In listing the benefits of flexible working business continuity is often cited. In May 2012 the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) conducted a survey of more than 1,000 employers and 2,000 employees on flexible working provision and its uptake. Just over half (52%) reported there is a positive impact flexible working on business continuity – the proportion was higher in the public sector (59%) than private sector (48%) although fairly consistent regardless of the size of the organization. So how can an agile working approach increase this percentage above flexible working?
A typical business continuity scenario relates to the loss of access to the normal place of work, usually a head office. Examples can be events that prevent, or present considerable challenges for, staff getting to their normal place of work, such as heavy snowfalls or major transport disruptions. Despite the fact that many employees have remote access available it is not uncommon for the senior management of organisations to expect their staff to struggle into work with the penalty of losing a day’s leave if they fail to do so. Obviously there are some employees, such as those who work in hospitals, where on-site attendance is critical. However there are many office-based jobs where this is unrealistic, or at best, the staff who make it in will manage a lot less than a full day’s work. Even when business continuity planning embraces flexible working it is seen as a contingency measure.
Most business continuity plans are based on two premises (no pun intended):
- To plan for a significant risk that, while having a major impact, has a low probability of occurrence;
- That the traditional ways of working will be maintained wherever possible.
While most business continuity plans seek to identify alternative locations to the main place of work and include homeworking, in my experience of running business continuity workshops many decisions on where staff can work need to be taken on the fly in the heat of the exercise.
During an actual incident for the duration the situation the loss of facilities and need to maintain services the constraints of custom and practice are jettisoned in order to ‘get the job done’ with limited resources. This situation often gives rise to impromptu work-arounds and new ways of working. Once facilities, or the bulk of them, are restored the overriding priority of business recovery is to restore the provision of services, and the practices that were prevalent before the incident are often resumed without question.
However this experience of adopting alternative practices during the incident can be thought of as providing a realistic test bed to try new working practices and can cite evidence of the effectiveness of the new working practices. To capitalize of this ‘trial’ the new approaches should be included in a lessons learned report of the incident and its consequences should include a clear account of the working practices used.
To make these new practices, or a variant, permanent they must be championed within the business and wider implications such as modification of HR policies, will need to be considered.
An Agile Working approach to Business Continuity Planning
Agile Working can improve Business Continuity. As stated above most business continuity plans assume that, after the incident has been declared closed, current working practices will resume in the now available office premises. In more catastrophic scenarios such as fire, explosions or chemical contamination this will not be an option, as the location would be rendered unavailable. In these situations, the traditional approach is to make contingency provision for alternative office facilities often rented from specialist supplier facilities but this comes as at a considerable cost per ‘seat’. Hopefully, these facilities will never be used but in that case they are an expensive unused resource. If they are needed then their cost make their use by all staff uneconomic so a reduction in service provision will result from a limited number of staff working.
Instead of planning for the loss of these premises an Agile Working approach can reduce the reliance on fixed places of work by taking advantage of now commonly available technologies that can replicate the principle activities that traditionally take place in an office – access to systems and data, telephone conversations and meetings. Using technology appropriately will enable employees to conduct these activities from a host of other locations – homes, hotels, and temporary offices. These new circumstances present the opportunity for traditional processes to be reviewed and revised to take advantage of three technologies:
- Secure remote access – providing users are properly authenticated and using encryption, staff can access the IT systems they need to do their jobs using secure remote access to business systems and data.
- IP telephony – ends the fixed relationship between a phone line and a phone number. Staff can make and receive their calls simply by logging in from any location that offers an IP connection to the corporate network.
- Conferencing – staff and management can hold meetings while in different physical locations using audio, web, and video conferencing.
Taking an agile working approach to business continuity enables organisations to reduce costs and improve resilience. Overall business continuity costs, such as renting contingency accommodation, can be reduced. As processes are less location dependent and the loss of premises has a much reduced impact on operations and the provision of services.
Written by John Eary, Director of JEC Professional Services Ltd. I have a strong track record in advising organisations on new ways of working and exploiting IT effectively. My blog seeks to provoke thinking on the opportunities and challenges of new ways of working presented by technology.