Don't Wait for Disaster

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If a severe pandemic similar to the devastating 1918 Spanish flu hits, U.S. officials estimate that 90 million people could become infected and 1.9 million may die. They advise businesses to expect an employee absenteeism rate of up to 40 percent due to illness, employees caring for ill relatives and fear of infection. The World Bank forecasts the economic impact of a pandemic on the U.S. at $350 billion.

A number of organizations, especially large companies, are heeding these dire predictions. They're figuring out ways to have employees work remotely, initiating employee education campaigns, identifying critical business functions, stockpiling hand sanitizers and masks, and making sure their suppliers are also preparing.

"If we have a 1918-like pandemic, it's going to be brutal," says Jay Schwarz, vice president of information systems at Alex Lee, a Hickory, N.C.-based wholesale and retail food company. "There are things that companies can do to prepare that could be the difference between survival or not for any organization."

A survey of 222 North American companies conducted by Gartner last year showed only tepid interest in conducting pandemic planning, but analyst Roberta Witty says that's changed this year, with about 20 percent looking to plan. Certain industries are more proactive than others, including financial institutions, food distribution companies and transportation firms, she says.

Aside from planning to have employees work at home by beefing up VPN capabilities and adding videoconferencing technologies, companies need to look at how they'll handle inventories--especially in our just-in-time economy--and adjust human resource policies to handle extended absences, travel and the myriad issues a pandemic presents.

"Some say it's like Y2K, a non-issue...but responsible companies put steps in place so the Y2K issues were addressed," says Ken Wilson, a management consultant who specializes in pandemic planning. "If responsible companies prepare and educate employees, we have a good chance of minimizing the [pandemic's] impact on our country."

This was first published in December 2006

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