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Snow storms in New Jersey (and most regions of the northeast) are a rarity during October. If they occur at all, they deliver perhaps a dusting and certainly no significant amount of snow. The blizzard that dumped up to 19 inches in some parts of the country on Saturday caught many unprepared.
With the number of telecommuters on the rise, having connectivity options is a key way to maintain productivity. As this past weekend's snow storm (and the hurricane that dumped rain along the east coast in August) have clearly shown, one solution for a mobile work force is often not enough.
Here's my story and what worked for me.
I live in northern New Jersey. I got about 10 inches of snow on Saturday. The strain of the heavy snow on the power lines blew the transformer on the pole closest to my house at about 1 p.m. I was outside shoveling at the time, I heard the bang, and saw the puff of smoke. My house and all the others on my block lost power. About an hour later, the lights came on again, but dimmed quickly, and then went off for good. (A second transformer across the street blew and actually caught fire.)
Bottom line, no power starting at 1 p.m. on Saturday. The snow was falling heavily enough at the time that heading out into the weather to seek power or connectivity was not an option. It would be far safer to stay indoors until the snow stopped and the roads were cleared.
Normally, I gain access to the Internet (and TV) via Verizon's FiOS service. With no power, that option was useless. With power to the bulk of homes and businesses in my town also out, finding connectivity at a local coffee shop was also pretty much out of the running.
Since the wireless networks in my area appeared to be unaffected, my smartphone was able to give me the ability to check email, social networks, RSS, the weather, and other feeds that I typically monitor throughout the day. I was also able to use my smartphone to look up local phone numbers and find out which businesses were still open and which weren't, and even to file a power outage report with Jersey Central Power & Light.
My smartphone was vital for basic communication needs during the event and after. But there's a problem. Smartphones run on batteries, and eventually lose power, too.
2. Back-Up Batteries/Power
It may seem an obvious preventative measure to take, but most people walk around without an extra battery or charging option for their phone. I happen to have several spare batteries and/or power packs that are capable of charging one or several phones. We're talking items such as Mophie Juice Packs, or other generic items that can be picked up at Best Buy or RadioShack for $30 to $50. Considering that I still don't have power two days later, these have been vital to maintaining the life of my smartphone.
Extra batteries or charging devices are a cheap way to keep mobile employees working. And if not these, then something as simple as a phone charger for a car works for juicing up a phone that's on its last legs. (If you're really hard core, you can always equip your employees with a gas-powered electrical generator.) Bottom line, have secondary power options.
3. Mobile Hotspots
Though I primarily work from home, I travel often enough that it is worth the extra money each month to have a mobile hotspot. I own a hotspot that works on Verizon's 3G/4G network and offers Wi-Fi for up to an additional five devices. Since my primary Internet service was kaput, the mobile hotspot was a key part of keeping me online in the aftermath of the storm. (In fact, I am using it right now.)
With the hotspot, I am able to use larger computing devices--such as laptops and tablets--to surf the Web and look up the information that I need to remain connected and in touch while I wait for the power crews to find their way to my street and get the power back up and running.
Don't want to shell out $50 to $80 per month on a hotspot for all your mobile employees? That's understandable from a budget perspective. There are, however, pre-paid and no-contract options from the major network operators that will provide connectivity in a pinch. You can also opt to upgrade a smartphone plan to include tethering/mobile hotspot capabilities.
4. 3G/4G-Equipped Laptops/Tablets
I rely on my mobile hotspot for connectivity, but many of today's enterprise-grade laptops and tablets come with 3G connectivity built in. These provide access to the Internet--and corporate networks--through the cellular networks rather than local Wi-Fi networks. As long as the laptop or tablet in question has a source of power (and the network in question is still operational), then these could be the ticket to keeping your far-flung workforce in touch and productive even though power isn't available. The 3G/4G option is going to be a bit pricier, and a monthly contract is probably required, but having options is better than not having them.
5. Alternate Off-Site Locations
Though I still don't have power, I was (eventually) able to charge all my gear at my in-laws after the batteries and back-up batteries began to peter out. Simply having juiced up phones, tablets, and laptops with 3G access is good enough to keep me working and productive even though my main tools aren't available for a while. It's not always that easy, though.
If your remote workers are down-and-out at their home offices and eventually lose power to all their gear thanks to extended power outages, have a disaster plan in place. Have a list of locations available to off-site employees that are known to have their own generators and/or power supplies as well as their own Internet service. This might include shared work places, nearby office buildings, regional facilities, nearby hotels, local airports, and so on. Have a budget, be prepared, and be willing to sink a little bit more cash into keeping mobile professionals up and working.
We may think we can predict the weather, but we'll never have control over the eventual outcomes. Having back-up plans and workable alternatives are key to keeping remote employees productive even when the world does its best to stop us in our tracks.