Telework could ease pandemic fears

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Telework may become an important tool for employers if a pandemic emerges because it allows people to continue working without face-to-face contact, an expert said.

Tony Gill, managing director of Gill Advisors, a Canadian consulting firm that provides workplace continuity advice, said governments are not spending enough time integrating telework into their continuity of operations plans in the event of a widespread epidemic that forces people to stay home.

“So far, planning strategies are reactive,” Gill said during a Webcast Dec. 15 discussing the issue. “In 1918, during the last great pandemic – the Spanish flu – the scope of planning was just to tell the public where to get face masks.”

Pandemics can spark hysteria and accelerate prolonged absenteeism, which would have a dramatic impact on the economy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that a pandemic would cost the U.S. economy at least $166 billion, Gill said.

At the same time, he said, advance planning can soften the impact of an epidemic and decrease the fear of personal contact among the working population.

Although some people dismissed planning and procedures for the Year 2000 computer bug, he said, planning for that event created a “valuable legacy, new ways of approaching incident management and how to address supply chain vulnerabilities.”

With the increasing availability of broadband Internet connections, Gill said, they have become cheaper than fuel and easier to use from home. He said broadband is the backbone for a wide range of applications. It stimulates a virtual workplace, and broadband coverage is expected to rise to 74 percent in the United States by 2010.

Billy Michael, a senior telework program analyst at the General Services Administration, said during the Webcast that federal agencies have been testing telework arrangements since the late 1980s.

The federal government has created a Web portal for all government telework information and Web-based training modules for teleworkers and managers. Several telework studies are under way to determine the best way to deliver telework tools and get workers involved in a different kind of workplace, she said.

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