Has Your Network Had Its Flu Shot?

By Spirent On December 17, 2009
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As of this writing, the World Health Organization H1N1 virus pandemic alert is still at phase 6, the highest level, and has been for six months. The WHO defines the top two phases as follows:

Phase 5 is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.

Phase 6, the pandemic phase, is characterized by community level outbreaks in at least one other country in a different WHO region in addition to the criteria defined in Phase 5. Designation of this phase will indicate that a global pandemic is under way.

The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports widespread activity (the highest level) in 46 states and regional activity (second highest level) in the four remaining states for the week ending 11/07/2009.

The vaccine continues to remain in short supply, with specific groups targeted for the early doses, such as pregnant women, children, and healthcare and emergency personnel.

The CDC estimates that up to 40% of employees could be absent from work during a severe pandemic, either sick themselves or caring for sick family members, and recommends social distancing strategies, such as telework, to mitigate the spread.

This raises the question of whether an organization’s communications infrastructure can support 40% or more of the workforce working remotely. In June 2009, the Senate asked that question of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and got a disturbing answer. Of the 24 CFO Act agencies, only one, the National Science Foundation, had done extensive testing of its IT infrastructure. They reported assessing their telework system formally several times each year and each day through various means. Five more agencies reported testing their IT systems little or none.

Unfortunately, many businesses are in the same position, with no telecommuting infrastructure or a system that is either unproven or not designed to scale to the usage a severe pandemic would impose. As the WHO Phase 5 recommendations and best practices in the industry indicate, the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is before it hits. Once you have high levels of absenteeism, it will be much more difficult to get a system into place and lost productivity and revenue are no longer theoretical.

There are many reasons beyond H1N1 to implement telework in an organization, including the flexibility that makes for more satisfied and productive employees, reducing Opex costs for office space, going green (reducing energy consumption related to commuting and the heating, cooling and lighting of office space) and preparedness for other crises, such as severe weather, blackouts or other public infrastructure failure, but H1N1 may force many organizations to make the investment sooner rather than later.

Here are a few tips for those looking to validate a new or existing telework infrastructure. Your organization is likely already stretched to the limits of individual productivity with day-to-day operations and ongoing projects. Diverting staff to take on a large project will affect schedules. Instead, look to a third-party to handle the project, especially one with telecommunications testing expertise. While you’re in the middle of an absenteeism/telework crisis is not time to discover a gotcha that was overlooked while validating the system due to lack of experience.

Another tip – when it comes to the test system, lease, don’t buy. Assessing a telework program is an annual effort, not a day-to-day activity. There is no need to expend Capex funds for a test platform that will scale sufficiently to test your system but then will sit idle for the rest of the year. Either lease the system or select a testing service that includes use of a test system.

The bonus is that preparing for the flu can deliver benefits beyond a crisis event by enabling the advantages of telecommuting for your organization.

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