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HR Administration

Hurricane Sandy Pushes Companies to Improvise People Management

Telecommuting policies and rented hotel space help organizations cope with the storm.

Carolyn Slaski, a managing partner at Ernst & Young’s Iselin, New Jersey, office, is fortunate, she says. She and her family weathered Hurricane Sandy with only minor damage to their home and no injuries. She was able to care for her 100-year-old grandmother and three young sons while also tending to her clients and employees thanks to the accounting firm’s pioneering embrace of workplace flexibility, she says.

Since launching its work-flex initiatives in the mid-1990s, the company whose U.S. headquarters is in New York, has been a leader in flexible work arrangements for all employees. And while proponents of such arrangements have been touting the bottom-line benefits of telecommuting for years, sometimes it takes a crisis to really illustrate the point.

“As a company, we communicated throughout the storm and let people know there was power in the office,” Slaski says. “Our main message was, ‘Stay at home if you need to and take care of your families.’ It’s when you have a crisis like this that you really see the importance of having workplace flexibility. Employees felt like they had the flexibility and support they needed to do their jobs and help their families. That’s when you get the loyalty from your employee because they can see that you really mean it.”

The company’s Iselin office had power throughout the storm, and company leaders invited employees without power at home to stop by with their families for food and showers at the onsite gym. “It looks like a refugee camp around here, but folks really appreciate the outreach.” The offer was also extended to clients.

In the midst of the chaos, work was still getting done, says Maryella Gockel, an HR executive and flexibility strategy leader at the company. Having a flexible work culture makes for a nimble workforce, she says.

“I have two younger mothers on our team, and we had a very important call this morning and I asked them if they can participate,” she says. “They said, ‘Sure, if you don’t mind a lot of noise in the background because I’m at someone else’s apartment.’ They knew that there would be no adverse impact on their careers if their kids were in the background. That kind of flexibility sustains people, especially in these very challenging times.”

Please also read: People Management Strategies During a Crisis 

Ernst & Young is among the many companies along the Eastern Seaboard trying to make do and manage their employees in the wake of Sandy’s devastation. A number of advertising companies in New York took the unusual step this week of renting out hotel space to ensure their people had power and a place to collaborate. Horizon Media Inc.’s offices were without power, so CEO Bill Koenigsberg snagged a ballroom and conference rooms at the InterContinental Hotel on 48th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, according to Workforce sister publication Ad Age.

On Thursday morning, the ad hoc headquarters housed about 100 employees—12 or so of those crammed into a pitch prep room—and more straggled in as the hotel began setting up a lunch buffet of sandwiches and salad for the employees.

“It’s better to be under one roof,” Koenigsberg told Ad Age. “Interaction is important. We’re doing a lot of conference calls, but it also gives people a sense of having a place to go, and there’s Internet and phone for the people without electricity.”

The storm raises a range of people-management issues. These include the importance of disaster preparedness plans and the role of employee assistance plans in helping workers cope with the fallout of storm-damaged homes or lost love ones. Another brass-tacks matter is how missed days from Sandy affect paid-time off accounts. One person posted this question in a Workforce forum:

“Due to Sandy, our employees missed 1.5 days of work. Our current [policy] states employees must [use] PTO time, including salaried employees.

“What is best practice on an issue like this? Do most companies charge time off to salaried employees or pay them for the time since they are salary?”

As with Ernst & Young, a number of companies relied on telecommuting to help weather the storm. 1-800-Flowers.com, for example, is based in Carle Place, New York—on Long Island, which was lashed by Sandy. But the flower- and gift-delivery company has a network of customer service representatives working out of their homes throughout the country, Joseph Pititto, vice president of corporate communications said in an email. That home-agent network, he said, “has enabled us to provide access and information for our customers throughout this difficult period.”

Rita Pyrillis is Workforce’s senior writer. Ed Frauenheim is Workforce’s senior editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.