In spite of best intentions, protective measures, vigilance and forward planning, organisations will always be at risk of losing their workplace due to reasons such as fire, flooding/extreme weather conditions or structural collapse. Likewise, even if the fabric of the buildings themselves are serviceable, access may be denied due to contamination, lack of power or water or the location finding itself within a police cordon following a terrorist incident. Regardless of what caused the issue, the result is the same – the loss of a normal place of work. It may be for just a few hours in the case of a utility outage or it may be for many months – or even indefinitely – for more severe incidents. What does “losing the workplace” actually mean for an organisation, and what’s the best thing to do about it? Dr Sandra Bell investigates.
Governments, religious orders and the military have long recognised the benefits of formal places where centralised administration can take place in a controlled manner. Similarly, when large-scale mechanisation facilitated the growth of commercial enterprise, many industries followed suit by creating spaces for organised order-processing, accounting and document filing in order to cope with the size and complexity of their operations.
Even in times of austerity or conflict, it’s fair to say that these administrative centres have always been much more than simply functional spaces. Rather, they are visible statements of prestige and power both to the outside world as well as those individuals within them.
Therefore, the true cost of losing a workplace office is always greater than the actual physical loss. There are losses associated with the immediate operational disruption caused by the fact that businesses cannot meet the physiological and security needs of their workers to enable them to transact the duties for which they’re paid. There are also losses associated with reduced efficiency because, over long periods of time, members of staff’s activity can no longer be as easily co-ordinated and managed as it would be in an office environment.
Without the workplace, businesses can also no longer meet the higher-level needs of employees – such as the human need to belong, contribute and grow – which then leads to lower morale and engagement. Finally, by losing an external power symbol, businesses also signal to their clients, competitors and stakeholders a weakness, realising the potential for loss of custom and providing competitors with an opportunity to win market share.
Modern technology has, in most cases, allowed information to be disconnected from place and time which means that, with a little forward planning and investment, it’s fairly straightforward to have the office occupants up and running at alternative locations such as home, a hotel, a rented office or a purpose-built disaster recovery facility.
Costs can be very high
All that said, research shows that if the workplace is fragmented without paying attention to the management and co-ordination activity or the social and recognition needs of workers following an office disaster, the costs can be very high indeed. Likewise, an organisation that normally exudes trust and efficiency through a smart, well-organised and secure office environment is unlikely to foster the same confidence in its clients if everyone’s working from home or from local Internet cafes.
Although intangible, these impacts are no less damaging than the impacts associated with the direct operational disruption. As an indicator of the cost of business disruption, the 2018 Allianz Global Claims Review reports that the average insurance claim for business interruption is more than $3 million. That’s almost 40% higher than the average cost claimed for property damage. The same research also shows that the magnitude of the losses is now being driven by the indirect impacts of disruption, such as loss of confidence in the organisation, loss of customers, fines, penalties and lawsuits.
In short, the threats that have the ability to prevent a workplace operating as it should can be physical, virtual or reputational. Crucially, however, all impacts are financial. Indeed, the largest losses are now being driven by the indirect impacts rather than the direct property damage and operational disruption. As a direct result, businesses must re-think how they accommodate the workforce in the event that they cannot access their office.
Reducing the impact of a workplace office loss
The most effective way in which to reduce the impact of a workplace office loss is to instantaneously pick up the whole thing, people, information, management, personal knick-knacks, support structures, etc and ‘transplant’ it somewhere else that’s equally easy to access and has the same feel and culture as the original. However, in the real world, things are not quite so simple.
Good physical security and building resilience (such as ensuring the building isn’t located on a flood plain and having more than one power and communications link, etc) are a great starting point. Likewise, the Business Continuity Institute’s Good Practice Guidelines offer four basic recommendations relating to the loss of a building and working environment to help mitigate the immediate operational disruption. It’s worth every business considering the following:
*Diversification: Having a separate location where the activity occurs in parallel such that, if one location is lost, the work can carry on at another location – albeit with the negative consequences of an increased workload for the undamaged building occupants and loss of activity for those who normally work from the damaged building
*Replication: Having a separate premises that harbours all of the facilities required to undertake an activity, but it’s not currently being used
*Standby: A separate premises that has some of the facilities required to undertake an activity, but additional facilities will be required before the activity can be undertaken. For example, a physical premises, but where an operational copy of the IT system to support the activities of the people is held in together with a back-up of its data that needs to be loaded and tested with manual switching to be made live
*Post-incident acquisition: Where suitable premises can be acquired which may or may not already have the facilities required to undertake an activity
Beware. There are a number of pitfalls that need to be negotiated to gain the most out of these strategies. For example, many organisations have a plan that includes relying on people being able to carry out their normal activities remotely from their home. However, unless the organisation’s in the fortunate position to be able to issue users with a second laptop that lives at home, it can never be made sure they will be available at the time of the incident. Many employees are not at their desks when a crisis happens, and the majority of them will not take their laptops home each night.
Equally, does the user have sufficient and suitable space for working from home? Likewise, is it safe? The employer still has a responsibility to ensure a safe working environment for staff even when they’re working from home.
An alternative workplace can also be troublesome. Does it have the right connectivity? Is it secure? Who else is the space shared with? Is it somewhere that client meetings could be held?
Addressing more than immediate losses
As mentioned, workplace offices are not simply warehouses that provide shelter and warmth to individuals who carry out their tasks autonomously. While they all provide a rich environment for interaction and innovation and enable efficiency by specialisation, they come in various different forms that facilitate the culture. There are collections of elegant individual offices, banks of cubicles, arrays of open plan desks, trendy meeting spaces with ping-pong tables and beanbags and networked virtual workers, etc. Each one has been meticulously designed to foster the right atmosphere and maximise efficiency, creativity or knowledge transfer and communicate the status and ethos of the company to the outside world.
The impacts of losing the place that facilitates the culture due to a disaster can be mitigated, but they can only be mitigated by people in the disrupted organisation pulling together as a team. The people will only pull together as a team if there’s clear leadership and they have a temporary space that they can make their home.
The environment in which organisations operate today is now characterised by uncertainty, complexity and risks involving adversaries. The magnitude and frequency of the losses is driven primarily by how an organisation as a whole responds rather than how that company mitigates the immediate operational disruption of losing its premises in the first place.
Often, organisations that adopt an holistic stance and incorporate point business continuity solutions such as workplace and IT disaster recovery into a larger resilience strategy suffer fewer losses because they’re able to address all aspects of the corporate culture. The loss of a workplace becomes a minor operational blip as opposed to a full blown disaster.
How to mitigate the losses
When thinking about a workplace solution, to mitigate all the losses consider the following:
*Think wider than the direct operational disruption and physical damage
*Businesses should choose a solution that has the flexibility to allow their culture to be recreated – for example, not just desks and phones, but meeting rooms and the ability to receive clients, etc
*When disruption occurs, businesses will have their hands full dealing with running the organisation, so it follows that a fully managed solution can really help
*Leadership needs to be visible and appear unflustered – and therefore any solution needs to be tested and practised such that everyone knows – and is confident in – their role
Dr Sandra Bell is Head of Resilience Consulting at Sungard Availability Services