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Telestorming: When weather forces people to work from home

GRANVILLE, Ohio — When April Wilson moved from Dallas to Granville, Ohio, in July, she loved the balmy weather of her new hometown.

That was before the polar vortex and sub-zero weather hit the Midwest this week.

Like many workers in the path of the arctic air, Wilson, president of a marketing agency called Digital Analytics 101, found herself stranded by the weather and having to figure out the best way to work at home.

Planalytics Inc., a weather analysis company, told CBS the storm will cost $5 billion in lost revenue.

One way, however, that the cost may be lowered is through the greater ability people now have to telecommute or work from home. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that if just half of the people who wanted to work from home would do so half of their work week, over a year's period the national savings would be more than $700 billion. Those savings come from things such transportation reduction or the need for office space.

One of the challenges many emergency telecommuters face during storms like the one that blasted the Midwest this week are interruptions from family members. Wilson's kids, 9 and 11 years old, were also told to stay home from school — meaning that their holiday break that should have ended on Jan. 2 continued.

"They are just old enough to keep themselves occupied," she says, "but when they break bad, they break bad badly."

Wilson also says she is not equipped for the really cold weather: "I don't have a four-wheel drive vehicle," she says.

But modern technology has made her equipped to telecommute — also known as remote working or simply working from home. People who find themselves stuck at home can take steps to make the experience easier, experts say.

Companies can also prepare and facilitate emergency telecommuting. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 2.6 percent of U.S. employees (3.3 million people, not including the self-employed or unpaid volunteers) regard home their primary place of work. The number of people who work from home at least one day per week is just under 10 times that amount.

Already ready

Debra A. Dinnocenzo, the author of "Emergency Telecommuting," says disasters such as the recent polar cold do not catch all companies off guard.

"We get these little wake-up calls every now and then," she says, "but many companies do not miss a beat."

Dinnocenzo says many companies have automated 4 a.m. calls to their employees warning them to stay home. They have resources in place and remote access protocols, such as having documents accessible on the Internet cloud through services such as GoogleDocs or Dropbox.

"It is pretty straightforward for them," she says. "The just get busy doing work."

In Wexford, Penn., where Dinnocenzo lives, the temperature was around 2 degrees: "It is pretty bitter," she says.

Where Sara Sutton Fell lives in Boulder, Colo., however, the weather this week wasn't quite so bad, but she is experienced with the problems and disasters that can interrupt work. Last year, the little creek behind her home turned into a raging river during a major flood disaster that left thousands stranded. She and her family were unable to leave their home because of flooded roads and she was cut off from even basic telecommuting with sporadic Internet and cellphone service. Fell is the founder and CEO of FlexJobs, an online service that helps people find work-from-home jobs.

Luckily, her employees were, as might be expected, telecommuters from around the country and were not affected by the flood.

"I was mostly out of the loop for a couple days," she says. "There is some security in having a dispersed workforce. Just because I was not able to access things from work (in one location) did not bring our whole company to a halt. In fact, our productivity was barely affected."

Prepared unawares

Although most companies are not so integrated in remote working, Fell says the advantages of remote working are widely available.

"People are already working remotely, whether they realize it or not," she says. "Responding to email from your laptop at home in the evening or weekends or from your phone — that is telecommuting."

People are more prepared than they may think, Fell says.

A few more actions by a company, such as making documents accessible from everywhere, can make disasters and storms have less impact on essential work.

Dinnocenzo says employees can make their forced telecommuting smoother by following a few rules.

The first thing to do is to check in with the boss: "Let people know you are working from home," she says.

The next thing is to find a place to work that is conducive to getting things done: "Probably not the kitchen table," she says.

Depending on the reasons a person can't get into work, it might work to go to a local Internet café, for example.

Home not alone

Wilson's 9- and 11-year-old children are used to seeing her work at home, but usually only after dinner. During the polar cold, there was no real place for her to escape.

"If I am on a conference call with the CEO and CFO, and my kids come in the middle of a presentation, there is just no graceful way to handle the situation correctly for both sides," she said.

Dinnocenzo says to set ground rules with the family, and maybe even put a sign on the home office door if in a virtual meeting. She has also had to negotiate with a child at home and remembers telling her kindergartener to not come in the office during one of those meetings unless it was really important. Her child came in with a note asking for more Cheerios.

Fell says disasters, like the cold, can open companies up to fostering more telecommuting options — just to be an insurance policy. McGraw Hill Financial warmed up to more remote working during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, she says.

But even if a company is not big on the concept, during a disaster most companies' employees can access their emails from their smartphones, laptops and tablets, Fell says: "And most people's jobs are done, at least to a certain percentage, on phone and email," she says.

Wilson says she needs to work on her home work scenarios a bit better: "Though short of locking the door, I'm not sure what to do," she says.

With promises of weather warming up, however, she hopes the problem will be solved soon.

Until the next time.


Twitter: @degroote