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Disaster Planning: The Human Factor

Disaster Planning: The Human Factor

Disaster Planning: The Human Factor

Support your center’s most important asset before, during and after a disaster.

When a disaster strikes, senior leadership must act quickly and decisively to protect the business and keep it operating. For employees, though, concerns are more personal—are family members out of danger; are their homes secure; are the roads safe to travel; if they make it to work, would they be able to leave if they needed to; what happens if they’re displaced from their homes for several days or longer? Hourly staff also must worry about the loss of income and benefits if unable to work their full schedules.


While IT may have plans in place to ensure that mission-critical systems remain operational, the impact on the business’ most valuable asset often is not adequately addressed. In larger organizations, human resources typically assumes the lead role in establishing emergency management policies and procedures for employees, but it may not be directly involved when it comes to department-specific staffing issues. Or if you manage a small customer service operation, you may be the leader responsible for putting a disaster plan in place for your team. Regardless, agents will be looking to their direct supervisors and managers to provide an all-important human connection to their employer.



Planning for a Disaster: Prepare Your People



The time to think through the types of events that may occur, how they may impact your staff on a personal level, and the questions agents may have is before a disaster strikes.



Developing a people-centric disaster plan should be a collaborative effort. The most effective approach is to incorporate staff at all levels and across functions—especially during the early planning stage. Create a team or committee that includes representation from operations, IT, human resources and frontline agents.



In the initial planning meetings, the team should consider the different types of disaster scenarios (e.g., storms, floods, earthquakes, man-made disasters, etc.) that may occur in your area while discussing the following questions:



  • What does the business expect from contact center staff during and following a disaster?
  • Conversely, what should agents expect from the business if they report to work during an emergency situation?
  • How will the company help agents to meet their work obligations and schedules in the days/weeks following a disaster (e.g., flex schedules, remote work, using satellite or temporary sites)?
  • What types of assistance or resources will the business offer to employees and their families who are displaced or severely impacted by a catastrophe?
  • If agents are unable to work, can they draw on vacation time or sick days to ensure that they will have income to pay for food, housing and bills?



Including agents in these types of discussions demonstrates their value to the business, and will go a long way toward earning their commitment.



During disaster planning, it’s also important to establish an employee notification procedure with multiple methods of contact for each agent, including cell and landline phone numbers, non-work email addresses, social media and/or family contacts. Be sure to test the notification system with your staff on a regular basis (for instance, quarterly or semiannually) to ensure that the contact information you have is current. Always be sure that all agents are aware of testing beforehand, though, so that you don’t cause unnecessary alarm or confusion.



In addition to emergency notifications, determine how employees will receive ongoing information and guidance from the business, from whom (typically, it’s best to designate one point person) and how they will communicate with each other; for instance, can teams be responsible for ensuring that all of their members are accounted for, informed and know what the next steps are?



During a Disaster: Take Care of Your Team’s Immediate Needs



The safety of your staff is the No. 1 priority during a disaster. Make certain that all of your agents who are onsite or who may be commuting to or from the center are accounted for and out of harm’s way. Ensure that you have food, emergency supplies and cots available within the facility in case staff need to take shelter onsite.



When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012, New Jersey’s 2-1-1 contact center leadership were well prepared to handle emergency staffing challenges (see “Inside View: New Jersey 2-1-1 Partnership,” Pipeline, March 2013). In the days preceding the storm’s arrival, the leadership team had worked out a rotational schedule to ensure that managers were onsite 24/7.



Preparations also were made for agents to stay onsite. Although staffing for the storm was on a volunteer basis, managers asked each volunteer to commit to remaining at the center until the storm had passed and it was safe to leave. Management also alerted local police and the Office of Emergency Management that staff were onsite, and that their people might be traveling to and from the facility.



If possible, make arrangements in advance for accommodations at a nearby hotel, as well as food delivery and transportation for your staff, says contact center operations expert Kevin Walsh (see “Winter Weather: Planning for Safety and Success,” Pipeline, October 2016). “Take care of their immediate needs. When non-essential personnel are leaving early as bad weather arrives, your team is doing the opposite: They’re putting themselves in harm’s way by either staying at work, or heading to the designated hotel so that they can make it to work for the next scheduled shift.”



If the business requires the center to be open during severe weather, consider incentivising agents to work through the storm, Walsh adds. “I have paid double-time to agents who were at work during a winter storm,” he says. “If your business doesn’t allow you to pay double-time, purchase gift cards and recognize their efforts in front of the team when normal operations have resumed.”



After the Danger Has Passed: Provide Assistance and Support



Once the danger has passed, senior leaders will likely be focused on resuming normal business operations as quickly as possible. Yet depending on the severity of the event, you may have employees who have been displaced, are without transportation or who are struggling to clean up their homes in the aftermath.



First things first, check on your people. Make sure that everyone is accounted for. Be aware that those who are at ground zero of a disaster may not have access to working landlines, cell service or Internet during or immediately following the event. Try to reach them using multiple contact methods and give them a reasonable timeframe to check in before alerting human resources.



Keep your staff informed with updates on the business’ restoration progress, as well as local emergency resources. Employees who are the hardest hit may only have limited access to news and may be unaware of nearby assistance. Assign a team member to compile community resource information for those in affected areas, such as updates on local transportation, as well as the locations of emergency shelter sites, food banks, portable cell towers for phone service, medical aid and Red Cross shelters. Also, check with HR to ensure that agents have information about their pay, benefits and other resources provided by the company.



Put a hold on nonessential policies like dress codes and bans on cellphones and private Internet use while your center is getting back up to speed. Consider providing separate computer stations for Internet use and personal email access. Provide as much assistance as possible while your agents are trying to get their lives back in order.



Stress levels will be high following a disaster. Some agents may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder months after a catastrophe. If your center serves a local customer base, callers will likely be working through strong emotions, as well, which they may unload on your staff. Supervisors and team leads should monitor agents for signs of exhaustion or anxiety, and be available to step in and take over when they sense that someone needs a break.



Consider providing agents with access to stress relief onsite. Temporarily convert a break room or conference room into a “relaxation area” with soft lighting, comfortable chairs and ambient music. If possible, bring in crisis counselors to talk with agents.



It can take weeks—or longer—for a community to recover after a disaster. Supporting your staff during and after a catastrophe calls for a great deal of compassion and understanding. If you want to help your agents get back to their peak performance levels, they need to know that their manager—and employer—values their well-being above all.



Practical pointer: Make sure that agents know how to sign up for text-based emergency alert and notification systems through your state and local agencies, mobile apps (e.g., American Red Cross, FEMA) and via social media (Twitter, Facebook and Google offer emergency alerting).


Susan Hash

Susan Hash

Susan Hash served as Editorial Director of Contact Center Pipeline magazine and the Pipeline blog from 2009-2021. She is a veteran business journalist with over 30 years of specialized experience writing about customer care and contact centers.
Twitter: @susanhash

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