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,
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
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,"
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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