Case study: Pandemic "dress rehearsal" uncovered glitches for one small firm

Not everyone agrees on the need to do a full-boat practice run -- but it can't hurt anything except your short-term expenses

Data aggregation vendor QL2 Software Inc. already follows best practices to prepare for the worst. It has redundant systems and regularly reviews its plans for both disaster recovery and business continuity. But when it comes to the ongoing H1N1 pandemic, company executives admit, they were a bit worried.

To disarm their concerns, they organized and conducted a "dress rehearsal" to see how the company could handle significant staff outages and to find out what they could do better.

The goal: Ensuring that they could still operate if more than 10% of the 42 employees in its Seattle headquarters were infected with swine flu and forced to stay home.

"Some contracts with our customers require us to have certain uptime, so we decided to do this to be sure that we could react within the terms of the contracts," says Rosie Hausler, QL2's vice president of marketing. "We decided to be proactive and try a work-at-home day. We decided we should practice."

So on Sept. 24, that's what QL2 did. All 42 employees in the headquarters building had been told that they had to work from home so the firm's off-site work processes could be tested and fine-tuned in the event of a major swine flu outbreak locally.

The employees worked from home all day and dialed in for conference calls at 8 a.m., noon and at 4 p.m. with QL2's business-continuity team.

Any issues that arose that day were logged into a project-management and bug-tracking application called JIRA so the problems could be systematically fixed later. QL2 was already using JIRA as part of its normal IT tool arsenal and used it to help that day, Hausler says.

QL2's business focuses on the travel, hospitality and retail markets. QL2 scours the Internet for information for each client from disparate Web sites and turns the information into databases that clients can use for analysis. For companies in the airline industry, QL2 aggregates fare and route data so the airlines can compare their prices and routes with competitors, in real time.

This rehearsal was for the Seattle-based workers only. The firm has 8 remote workers in Atlanta and 113 in India but they did not participate in the exercise. Hausler says the company was most concerned about headquarters employees being able to operate remotely; the other employees already do so. "No one was allowed to come into the office or that would have invalidated the test," Hausler says.

The company's 14-member business continuity planning team held several meetings to plan the processes for the day, and all workers were provided with the laptops, VPN connections and other IT tools that would let them work from home instead of from the office. Five IT staffers were on the planning team, and these were the people who helped identify potential problems and resolve actual issues that arose the day of the trial.

The company surveyed all the affected workers to be sure that they had used their VPN connections prior to rehearsal day. Employees were asked if there were any other family-related or IT issues that they needed help to resolve before the test, such as barking dogs, the presence of noisy children or a lack of wireless Internet access. Planners advised employees to try to arrange for day care ahead of time, to try to keep dogs in a different part of the house from where they were working and so on.

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