Disaster Recovery: Ask 'What If?'

Disasters never happen at a good time. But the timing is irrelevant. What counts is that your business can recover quickly with minimal long-term effects.

Aerial shot of a flood city

And that means having a disaster recovery program in place so that your company is well-positioned to respond to — and rebound from — a wide range of calamities. The issues your business may need to deal with range from persuading loyal employees to stay home if they aren't needed and determining how to pay vendors if the payment system is down.

Asking "what if" is the first preparation step. Answering that question allows your company to work out what it would do if hit by, for instance, a natural disaster, a flu pandemic, a burst water pipe at headquarters, a power failure at the main warehouse, or some other calamity.

Here's a list of the most critical concerns to consider:

Functions. Determine your company's vital functions and the staff members who'd be needed immediately after a disaster. Establish the roles and responsibility of employees during the disaster and the order in which they will be called back to work. Name a backup for each critical employee. Essential staff members and their backups should have copies of the emergency plan and crucial phone numbers at their homes.

Data. Your business needs data to resume  operations. Employees outside your IT department should understand where and how that data is backed up and stored. Duplicate records and keep backups off site in a storage facility or a bank vault. Depending on the size of your company, you may want to keep them at someone's home. Conduct a full inventory of the systems your business uses and set up a hierarchy of the order to restore them. Mission critical data, of course, has top priority.

Internet. Plan for the possibility that the Internet will be out and everything in your business will come to a screeching halt. The bottom line in this situation is that you need redundancy for connectivity, cloud services, and applications.

IT specialists recommend having options for connectivity that include but aren't limited to local Wi-Fi, LTE service, and satellite communications. These should be worked out with providers and tested before a disaster happens.

If your business has e-commerce operations, consider having a duplicate website and e-mail software on a separate server in another part of the country. Web-based applications can be accessed from anywhere at any time with the proper passwords.

In a worst-case scenario, your employees should be able to process orders and payments manually.

Checklists. Employees need checklists to guide them on how to respond. Without these lists, individuals may find themselves in unsettled territory, unable to logically determine what to do. The extent of your company's checklists depends on the size and scope of the crisis. You can have different lists for various emergencies. A step by-step set of instructions goes a long way toward helping employees act in the best interests of each other and the company.

Phone tree. Have a list of verified, up-to-date contact numbers for all employees. Include numbers for office, home and cell, as well as personal e-mail addresses. Then, assign a phone tree with one person calling two people who each call two more and so on along the tree. This is a quick way to distribute information quickly, without placing the burden on one or two employees. Text messaging can also be effective. In large disasters, such as a hurricane or terrorist attack, text messages may be able to get through during power outages when landlines and mobile networks are overloaded.

Absenteeism. Flu pandemics are just one type of disaster that could cripple a business with absenteeism. Develop various scenarios that consider how your company can respond to different numbers of employees not showing up for work. Determine which functions are necessary and which can either be understaffed or closed down.

A well-structured disaster recovery plan can bring order to chaos and allow your company to resume operations in a relatively short period. Also, if your company has business interruption insurance coverage, a robust disaster recovery program sends a clear message to your carrier that you are making a concerted effort to mitigate losses and therefore the value of the overall claim.

Plan for Relocation

A disaster could destroy your organization's facilities or at least make them temporarily inaccessible. Develop a plan that allows employees to quickly relocate and continue operating. If possible, split key functions so they aren't in one location.

Depending on your business, you may need to set up a fully functioning branch office.

A lower-cost alternative is to have an agreement with another company to maintain reciprocal "hot sites." Each company keeps a separate server at the other company's offices to cover essential functions and can count on borrowing work space, if necessary. In either case, the sites should be far enough away from the main office so that both won't be wiped out, but close enough (say, 30 miles) to reach relatively easily.

Another option is to identify a list of commercial property management firms that may be able to rent suitable temporary office space. And, of course, some jobs can be performed remotely, so consider rewiring key employees' homes to accommodate the necessary technical equipment or to be able to put in enough computers to set up a temporary office.

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