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Donkin on Work - Teleworking

September 2003 - Terrorism and teleworking

If you are ever passing through Derbyshire, in that part of England where the Midlands merges with the North, take a trip to the village of Eyam. In the churchyard you will find the graves of families who died in 1665, the year that the Great Plague came to London.

People did not travel much in those days but someone took the plague to Eyam in a bundle of clothes. The 350 villagers sat tight, for fear that moving out would spread the disease. Fewer than 100 survived.

Suppose that history repeated itself. Not in a country village but in your office. It is a thought that should not be dismissed lightly as we approach the second anniversary of the al-Qaeda attack that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York. Do you remember the shock we all felt at the time? Can you recall the fear that ran through multi-storey offices in the immediate aftermath, whenever an aircraft was sighted nearby?

At the same time people began to repeat apocryphal stories about Arabs leaving briefcases on buses. Those stories were all symptoms of trauma-induced anxiety, a form of low-level mass hysteria. The anxiety faded in time. But the threat of another attack did not. It is as real today as it was two years ago. If anything, the threat is more immediate now.

The difference is that we have learnt to live with it, just as we learn to live with all the other potential threats that can interrupt our natural life span such as heart disease, skin cancer and the possibility of a road accident. We know that our train in to work might go off the rails or that we could get mugged in the street. These are facts of life. We cannot ignore them but we cannot live in dread of them, either.

Terrorism is a modern fact of life. So are the procedures that have become so familiar in the workplace: the fire drill, the assembly point and the roll call. But are these sufficient for countering the new kinds of threat: those of chemical and biological attack, or even the spread of radiation, should anyone perfect the art of constructing and delivering a so-called dirty bomb?

I hesitate to ask because it sounds like doom-mongering. But somebody has to ask these questions because sooner or later one of these new forms of terrorist outrage is going to come to an office near you.

I did not say this. It was said by someone far better qualified to comment: Eliza Manningham-Buller, director of MI5, the UK's internal security service, in June.

"It will only be a matter of time before a crude version of a chemical, radiological or nuclear attack is launched at a major western city," she said. So what happens in your workplace when someone sprays an aerosol can full of ricin around the room? What happens when anthrax spores start coming through the post again, as they did in the US in 2001? Do you have a plan?

Bob Hodges, a former major-general in the British Army and now a director of Threat Response International, a company that advises businesses on the way they should prepare for emergencies, believes that some of the more traditional emergency procedures will no longer be effective in response to a biological or chemical attack.

An office exposed to such an attack is more likely to be cordoned off than evacuated, he said at a recent meeting of the Institute of Business Ethics in London. Instead of escaping to your home, you will be told by police to stay put.

"If there is a fire we all know where we are supposed to go. If it's a bomb we have a procedure too. But what are you going to do if there is a chemical agent? Where will people go? Nowhere, because the police won't let them. If people are beginning to fall sick they shouldn't be legging it to the station," he said.

If this sounds fanciful, remember it is precisely what happened to school and hospital staff in the recent outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in south-east Asia and in Canada. Similar contingency plans exist in other conurbations around the world.

Maj Gen Hodges urges businesses, if they have not done so already, to put their emergency contingency planning high on the agenda. It is a boardroom issue, he says. "Companies need to identify their critical assets - those that affect the profitability of the business. What is it that the business cannot do without if it is to function?"

The temptation, if you are the boss, is to point to yourself. But do not be too sure. The main function of the board is to set strategy and company policy, not to handle an emergency response. In the short term at least, the chairman may not be the most essential figure in maintaining productivity. But the top management may well be important in ensuring that the human response is appropriate. Abandoning the office in a rooftop helicopter, in a scene resembling the fall of Saigon, is unlikely to earn the respect of colleagues. The only honourable thing would be to stay in the wheelhouse, like the captain of the Titanic.

The attack on New York's twin towers exposed the inadequacy of accepted emergency procedures in such an unprecedented catastrophe. Staff in some offices were advised to stay put and stay calm, a response that would have proved fatal. So how much can we trust the procedures our companies create for us?

In my old office the staff would pay lip-service to a fire drill. As the alarm rang, people would stay at their desks, then move off grudgingly until the fuss was over.

There is one move that many office staff could benefit from: to work more from home. In 1994, when an earthquake destroyed a section of freeway in Northridge, Los Angeles, tens of thousands of office workers, cut off from their workplaces, had no choice but to adopt teleworking . When the road had been repaired, many retained this new style of working.

New technology is making the accumulation of work in offices more of a habit than a necessity. The office habit has proved surprisingly durable. But would it survive a biological or chemical attack? How long will it be before a modern-day office has its own Eyam-like experience? Are we prepared? I am not at all sure.

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