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Superstorm Sandy and the Lessons of Mobility

For companies with mobile employees, work continues despite empty offices.

It goes without saying that Superstorm Sandy was a devastating natural disaster that will not soon be forgotten in cities on the East Coast. While the focus remains on helping those who need it most, something that cannot be overlooked is the disruption to business continuity experienced by many organizations, which simply wasn’t anticipated by most disaster recovery plans. The scenario goes like this: the building is standing, and the power is even back on, but no one can get here!

As a mobile worker and longtime advocate of workplace mobility, I have been collecting stories from friends, colleagues, and clients about their experiences during and after the storm. I believe their accounts are indicative of a broader phenomenon: a clear divide in the ability to cope between organizations that strictly practice place-based work and those that support mobile work.

The storm rendered bankers, lawyers, business professionals, and other knowledge-based workers idle, simply because their computers and phones sit on desks in buildings they couldn’t access. The backlog of work and stress they’ve returned to is unnerving, and the effects on their businesses have been devastating. It’s a situation with ramifications that will last long after the waters recede.

For those with jobs that enable mobility, work continued on laptops and mobile phones in their apartments, friends’ homes, other companies’ offices, coffee shops, and even shopping mall food courts. It may not have been business as usual, but life went on. For them, it was simply the extension of routine behaviors they have practiced before, for other reasons.

If there’s one workplace strategy lesson we can take away from Sandy, it’s that too many businesses are still overly dependent on their physical workplaces. The problem is that despite all the talk out there about generations, performance, and mobility, many workplaces remain beholden to a culture of presenteeism. I define presenteeism as the expectation that workers be physically present regardless of whether their work could be done equally well, or better, somewhere else. Managers expect, and often demand, that the people they supervise sit in assigned seats during allotted work hours, and base assessments on adherence to these norms. In offices where presenteeism rules, those who favor mobility are perceived as not wanting to do their fair share. This could not be further from the truth.

Working with businesses in all industries, I have seen how enabling mobile work can empower employees and ultimately lead to a more accountable workforce. In my experience, mobile employees feel a greater sense of responsibility to maintain productivity and stay connected than those who have to punch in an out of an office. Presenteeism can foster mistrust and stress, whereas embracing a flexible and mobile approach to work, in which employees are judged on their contributions rather than the time they spent at a desk, increases productivity and pride in work delivered.

But the most important takeaway from Sandy is that the failure to embrace mobile work can leave organizations vulnerable to disruptions in business continuity. Knowledge workers adept at mobile working are less likely to suffer productivity losses when natural disasters, personal situations, and other unforeseeable circumstances occur.

Sandy was an extreme case of productivity lost from lack of mobility, but many smaller examples occur every day, all over the world. The bottom line is that in a 24/7 global business cycle, companies cannot afford to expose themselves to the losses that result from breaks in continuity, large or small. And given that the tools to prevent such breaks from occurring in the first place are the same tools that support modern mobile working, there’s really no excuse to wait any longer to get on board.

Justin Mardex
Justin Mardex is a strategy director in Gensler’s New York office. He helps leading companies redefine the workplace experience to support modern, mobile working. Part business consultant, and part maker of places, Justin’s favorite thing is when smart strategy and thoughtful design converge. Contact him at justin_mardex@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (6)

Thanks Justin - this is one of the points i make in my presentation on (and any conversation i have about) Climate Change Adaptation! A business that's nimble in the face of physical disruptions has such advantages over those that don't. It's eye-opening to see how quickly our offices got back up to speed - and how staff who could work at home actually kept working when the offices were closed! - and compare that with contractors, suppliers, etc. who don't have that mobility. Yet!

11.10.2012 | Unregistered CommenterGail Napell
Judging workers "on their contributions rather than the time they spend at their desk" is a tall order. Knowledge work notoriously defies traditional productivity measures. But that may actually be mobility's greatest value, even beyond business continuity: it forces companies to define performance. By defining it, they become more adept at recognizing it. That will ultimately empower not only mobile workers, but in-office workers as well.
11.13.2012 | Unregistered CommenterErik Lucken
I completely agree and am all for mobility and non-hourly based standards at work. I would point out the social constraints of this way of working though, many people don't have a company laptop and have to physically be present to do their work (retail, food service workers, security guards). They don't have the luxury of digital access and are penalized when the hours they work drop. Not to mention the public transportation interruptions. I would love to think that companies could be progressive enough to offer people paid natural disaster days but I fear this is far too socialistic for our culture of profits first, employees second or third.
11.13.2012 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie De Cola
We operate an office of people that travel and are out of the office as often as they are in. It leads to a culture that is highly functional and mobile, but it also leaves us very appreciative of the time we share together in the office. Being able to be productive while mobile is very important in natural disaster, in the case of family illness, or to gain back commuting time when the work doesn't require being in the office. This does not replace the ability to interact directly when sharing the same physical location. It isn't necessarily "presenteeism" to want to encourage the office to be a place where direct interaction occurs. When mobility is the norm, making good use of time together in the same space is all the more valuable.
11.15.2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott Pfeiffer
Great article Just!
This is a topic and trend we're living and seeing as a priority to our design partners and clients.
11.16.2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarc Hochlerin
great article Justin. The 'new workstyle revolution' that I blogged about after the London Olympics would make an interesting comparison with Sandy - the planned 'flexible working' experiment (London) and the unplanned one (New York) due to a natural disaster. If we could get some statiistics on both events, that would make for an interesting read. The bigger question of course, is how one measures productivity in the first place - neither being stationed at one's desk or being perpetually on the road is a guarantor of 'being productive'. Organisations will need to equip their workforce to be able to seamless integrate the workstyle of both 'present' and 'remote' workers.
12.3.2012 | Unregistered Commenterphilip tidd

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