11/01/2012 05:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sandy's Impact on the Flexible Workplace

I posted this comment about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy on Facebook this week:

Power is on again but no way to get to office in NYC. Can you say, "workflex"?

In response, I got a thought-provoking comment from Laurie Ruettimann, famed HR pundit and the voice behind "The Cynical Girl" workplace blog, about flexible workplaces:

Driven by 9/11 -- and even when most of my employees had AOL dial-up in the NY area -- we really looked at implementing stronger work/flex policies. I wonder if we are about to see a new push towards this trend?

Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a disaster to change perceptions when it comes to how workers work and what makes sense for employers.

Too often the decision of whether or not to offer employees flexibility at work, everything from telecommuting to compressed workweeks, comes down to dollars and cents.

According to data in Families and Work Institute's 2012 National Study of Employers, the perceived expense of workflex derails many company efforts. In the report,

We asked all employers (whether they have implemented work life assistance or not) for the main obstacles to implementing flexibility, caregiving leaves, child care or elder care assistance.

The main obstacle cited by employers is cost (25%).

But does it pay off in the end, especially after disasters such as Sandy?

"This is not a new argument," maintained Ken Matos, senior director employment research and practice for the Families and Work Institute. "It's simply a matter of people being willing to pay upfront to avoid greater costs in the future. That's the real issue."

Indeed, the economic cost to employers and the economy at large in the aftermath of Sandy is expected to be great. "Sandy could shave 0.6 percentage point off the annualized pace of GDP growth," predicted an article in the Wall Street Journal.

Matos, who is also co-author of "WORKFLEX: The Essential Guide to Effective and Flexible Workplaces", which includes information on creating workflex programs and disaster planning, pointed out that after Washington, D.C. was hit with a crippling snowstorm known as "Snowmageddon" in 2010, President Obama was motivated to sign Telework Enhancement Act into law in order "to achieve greater flexibility in managing its workforce through the use of telework."

As a result of Sandy, a host of companies on the Eastern Seaboard have been forced to shut down, impacting a huge variety of employees, everyone from opera singers to factory workers to IT employees. Some employers have been able to keep some of their operations going thanks to workflex programs they've had in place, especially telework. The New York Times published a story this week about how businesses are struggling to keep business moving.

Remote work was a key option for workflex, according to the article, but even that had its issues as power went out for so many residents on the East Coast:

At JPMorgan Chase, about 25,000 employees worked remotely on Monday, but that figure dropped to 15,000 to 20,000 on Tuesday as lights went out across the region.

On a typical day, about 2,000 to 3,000 employees work through the bank's remote computer system.

Clearly, no plan is full-proof when it comes to keeping the lights on and workers working, but without workflex plans in place companies end up at a disadvantage -- not just because employers who provide workflex options tend to have more productive employees, but because such flexibility can help businesses during tragedies such as Sandy.