The Role of Telecommuting During Super Storm Sandy

Super Storm Sandy impacted thousands of knowledge workers along the Eastern coast. The widespread damage to and destruction of personal vehicles coupled with storm-paralyzed public transportation systems throughout seaboard cities left countless professionals stranded at home, isolated from their traditional professional environments. The storm also knocked out power to more than 8.1 million homes and businesses along the Eastern Seaboard, forcing many people to seek refuge at area shelters. Landline phones were inoperative, and those lucky enough to have a working cell phone were at the mercy of the remaining battery charge. Faced with so many obstacles, hard-hit workers had little time to think about their jobs; however, those who were out of harm’s way but nevertheless stranded found ways to take care of business from home.

What did Super Storm Sandy teach us about telecommuting?

Sandy transformed thousands of office workers—some for the very first time—into communities of teleworkers. Tossed into a worst-case scenario—with waters rising, power lines falling and personal safety and security at risk—people still needed to get work done. But though the hurricane may have forced knowledge workers to work from home, telecommuting as a professional choice has in recent years become a well-established and business-supported practice.

Officially encouraged by the government’s Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, the number of employees who regularly work from home is indisputably growing. Take a look at these numbers:

The federal mandate requires all government agencies to develop strategies that enable workers to do their jobs remotely and continue to provide services during emergency situations like Super Storm Sandy. At present, less than eight percent of federal workers work remotely on a regular basis, but the government mandate has pressured supervisors to ramp up the numbers. The critical benefit of the initiative is exemplified by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, which remained entirely productive during a two-day government shutdown for Super Storm Sandy. According to the Washington Post, the Office’s trademark teams averaged over 70% productivity. On his public blog, the agency’s Director, David Kappos, commended his employees’ “extraordinary ability to carry on business as usual in the face of extreme challenges.”

In another success story that emerged from the recent crisis, Bloomberg Businesswee provides evidence in favor of telecommuting. Headquartered in Times Square, the accounting services giant Ernst & Young employs a large number of workers who live in the path of Super Storm Sandy. Nevertheless, the company was able to continue essential operations smoothly due to personal resilience, well-laid contingency plans and cloud-based systems that allow employees to access data from anywhere rather than being dependent on centralized data or IT systems.

In other cases, those who had power and a home to work from were able to recover within their storm-ravaged neighborhoods. A stunning viral image taken by a besieged New Jersey resident connected the entire world—not to the destructive force of the hurricane but to one generous individual succeeding within it.

In January of this year, Reuters predicted that telecommuting “is a trend that has grown and one which looks like it will continue with 34 percent of connected workers saying they would be very likely to telecommute on a full-time basis if they could.” And indeed, even the U.S. Census Bureau reports that flex-time telecommuting is on the rise. However, very few companies employ large numbers of home-based, full-time staff—perhaps due to the ongoing skepticism of middle management and the need for passive face time in non-emergency professional situations. This is where the resilience and professional commitment of an individual is vital: if knowledge workers demonstrate a commitment to getting work done and maintaining productivity during times of extreme duress such as Super Storm Sandy, perhaps more companies will see telework as a viable and even preferred option for employees when it’s “just business.”

Do you telecommute even just part-time now? If so, share with us in the comments below how it affects your life, either in emergency or non-emergency situations — we’d love to hear your story!


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