Associate / IT Manager Nat Schmidt credits the 2009 H1N1 pandemic with revealing vulnerabilities in corporate IT infrastructure. Since joining VAA in 2006, Nat had taken steps to improve the firm’s business operations, but the H1N1 crisis expanded the realm of possible events that could impact “business as usual.”
Grim statistics released during H1N1 from FEMA reporting forty percent of businesses don’t reopen after a disaster and the U.S. Small Business Administration indicating 90 percent of businesses fail within two years of a disaster further illustrated the need of a crisis plan.
With the go-ahead from then-CEO Scott Stangeland, PE, Nat and other VAA business support leaders formed a team to create a Business Continuity Plan. The Plan would put strategies in place for managing operations if a situation occurred that prevented employee access to a shared physical office.
“The time to try to figure out how to get through something is not when you’re in the middle of it,” says Nat. “It’s an investment in your future to have an infrastructure that allows you to be agile.”
The Plan includes procedures to mitigate threats and concrete steps to respond to events like fires, tornadoes, evacuations and pandemics. Employee safety is top priority, Nat stresses, but ensuring everyone can work away from the office is also a vital piece of the Plan. Key considerations included ensuring new technologies had cloud capabilities to aid in decentralizing the office and keeping the Plan as simple as possible.
The Plan was tested when VAA experienced an office flood in 2016. Due in large part to tools put in place by the Plan — such as redundant offsite servers and remote work capabilities — the firm had zero downtime during the event.
The Business Continuity Team regularly reviewed and updated the Plan to keep it ready for implementation. Having the Plan in place before the COVID-19 pandemic was a massive advantage as the firm prepared for the “new normal.” Having reliable assets in place such as stable vendors, dependable technology and resources to turn to for help was also critical to the firm’s COVID-19 response.
“Nat’s foresight and preparedness set us up for complete success moving to remote working at the onset of COVID-19,” says CEO, Jeff Schrock, PE. “I am proud of how he has led our IT systems, guiding us with ease into remote work and beyond. Truly an amazing accomplishment!”
While prepping for the unknown may seem daunting, Nat welcomes the challenge of combating potential problems.
“I enjoy trying to outrun fate,” he says. “I try to eliminate the ‘gotchas,’ so if our power gets turned off or the internet gets disconnected, I want to make sure we’re ready.”
Nat is always thinking about new technologies and initiatives, carefully considering how new tools can provide value to the firm and its clients. However, he cautions against introducing new technology for its own sake.
"It’s got to be something that’s going to make you a better employee, make us a better company and show our clients that we truly do care about their best interests,” he says.
In preparing for the possibility of an extended period of remote work, Nat offers these tips:
Repurpose Old Equipment
Provide unused or retired computers and other technology to employees for use in their home office.
Keep excess supplies on hand such as keyboards and headsets for employee use.
Lean on Past Experiences
Every experience comes with opportunities to learn. Think back on past situations and incorporate lessons learned into your planning.
Focus on Security
Hardware and software protections are essential to safeguard company and client data, but equally important is a knowledgeable workforce. Employees who undergo cyber security training are less likely to fall victim to phishing scams or other threats to company security.
Stay on Top of Trends
Be aware of what is happening in the news and how it could impact your business. Stay informed about industry standards and be proactive in planning for emerging threats.
Embrace Digital Tools
Get to know the features of your company’s digital tools. Many companies utilize online collaboration software. If your firm has an intranet or centralized location for information sharing, check it regularly to stay informed.
Consider holding meetings with team members or provide an open forum for staff discussion on a regular basis. Use video calling or chat features to check-in and answer questions.
Practice Video Call Etiquette
Don’t minimize your video window; it’s easy to forget others can see you and you may start doing distracting things. Mimic the same behavior you would in an in-person meeting.
Don’t be too hard on yourself; if something is frustrating, take a quick walk and gather your thoughts. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but remember: if you are experiencing something, chances are someone else is too. Know who your resources are and reach out if you need help. You’re not alone!