The snow came, it saw, and it conquered. And it is not quite done with us yet as rural roads remain hip deep in snow and councils prepare for flooding from the thaw. As we begin to recover painfully slowly, early estimates are that the four days of winter storms cost the Scottish economy £300m.
Right now, while the cost and disruption are fresh in our minds, is the time for Scottish business to reflect and take action to be better next time.
I have been here before. In the snow storms of December 2009, December 2010 and Cyclone Friedhelm, more affectionately remembered as Hurricane Bawbag, I led BSkyB’s response to the weather disruption. In addition to living it hour by hour, day by day, I was responsible for improving our action plan and readiness with each event. With responsibility for the safety of 3,000 employees in Scotland and 10million customers there was no room for error.
So, what did I learn?
TOOL-UP FOR DOWNTIME
While weather is inevitable, suffering as a result of it is not.
“Going to work” is still the standard model for Scottish business. Therefore, as the weather deteriorates the commute becomes the most vulnerable part of the business model and the source of most stress for employees. Reducing reliance on an office base eliminates the stress caused by disruption to childcare arrangements and transportation that accompany the incoming weather.
Technology helps us out here. With investment in the right tools, knowledge workers can work remotely and ensure business continuity. As schools close, and the transport network shuts down finance, marketing, legal and technology workers can access key systems from home and business operations can continue with barely a missed heart-beat.
This isn’t just a snowy day investment though. Remote working is also a sensible long-term investment for contact centre, order processing and credit control staff. A permanent remote workforce can tap into different geographies, demographics and lifestyles to your normal recruitment pipeline. As a consequence, I have seen remote workers out-perform “bricks and mortar” workers by a significant margin.
This obviously isn’t an option for every business – retail and labour-intensive production operations rely on people on site – but for others it is an option that not only provides resilience but the opportunity to get additional performance and productivity benefits.
- review every role that can work remotely and put plans in place to make that happen
- test remote working regularly – for example, work from home on the day of a dentist appointment, when kids are sick etc
- investigate the strategic option for remote working in less traditional roles.
KNOW WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO DO AND WHEN
Being prepared is everything when adverse weather strikes. You need to know what you are going to do operationally, you need to know what you are going to do for your customers and you need to know what you are going to do as an employer.
As ever, forewarned is forearmed. There are a number of things that I recommend should be routinely maintained to ensure you are ready to mobilise – a reliable source for local weather conditions, good direct contacts with the emergency services (particularly the traffic police), an accessible database of your employee’s mobile numbers (and the capability to group SMS) and remote access to all your customer facing communications – website, social media, answering machines and IVR.
In addition, I recommend that you permanently maintain a supply of food, bedding and charged mobile phones in the event that any of your staff are stranded in the workplace.
Having been in this position, the safety of the workforce is always of primary concern. The first decision that you will have to make is when to close down to take your employees out of harm’s way. This is also the trigger point for all other decisions.
- know your sources of essential information and keep them under constant monitoring – Met Office, transport network, local authorities for school closures that impact staff
- how often will your core team meet to discuss and update conditions?
- agree process for closing down operations – what is the trigger, for example, an amber warning? What do you do with your displaced fleet? How do you communicate with customers and when?
- who is responsible for what? Who is authorised to make decisions? Who initiates customer/employee communications? Are there any special considerations – for example, marshalling the car park and releasing cars off-site in a controlled manner?
- will you maintain a skeleton staff on-site? Who is responsible for their welfare?
Nature abhors a vacuum. The same is true of employees and customers. Bad weather is unsettling for everyone and communication of your current status and recovery plan will be eagerly awaited.
I recommend that your customer message be updated at least twice a day, even if there is no new news, and more often in rapidly changing conditions.
Immediate action should be to update your customer telephone lines with an empathetic and apologetic message directing customers to your website and social media. Your website and social media should clearly spell out the current situation, advice from the Met Office and emergency services, and, if available, your plans and timing for recovery. Respect your customer’s time by anticipating their questions and sharing transparently. Offer a web form, that is constantly monitored, for any urgent customer communication.
As soon as the weather front comes onto your radar, begin communications with staff – be clear on your expectations of them during any closure and reassurance that their safety is your primary concern. If you need to close the office do it with plenty of time before the weather front hits and use SMS to immediately update any staff that are out of the office.
And speak to the authorities to ensure that your commercial decisions are not making the situation worse. For example, when you decide to roll your fleet from a depot, check with the traffic police how you can minimise further disruption on the roads directly outside your premises.
- assign responsibilities and provide resources for proactive customer communications, particularly telephone, website and social media
- review employee adverse weather policy and update regularly
- ensure contact details for employees are readily accessible
- make and maintain relationships at key agencies and with emergency services
BE A RESPONSIBLE MEMBER OF YOUR COMMUNITY
All Forth Road Bridge commuters know the name of the companies whose drivers ignored warning signs and crashed on the Bridge bringing the central belt to a standstill. Don’t. Be. That. Company. Anyone who says that there is no such thing as bad publicity has never seen a queue of commuters stuck behind an articulated lorry, stuck at a jaunty angle into the central reservation.
The roads should be left to the emergency services and the local authorities until they are properly cleared. An over-zealous executive who sends their vehicles on to the road puts themselves in legal jeopardy, risks their employee’s lives and may be putting their branded vehicle on the headline news. Which, in this instance, would not be a good thing.
When bad weather is devastating the country, companies should step up and be good citizens. If you have a 4×4 fleet, help emergency service workers get to work. Use your surplus food and bedding stores to help out those unfortunate to be stranded. And most importantly, don’t make things worse in your eagerness to get back up and running.
- use common sense in every single decision.
Now is the time to get ready for the next bad weather be it next week, or a decade away. Plan, test, learn, repeat. Disruption is almost unavoidable but smart planning will minimise the impact and accelerate the time to full recovery.
I’ll leave you with one last thought. Last week I saw a lot of messages from companies reassuring employees that they would be paid even though they couldn’t make it into work – employees could “pay back” the time missed at a later date, or take holidays. This was by far the more decent approach compared to the companies who resolved not to pay for lost time, but it still involves admin bureaucracy and extra scheduling.
Extreme weather on this scale is, thankfully, a rarity. Employees lives are disrupted just as much as business operations escalating their stress and anxiety. Just think what a difference it would have made if those messages simply read, “Don’t worry about getting paid, we’ll make sure you are. Stay safe, stay warm, look after your family and be ready to get our business back on it’s feet when this weather passes”.
Dougie Cameron runs finance and operations consultancy addzest consulting. He is also Chair of the Board of Triathlon Scotland.