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Could Hurricane Sandy Blow Away Current Business Models?

Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, and recovery from the storm could top $20 billion. For workplace writers, it's time to write another story about business contingency planning. Or is it?

It's almost second nature for workplace writers to work up the evergreen "you should really start planning for this stuff" article whenever Mother Nature gives us a major wake-up call.

Not surprisingly, such articles abound this morning here, there and everywhere and the key word seems to be flexibility. "Employers with more flexible work arrangements would find themselves in a distinctly better position to ride out storms like Sandy," says Human Resource Executive. "For some companies, Sandy could prove to be a powerful catalyst in creating truly flexible workers. For others, it's highlighted the flexibility they already have," muses Businessweek. "Weathering a widespread, unexpected event depends upon flexibility and preparing for the worst. Those businesses most affected by Monday's storm were those susceptible to storm damage or whose employees lived too far away to get to work," shouts from a healthy distance.

The workplace, however, is more flexible than it's ever been, thanks to mobile gadgets and the gradual rise of work-at-home options from telework and telecommuting to independent contracting. The number of Americans working exclusively from home has increased at least 73% since 2005, with more than three million people now working in their stained yoga pants, vintage concert t-shirts, and fleece jammies. Add in the 34 million Americans who are telecommuting at least a few hours a week, and increasingly someone in the office is working far away from the office at any given time. If your employer is taking away desks and chairs, then that's a sign.

In fact, many employees worked right through Hurricane Sandy. As points out, a government shutdown isn't what it used to be. One Washington Post story about how to have fun during the storm resulted in numerous reader comments akin to: "Wow, I wish I could have fun but I'm working from home today."

At the same time a work shutdown isn't what it used to be, current business models simply can't keep pace with global warming, which is sending us stranger and stronger weather events with increasing frequency. This is where the rubber meets the road if you're running a just-in-time business model pretty much anywhere along the Eastern seaboard this morning. And what if your corporate contingency plan calls for spreading work from the New York City office to branch offices, but efficiency measures in recent years have closed branch locations or resulted in fewer employees who know how to do the work? Lack of workplace flexibility isn't the problem; failing to adjust our expectations, as well as our business models, is the problem.

Hindsight will always be 20/20. It's hard to know exactly how these weather events will play out until they're right on top of us, which can make it difficult to know exactly how to plan for them. So we react in the moment by canceling appointments, rescheduling meetings, emailing half-written documents to ourselves to finish at home, begging for deadline extensions, battening down the hatches, and ordering a Netflix selection for the kids -- all tasks that do not find their way into the typical corporate contingency plan. Then we just hope the power stays on long enough, and the kids like the movie well enough, for us to get the most pressing work off our plates. We adjust our expectations (or should, very temporarily) and regroup once the storm passes. Wash, rinse, repeat.

That's reality, and it's all in a day's work when 70-mile-an-hour wind gusts, and your neighbor's plastic deck chairs, are blowing right past your living room window. The work will get done, oh yes it will. In the meantime, let's hope companies take a deep breath and re-evaluate the changing climate.


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