Businesses must prepare for swine flu

Remote working technologies will cushion the blow of swine flu absenteeism, but thousands of UK businesses will still be hit severely by the pandemic

Remote working technologies will cushion the blow of swine flu absenteeism, but thousands of UK businesses will still be hit severely by the pandemic, say experts.

With swine flu expected to cost the UK economy up to £50bn, business consultants are urging organisations to allow as many employees as possible to work from home.

Although the February snow storms proved the business value of internet-based remote working facilities, over half of UK businesses are still not equipped.

Many of these organisations have not done any advance planning to ensure key staff have access to computers and broadband connections from home.

"This includes plans for wireless connections if phone lines go down or are swamped," says Gary Wilson, managing director of home working firm Coldbeancreations.

It also entails deploying software to ensure connections and web browsers are secure and to monitor and log employee activity, he says.

Threat to business

Once again, larger businesses with a good IT infrastructure are expected to cope reasonably well, but for many small to medium-sized companies the threat is great.

Smaller organisations typically cannot afford secure virtual private network (VPN) connections with two-factor authentication systems.

These connections and access to shared network drives are easily enabled by turning on extra functionality in standard networking systems, says Scott Fletcher, chairman of infrastructure provider, ANS Group.

Spending up to £15,000 on extra licensing fees for this functionality is not a huge investment for many large or medium sized companies, but it would be a challenge for most small organisations, he says.

This means up to 80% of UK companies that fall into the small to medium-sized category could be under extreme pressure to continue doing business in the coming months.

Even if organisations have the budget, lead times of up to four months mean it is too late to start putting in these systems now, says Nathan Jackson, director of consultancy services at NCC Group.

Plan ahead

Up to 12% of the workforce is likely to be hit by the H1N1 virus by September, forcing at least one in eight workers to stay at home, say government estimates.

Gartner is urging businesses to ensure they are prepared, and puts the absenteeism figure higher at 40% at the height of the pandemic.

Smaller businesses will find that extremely difficult to cope with, says Phil Bird, managing director at IT supplier The PC Support Group.

"For many smaller companies, this loss could lead to them going out of business if they don't plan ahead," he says.

But according to Jackson, there is still not much strategic interest in business continuity planning by UK businesses.

"Consequently, relatively few smaller UK organisations are in a position to ramp up the number of employees working remotely on short notice," he says.

Jackson says businesses should not delay in identifying exactly what functions are mission critical and drawing up a plan to protect those if absenteeism is high.

In many cases, this may be just finding a way of doing some things manually offline until the crisis is over.

"The most important thing is figuring out what is not mission critical to avoid wasting time and resources on what is not absolutely necessary," says Fletcher.

Cloud services

He says smaller organisations and most start-ups are increasingly looking to cloud computing services to meet mission-critical needs at prices they can afford.

"These organisations no longer want to own the infrastructure, they just want services to be delivered to wherever they need to work," he says.

These services can include voice-over-IP (VoIP) applications to transfer calls to remote workers and video conferencing for online meetings.

Smaller organisations can opt for free services such as Google Apps and Office Live, but larger organisations are more likely to opt for managed services for key applications.

This means that any disruptions to normal working patterns can be more easily overcome without any additional cost.

"Whatever route businesses choose, the fact remains that without remote access, no business can be efficient and competitive in this day and age," says Fletcher.

Other measures businesses can adopt 
  • Encourage all workers who are ill or suspect they are ill are encouraged not to come to work
  • Expand self-service and online options for customers and business partners
  • Identify key roles in an organisation and brief recruitment companies on likely key skills requirements, so they are ready to help
  • Ensure that supplier organisations have measures in place to sustain services
  • Cross-train staff to cover for ill colleagues
  • Give cross-trained staff access to the applications they need

    Photo by petrr on Flickr

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