Sandy Puts Mobile Workers to the Test

Ernst and Young's headquarters in New York Photograph by Stephen Yang/Bloomberg

If any company should be able to weather a storm, it’s Ernst & Young.

The accounting and professional services giant has its 167,000 employees scattered around the globe, with most well-equipped to work from home. So even with its U.S. headquarters in Times Square and thousands of employees living in the path of Superstorm Sandy, E&Y was able to essentially continue operating as it often does—virtually.

“Everyone has the ability to work remotely unless they’re support staff who need to be on location,” said spokeswoman Amy Callwell from her home near Washington, D.C. Of course, even firms with a mobile workforce were put to the test by the power outages, property damage, and widespread closures in Sandy’s wake on Oct. 30.

With the storm knocking out power to more than 8.1 million homes and businesses along the Eastern Seaboard, workers without landline phones found themselves out of reach once their cell phone batteries ran out. Meanwhile, many had to cope with school closures that left their children at home as transit interruptions left their babysitters out of reach.

The least-scathed employers, in many cases, are global companies with contingency plans and cloud-based systems that let employees access data from anywhere. The most vulnerable: those that try to keep their workers and IT systems in the office. For some companies, Sandy could prove to be a powerful catalyst in creating truly flexible workers. For others, it’s highlighted the flexibility they already have.

But almost all are likely to find that the storm’s lingering impact exposes how little they have done to promote workplace flexibility. About 3.1 million Americans, or 2.5 percent of employees, work exclusively from home, according to the Telework Research Institute (TRI). At least 10 times that number work from home part of the time. TRI President Kate Lister notes that some 45 percent of workers hold jobs that could be done remotely. The reason they don’t isn’t a lack of tools but a lack of buy-in from their boss.

“It’s a huge cultural leap,” says Lister. “Even if the CEOs like the idea, you’ve got the middle managers often resist it; they’re simply uncomfortable managing people they can’t see. It’s really a matter of trust. The exception is those managers who are managing by results. As long as the job is getting done, they don’t care where their employees are.”

The results are especially visible when a catastrophe hits. Lister’s sister, for one, was evacuated from her New Jersey home during Hurricane Sandy and doesn’t even know if or when she’ll be able to move back in. Although she could do her job as a dispatcher from where she is staying in Delaware, she’s unable to do so because her employer requires everyone to work from the office. As a result, both the company and its workers are likely to lose revenue—and even market share—to rivals that can enable people to work wherever they are.

Federal workers, long the punching bag of politicians and taxpayers who equate government with waste, are proving to be surprisingly resilient. In part, that’s because the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 requires all government agencies to develop strategies that allow their workers to do their jobs remotely. The goal: to keep government services running smoothly in emergencies like a hurricane or power outage. While fewer than 8 percent of federal workers work remotely on a regular basis, the government mandate has pressured supervisors to ramp up the numbers.

Even the best plans can fall apart amid the unpredictable. Then it comes down to the resilience of the person. From communicating through Facebook to recharging their cell phones from car batteries, a number of workers found creative ways to stay in touch with the office.

“Amazing what a storm can do in terms of us reaching each other for the past two days,” wrote General Electric spokeswoman Andrea Doane in an e-mail, after repeated efforts to call each other fell through. While GE hasn’t seen any notable disruptions in business and has kept the majority of GE sites in the storm area open, she continued, the company has “told employees at these sites to use their discretion and encouraged them to work from home.”

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