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Snow puts business continuity plans to the test

Warwick Ashford

Business continuity plans are being put to the test as one of the coldest winters for 30 years continues to grip the country, disrupting much of the UK's travel infrastructure and preventing many people from getting into work.

In theory, businesses should be better prepared to enable staff to work from home than they were in February 2009, when snow falls caused travel chaos across southern England.

Most medium to large businesses are better prepared, but small and micro businesses are still not in a good position to cope, according to Russell Price, chairman of the Continuity Forum.

Large companies such as British Gas are able to work with reduced staff by offering customer services such as account enquiries through their website, he said.

"But only around 10% of businesses are completing continuity plans in the face of extreme financial pressure due to the recession, especially towards to lower end of the spectrum," said Price.

The cost of the snow disruptions to the UK economy has been estimated at between £600m and £2bn. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) estimated that about 10% of the UK's 30 million workforce was unable to get to work, but new snow falls in the South of England mean the figure is likely to be higher.

Disruption to business is completely avoidable with careful planning to enable staff to work from home, said Tim Thaxter of the enterprise communications division at Siemens.

"Software such as unified communications is enabling large and small businesses to move beyond telephone and e-mail to conduct business by regular web conferencing and collaborative working on shared documents," he said.

Andrew McGrath, commercial director at ntl:Telewest Business said all businesses face disruption by weather like this, so firms need to prepare to ensure that they can maintain a competitive advantage.

"With a home broadband connection and remote working facilities, a business can easily continue its operations and avoid any lost revenue - which is crucial in any economic climate," he said.

Google Docs and other web or cloud-based computing services are another alternative for businesses needing to enable remote working without much capital investment.

"This isn't the first and it won't be the last time productivity is impacted due to adverse weather conditions, so businesses should look at the cloud computing model to ensure staff can work from anywhere," said Rob Lovell, chief executive at cloud services provider ThinkGrid.

The Continuity Forum has been highlighting the benefits of these services, particularly to smaller businesses that typically lack awareness that they exist, according to the FSB.

"We have seen one civil engineering company save £30,000 a year on remote e-mail services simply by switching to Gmail," said Price.

There are many companies that can make use of low-cost, yet effective technologies to improve resilience and reduce losses, he said.

"Skype is another example of a web-based service that smaller businesses can use for conference calls with relatively low overheads," said Price.

Business continuity is relevant to businesses of every size, but smaller businesses are more vulnerable to revenue loss and need to ensure they invest the right proportion of their budget in a continuity plan," he said.


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