As the extreme weather continues to hit Britain with Storm Desmond flooding many areas over the weekend, we've republished our guide to how to stop bad weather disrupting your business.
Over the weekend, many businesses were affected by the storm, which wreaked specific havoc in Cumbria, North-west England, as well as parts of Northern Ireland, north Wales and Scotland.
Indeed, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) is even urging the government to automatically extend tax return filing deadlines for businesses affected by the storm to ease pressure and get them back up and running.
Peter Hollis, Chair of ICAEW practice committee, said: “The government should be doing all they can to help by automatically extending filing deadlines for businesses in affected postcodes, rather than on a case-by-case basis. This will make a major difference to those businesses who will need to file VAT, self-assessment and income and corporation tax returns in the next three months.”
It remains to be seen whether this will come to fruition, but in the meantime, weather-induced chaos presents an ideal opportunity for technologists to remind businesses that we now have the means to lessen the impact of bad weather.
Mobile and remote working tools make it possible to be productive in almost any location and the aptly named cloud software can take care of all your processing needs via the internet.
This article presents an overview of remote working options and offers tips and links to more detailed advice on how to go about it.
Top survival tips
- Situations such as snow disruption should be part of your business continuity plan
- Common sense and appropriate use of remote working technology can minimise the impact for many
- For information industries, cloud software lets you work from almost anywhere - as long as you've got an internet connection
- Have a back-up system at home, with software and applications ready to go for remote working
- Put appropriate policies and security precautions in place
Sensible HR advice
Coping with bad weather conditions isn't just a matter of modern tech, notes Rebecca Clarke of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).
While some employers still hold the view that they expect to see employees at their posts "come Hell or high water", expecting them to travel in dangerous conditions can affect staff morale and can be risky from a health and safety perspective, she advises.
Common sense should prevail on both sides. Employees shouldn't use the weather as an excuse for an unscheduled holiday and should make their situation clear if they are unable to get to work or are suddenly faced with unexpected childcare duties.
For their part, "Employers should make clear to employees that they should not risk life and limb to get to work, and be understanding if employees need to leave early to avoid getting stranded unnecessarily on their way home – particularly if conditions worsen during the working day," Clark advises.
Where employees have to drive for work, employers have a health and safety duty to ensure they are allowed extra time to complete journeys and factor in alternative routes – and that they are not pressurised to complete any dangerous journeys, she adds.
We have the technology
Employers should make clear to employees that they should not risk life and limb to get to work
While it may be impossible for distribution, manufacturing and process industries to carry on without their workforces in situ, it's perfectly feasible for many of the country's information workers to log in to work from home.
This flexible approach makes it possible for many service businesses to continue uninterrupted whatever the circumstances and can deliver additional benefits.
"The crude millions-of-pounds estimates of the cost to the economy from bad weather often don't take into account the millions of motivated workers who will be remotely working or if access to emails is not possible, using the time to focus on planning or reflecting on work processes and practices," says Clarke.
Cloud software, where apps and data are stored in a central location on the web, has greatly expanded the scope for remote working.
During a previous cold snap, Bristol-based cloud accounting developer Pearl Systems reported on our sister site AccountingWEB.co.uk that its customers were still busy.
"From our logs it looks like most users are still managing to crack on with business as usual," the company said.
"If you're stuck at home with all your information on the computers at work, you'll appreciate how nice it would be to access everything remotely... and if you're a boss sitting at work thinking 'where's my team?' then wouldn't it be nice to know that your business is running at full power with everyone working from home."
Simple cloud apps or virtual business environments sit at the base of the remote working pyramid. Indeed, far more powerful systems are available that can make your workforce fully productive while on the move, whatever the weather conditions.
Tim Thaxter is responsible for championing what is known as unified communications at Siemens Enterprise Communications. By combining Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony, office data and applications into an interlinked environment, these systems make it possible to move beyond email to conduct business via online collaboration and web conferencing.
"This is reducing the amount of time being wasted when staff are stranded or attempt to travel in very difficult road and rail conditions," he says.
Working from home: Practical issues
Even if you haven't kitted out your team with laptops, web-compatible smartphones and online collaboration tools, they probably have a home computer with an internet connection.
Very often, home networks will include a wireless router. This is likely to be one of the many risk points you encounter with any home working arrangement. Reminding staff of good IT security habits is always a good idea, and in this situation start by ensuring they know how to alter the default password setting for their home wireless hub, or you may discover they're sharing your company data with their neighbours.
On the hardware side, if you'd like to expand your remote operations consider buying laptops and docking stations - or tablets - for the office rather than PCs. The laptops can be maintained and protected as part of your office network, and many modern applications will automatically sync back with the office server when users return to the office and reconnect.
Inevitably the remote worker will need to refer to a document on the office server or to share a file with a colleague. In the short term, more organised workers can use Dropbox, WeTransfer or Google Drive. Just make sure these systems have the right security requirements for your business.
One tech solution is to extend your office network to remote workers via a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN can either rely on encryption software to scramble all the data that travels to and from the protected office network, or it might rely on a protected data 'tunnel' through the network firewall that remote users sign into using private system IDs and passwords.
Security and other management issues and risks
Remote working can mean safer, happier and more productive staff, but raises a number of management issues beyond misplaced laptops, tablets and data.
Any new communication technology - whether instant messaging, VoIP or social media such as Facebook and Twitter - creates new security challenges. Once a remote worker is away from the office, you have less control on the websites and services they access and the types of files or malware infections they may be receiving.
Ergonomic workspaces and equipment such as adjustable chairs/desks and screen setups are a given in an office situation, but as with security and appropriate use policies, it is easy to overlook these issues with 'out of sight, out of mind' home workers.
If you rely on remote working as an occasional contingency, the use of personal computers and internet connections - and attendant risks - may be balanced by the benefits and convenience of the arrangement for both employer and employee. But longer-term home use should be formalised and agreed as part of a wider business continuity and flexible working plan.