When winter is this bad, businesses better have a plan

Can a few centimetres of snow or a polar vortex knock your business out of commission? The shocking answer is yes.

The ice storm that coated the Toronto region in December spawned power outages that stretched for days, while recurring storms and record-setting temperatures across the country created treacherous road conditions that kept employees home for extended periods. After a brutal winter that cut into the bottom lines of Canadian businesses in all sectors, it’s increasingly clear that traditional safeguards like disaster recovery plans are no longer enough.

Mostly unprepared

Figures released last week by Sage North America highlight just how vulnerable Canadian small businesses can be to Mother Nature’s wrath. One in four respondents said this year’s winter weather had negatively affected their business, with the majority of businesses reducing headcount or employee hours to compensate. The impact flowed through to the bottom line, with companies reporting lower revenues, productivity and profit.

Unfortunately only 25 per cent of Canadian businesses reported having a bad-weather plan in place before this winter began. While businesses have long used DRPs to prepare for the worst, Dave Rumer, vice president of market development in Canada for Sage, says this year’s winter weather highlighted the limits of traditional DRPs that focus only on big-bang, catastrophic events.

“The reality is that many Canadian small businesses don’t have a disaster recovery plan at all,” he said. “While a disaster recovery plan would cover bigger weather related disasters – power outages, floods – they often don’t cover more common weather related issues like major snow storms.”

Rumer says Canada’s winter-centric culture may also be lulling businesses into a false sense of security.

“I think in Canada, because we are used to dealing with winter weather, most businesses just assume that its part of doing business in Canada,” Rumer told Yahoo Canada Finance.

“We’ve also had a number of relatively mild winters lately – I think the extreme and prolonged winter this year is causing many Canadian small businesses to rethink their bad weather plans.”

Risks aren’t just monetary

That gap between full-blown DRP and everyday weather contingencies can be an expensive one.

“Employees may have legal recourse if they get hurt getting to work or at work and can prove that their employer was negligent in remaining open and requiring them to come to work,” Rumer said. “There are also business risks that can impact productivity, profitability and employee morale – if employees don’t know what is expected of them and there isn’t a communication plan in place, they may show up at work when their employer has shut down, they may not show up when business is open.”

Sage has published a list of tips to help companies prepare for a weather emergency, and recommends companies develop a focused inclement weather policy that defines anticipated weather scenarios and appropriate responses to each. It should include who’s responsible for announcing closures and how they will be communicated. Rumer recommends using websites, social media, email and voicemail to advise employees and customers and set expectations.

Employees should also have options to stay productive even if the office is closed for an extended period of time. Rumer says equipping them to work from home is key to keeping workflow going no matter the weather. Laptops and mobile phones are an obvious starting point, but cloud-based solutions that keep working even if corporate servers are down are another cost-effective alternative.

No matter the solution, this year’s rough winter has opened Canadian business decision-makers’ eyes to a stark reality: Disasters can take many seemingly everyday forms, and most companies are woefully unprepared.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. carmilevy@yahoo.ca

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