Preparing for a Pandemic


by Tony Kontzer

Over the weekend, I got the kind of voice mail that's getting our country very worked up these days. It was a message from the superintendent of the Berkeley (Calif.) School District, in which my son is a student, informing parents district-wide that a particular elementary school was being shut down this week after the first two cases of Swine Flu reported in Berkeley were tied to the school.

Unlike most Americans, the call didn't really worry me. It's hard for me to get myself in a lather over a virus that's still affecting so few people, and that we're so poised to fight, when thousands die each year from the run-of-the-mill flu. But after I hung up the phone, I thought about the virus and its effect on an already staggering economy, and it occurred to me that it's a situation CIOs need to keep abreast of. At the very least, IT leaders may want to at least dust off and review that pandemic plan--that is, if they have one.

For those who don't have a pandemic plan, there's no time like the present to put one together. And IT analysts such as The Enderle Group's Rob Enderle and Gartner's Rick DeLotto and Roberta Witty are flooding their blogs with advice for CIOs on what they should be thinking about. Among the tips I've collected:

-Be prepared to operate with a skeleton staff. When pandemic is even a remote possibility, you should plan for absentee rates as high as 40%, which in IT presents extra challenges because of its 24 x 7 nature.

-Encourage working at home. Revisit your company's ability to support home-based workers, and make sure you have the hardware, software and services you'll need if that population has to suddenly grow exponentially.

-Discourage travel, and quarantine workers for 48 hours after flights. Remember, airplanes are breeding grounds for viruses, and you don't know where all those other passengers have been. Take this small precaution to prevent your company from contributing to the spread of Swine Flu.

-Shore up videoconferencing resources. You're going to need to support increased demand for anything that can substitute for in-person meetings, and you'll want to enable those quarantined traveling workers to stay productive.

-Implore members of your staff to wash their hands frequently, especially those who have shared access to IT equipment. There's nothing like a shared keyboard and mouse to spread a virus around the workplace.

-Consider doing some extra cross-training of your employees to make sure you're covered if your expert on a given system is suddenly unavailable. Similarly, determine which systems will be most affected by absenteeism, and make any changes to your staffing schedules to minimize the impact a staff outbreak would have on your company.

-Make sure you're up-to-date on recommendations from the U.S. Government by visiting the pandemic influenza page.