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

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"We did the survey and we got the results so we knew who we might have to work with to make it a success," Hausler says. For example, a few workers indicated they sometimes need physical access to paper files as part of their jobs. That issue wasn't resolved for the day of the test, but in an actual pandemic situation one person would likely be tasked to go to the office each day, retrieve files and paper mail and make bank deposits, among other things.

"Money well spent," says disease-prevention expert

These kinds of rehearsals are recommended by health agencies including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The CDC suggests practice runs as a way to help companies prepare to keep their operations running in the event of pandemics or epidemics that can keep employees home for extended periods.

Kim Elliott, deputy director for the Trust for America's Health, a Washington-based non-profit disease prevention group, agrees. She calls QL2's rehearsal a good business move that should be mimicked by other organizations

"It's not a practice run," Elliott says of QL2's exercise. "We are in a global pandemic. The fact that some businesses are taking it seriously is a good thing. I think it's actually money well spent."

Particularly with influenza, the result can be a sustained absentee rate inside a company, Elliott says. "And in a just-in-time economy, if other businesses are having issues with illnesses and their employees, this can affect suppliers, transportation" and many other aspects for partner companies.

QL2's efforts revealed some important technical issues that might not have been uncovered had the practice exercise not been done, Hausler says. For example, one customer requires his data to be encrypted and backed up to a flash drive that has to remain securely in the QL2 office.

Because the data had to be accessed from offsite for the rehearsal, a specific backup plan had to be created for that customer so that backup could be done by a home-based worker while the data was stored in the manner prescribed by the customer's contract with QL2, Hausler explains.

A nine-step "special customer file transfer process" was created with the client's help to ensure that QL2 could do the client's work while maintaining the required security, she says. The process would be used only if there were issues that came up regarding the data that QL2 delivers to this particular customer. The special process includes methods to decrypt and re-encrypt the data, and employees would access the QL2 server remotely and not transfer any files to a home-based computer.

"Now we have that work-around because we went through this process for this customer," she explains. "That was another benefit of running this dress rehearsal."

All told, the exercise cost QL2 under $3,000 -- and the main costs were employee time to create the survey and resolve any issues ahead of time. Also included in this figure, Hausler explains, was the cost of employee time for the three planning meetings before the test, the 30-minute check-ins the day of the test and the one-hour post-mortem meeting.

Phone conferencing glitch uncovered

As the dry run continued, another technical glitch quickly surfaced. The IT staff found out that the phone conferencing system they were using had some unanticipated problems.

"A lot of people didn't have headsets so there was a lot of background noise" that made it difficult for everyone to hear what was being said on the conference calls, Hausler says. "The inability to hear each other on phone conference was probably the biggest issue."

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