Are You Ready to Telework in a Hurricane?

OPM issues severe weather guidance as active storm season begins.

This week kicks off the beginning of hurricane season, and NOAA is predicting an active to very active season with 13 to 20 tropical storms, 7 to 11 of which could strengthen into hurricanes.

In light of this, the Office of Personnel Management last week issued guidance to federal agencies outlining the flexibilities available for severe weather and emergency situations, including the use of telework.

“One of the major benefits of telework is its ability to help maintain the continuity of government operations during emergency situations, while ensuring employee safety,” OPM’s guidance states.

While no one wants to hear news of another active storm season, the good news is that agencies are more prepared than ever to effectively continue operations now that telework has become a critical plank in planning efforts, Cindy Auten, general manager of Mobile Work Exchange, said Thursday.

“These are great reminders that OPM sends out every season because agencies often are challenged by mother nature,” Auten said. “But it goes even beyond weather; it can be fires or water main breaks or any issue that is out of an agency’s control. Anything can happen, so agencies have to be ready.”

Auten outlined several best practices for avoiding interruptions and productivity in emergency situations, including hurricane season. Agencies, for example, should identify which employees can and cannot telework during emergencies and develop contingency plans that communicate clear expectations to the workforce, Auten said.

Also important is to ensure employees fully understand and have access to the technology and tools they need for effective telework and ensure IT bandwidth can handle the additional demand. And, above all, it’s important for agencies to periodically test teleworking arrangements to see what works and what does not, Auten said.

“Telework isn’t just ‘break glass in case of emergency’ situation,” Auten said. “If you can’t put it into your standard operating procedure, you’re going to have some significant hiccups when you go to implement that program in an emergency.”

While most agencies have made significant strides on telework since the passage of the Telework Enhancement Act, stress-testing their programs and systems is one area some agencies could improve upon, Auten said. Agencies that have a high amount of regular teleworkers probably do not need to perform regular drills, but those who have just part-time or ad hoc teleworkers should think about doing regular drills throughout the year, she said. “Agencies should think about doing a drill and doing them often because employees may get into a situation where they forget,” Auten said.

Auten pointed to examples of a fire several years ago that caused an IRS building to close for an entire year and a sink hole in the intersection of 14th and F streets NW in Washington, D.C. last week. All of those are examples where agencies need to be prepared through telework, she said.

“It’s not just the winter scenario we have to worry about anymore,” Auten said. “Time and time again, we are seeing situations where we need to make sure we’re more prepared than ever before. And that’s happening all throughout the year.”

How prepared is your agency for telework and continuity of operations going into hurricane season?