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Is Hurricane Sandy the Catalyst for Telework?

The Office of Personnel Management estimates that one-third of the almost 300,000 federal employees, including emergency staff in the DC metro area telework when government buildings are closed because of weather.

That’s a huge increase from the 8% of federal employees who telework on a weekly basis. So could Hurricane Sandy and super storms like her be the catalyst that would finally ramp up federal teleworking?

Tom Fox is the Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He told me on the DorobekINSIDER program that it’s encouraging how many people were able to telework during the storm.

Preparing for Telework — During a Natural Disaster


  • It’s best to have already tried out teleworking before a disaster. Give folks periodic telework or just one day to try and fix some of the kinks. Find out what can and what can’t be done from home. It’s also good to make sure they can remotely access their email and drives from home.
  • Think intentionally about what it takes to supervise teleworkers. It’s easier when they are in the office to know what they are working on and when they are working on it. But anymore people are using mobile desktops to work anywhere, anytime so you have to prepare for that.
  • Give people a heads up when you can. Make sure they bring home the necessary paperwork and equipment before a big storm.


  • Request the opportunity to telework on occasion. That way you can prove success before a major event like a hurricane.
  • You need to figure out how you can best communicate while you are teleworking with your supervisor.
  • Make sure you take all you need with you, cannot always rely on modern technology say if the power goes out. Make sure you have hard copies.

Is Sandy a Telework Spring Board?

“If you were able to successfully telework during the storm it does help to build the business case for the broader use of telework. You just need to be able to demonstrate continued or improved performance. It’s hard to argue with those types of facts,” said Fox.

Don’t Want to Be Out of Sight/Out of Mind

“The key is to ensure that you are proactively communicating results and goals to your supervisors. Don’t wait for your supervisor to initiate a conversation,” said Fox.

Lesson Learned from Sandy

“It is great to use these events as learning opportunities. DC was fairly well prepared for Sandy. And so did New Jersey and New York. But when you look at the devastation, it’s important to take not only lessons learned about telework but also about emergency management and communication. It’s important to take 30 minutes and figure out what worked really well and what didn’t,” said Fox.

Considering telework? Use GovLoop’s Telework Calculator to see how much money (and greenhouse gases) you could save.

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William Lim

You can make all the telework arrangements you want, but Hurricane Sandy also taught us that all these plans will fail if there is NO POWER. Throughout the Northeast, there are still millions without power so even if people got through the storm without injury or property damage, telework is not an option. Sometimes it’s not employees who have no power, but rather office servers that are down. As we have also seen with the NYU hospital evacuation, even a facility that’s well equipped with backup generators can also fail quickly and catastrophically. And even with generators, there are now lines for gas up to a mile long – again, telework is not a sustainable option unless power can be quickly restored to all affected employees and offices within 24 hours.

Sterling Whitehead

@William Lim. The power issue can be partially mitigated with alternate power sources such as charged, backup batteries for laptops/tablets/phones and portable solar chargers, many which are available for under $100. This helps mitigate the power issue, but if your telework location’s internet access is down or if 4G/3G is down, then you have another problem all together.

William Lim

@Sterling, if your work is considered essential enough to require continuous connectivity even in the aftermath of a hurricane, then I would expect the agency to subsidize purchasing of those backup power sources you mentioned as part of a BYOD scheme, or provided (for official use, nominally) just the same as employer-provided Blackberries or laptops. More than likely though, if you ARE an essential employee, you’ll be called into the physical office anyway.

Terrence (Terry) Hill

I hope that telework eligible/ready employees have learned a lesson here and next time, I hope they will be prepared to telework. Too many are still hoping for a day off instead of trying to figure out how to continue working. I teleworked on Monday and Tuesday, but many of my co-teleworkers took the day off. This does more damage to telework than good.

David Dejewski

Sandy, as with every storm and widespread crippling incident (I consider DC traffic a crippling incident), reenforces the case for telelwork. Regardless of whether an organization adopts a regular telework routine, it is wise to consider it as part of every organization’s contingency plan. Of course, contingencies need to be tested, so there is justification for some amount of telework to be happening (and reviewed) on an ongoing basis.

Dennis Snyder

Didn’t we already do this exercise for Y2K? “We prepared for totsl catastrophic disaster and then relaxed for 12 years” is the message I see here. I think much of the hand-wringing can be avoided if we simply look back to a well-established event with lots of time to settle out the chaff.

We looked at off-site solutions, such as backups. Cloud services and flash backup are a result, though not directly. Telework has matured since the days of RAS. Alternate power remains a concern, as well as alternate resources (think EMP). Employee communications to verify safety was and always will be at the forefront, you can’t manage the disaster if all your people are unaccounted for. Managerial creativity (as stated in the story and elsewhere) remains pivotal and yet strangely elusive as they too have personal problems and sometimes narrow their focus to exclude direct reports.

David Dejewski

The United States started publishing warnings on cigarette packaging in 1966. Since then, we’ve added clarifying messages that smoking causes bad breath, finger cancer, mouth cancer, throat cancer, lung cancer, allergies, makes hair stink, discolors draperies and walls, causes fires in homes, blows people up when exposed to gas fumes, turns teeth brown, causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema, ruins clothes, and raises insurance premiums. Yet, I saw an otherwise attractive dragon lady (that’s what my kids and I call them) hanging a cigarette out her car window yesterday.

I’m not convinced that people don’t know all the arguments, or that the facts aren’t readily available. Facts simply don’t overcome human elements.

Ryan Schradin

As a private sector employee that had to work during Sandy while my wife sat home, I can truly say that I dislike the ability to telework during incidents of bad weather. However, for my company, and for government agencies, the ability to avoid losing millions of dollars in productivity and pay staff to sit home is extremely attractive.

Technology (virtual desktops, VTC, cloud solutions) is making people as effective at home as they are in the office. If telework and IT implementations can enable your employees to do their job just as well from home, not have to risk their necks in bad weather and save the cash-strapped government money in lost productivity, It’s a worthwhile pursuit.

As far as the technology investment, considering the hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity that Snowpocalypse caused in the DC region, IT implementations should effectively pay for themselves after a few named storms. When you consider the other productivity and cost-saving advantages of these solutions, it’s a win-win.

Polycom (full disclosure – they’re a client) recently authored an entire article that talks about this. It’s well worth a read: http://feduc.us/unified-communications/for-federal-agencies-continuity-is-king-when-named-storms-strike/