on how they are connecting to the network.

A unified communications infrastructure can be invaluable, letting people can virtually check in and communicate through whatever means are available at the time, whether that is email, text, landline, video chat or cellphone. Collaboration tools, built on that infrastructure, can enable meetings to continue as usual, even if everybody is in a different location.

On-demand services also are useful in this scenario. Desktop virtualization, for example, allows employees to access their personal desktops, along with their applications and data, remotely. The settings and data are streamed to whatever device is being used.

Finally, it is important to change the perception of telework as something that is convenient and cost-effective to something that is essential for business continuity.

“Don’t underestimate the management and cultural challenges that still exist,” Godshalk says. “There are still a lot of people who are very uncomfortable managing in this model, and that has to change for it to work as a business continuity strategy. It forces management to think about how to plan work differently.”