If disaster struck, most U.S. employees could not work remotely

Published 23 November 2009

If major business interruptions — such as severe weather, mass illness, major road closings, or public transit strikes — occurred, the majority of employees in U.S. organizations could not work remotely

The majority of employees at approximately three out of four organizations could not work remotely if they had to, according to a new survey. The survey commissioned by Cisco and conducted by InsightExpress validates concerns that U.S. organizations, both public and private, could not continue operating if major business interruptions occurred, such as severe weather, mass illness, major road closings, or public transit strikes. The survey was taken by 502 IT professionals from organizations large and small spanning five industries: health care, finance, retail, education, and government.

Matthew Harwood writes that only about one in four IT professionals said that 50 percent of their workforce could currently work remotely. When companies do provide remote access they generally do so through company-owned laptops, followed by smart phones. The survey also discovered that the health care and finance sectors were more likely to give workers the ability to work remotely than the retail, education, and government sectors.

Most of the IT professionals whose workforces do not have the ability to work remotely said that “business requirements do not necessitate it.” Other reasons included budget constraints and security fears.

According to slide prepared for the survey and shared with Security Management, Cisco, which offers remote access solutions, argues that businesses that do not implement remote access solutions because of budget constraints have their cost/benefit analysis all wrong. “In most cases, cost to implement remote access across an entire workforce is a fraction of what the loss of business would be if  employees could not work remotely during a crisis,” the slide says.

According to Fred Kost, director of security solutions marketing for Cisco, remote access solutions don’t have to be expensive, with simpler solutions costing only tens of dollars per employee. More interesting, says Kost is that business continuity and resilience was not the main driver for implementing remote access for workers. Only 15 percent of respondents listed “pandemic or other disaster preparedness” as their top business driver.

Rather most respondents highlighted remote access’ ability to create a better work environment with 71 percent saying it  “increased employee productivity” and 55 percent saying it “enables efficient and competitive business operations.”

While Cisco was surprised by these results, Kost says it makes sense. While remote access can certainly allow workers to do their jobs when a business interruption occurs, it has many other pros: a better work/life balance for employees, decreased overhead costs for businesses, and reduced carbon emissions due to less employee commuting for society as a whole.

Nevertheless, a recent event near Cisco’s San Jose headquarters showed the utility of remote access when things do go wrong, according to Kost. At the end of October, two rods and a crossbar of the Bay Bridge came crashing down into the evening’s rush-hour traffic. The bridge, which connects Oakland and San Francisco, was closed for six days resulting in a commuter nightmare. At times like these, he says, telecommuting can be a savior.

It was a sentiment echoed online. “I suppose I may telecommute a bit more than usual during the Bay Bridge mess, and encourage our staff to do the same,” blogged Marina Park, the CEO of the Girl Scouts, at SFGate.com.

IT departments should take note: Secure remote access and business continuity go hand-in-hand,” Kost says. “Technology that lets workers outside the office securely connect to the corporate network is a win for employees and employers.”