Teleworkers get the job done with a BlackBerry and car charger

It's a worst-case scenario for teleworkers — being caught in a blizzard with no electricity — but they find a lifeline in the form of their smart phone and a car charger.

A blizzard with whiteout conditions, warnings to stay off the roads in the Washington metropolitan area and power interruptions have proven to be no match for teleworkers with access to a BlackBerry smart phone and a car charger.

“I was 100 percent on my BlackBerry during the outage," said Stephen O’Keeffe, executive director of the Telework Exchange, a public/private partnership. He lost power at his home in Alexandria, Va., Feb. 7; the electricity was not restored until late on Feb. 9. During that time, he checked e-mail messages on his BlackBerry.

"I was in my car, charging it up,” he said. “You can keep it running, and in these conditions, the BlackBerry was a lifeline.”

It is a strategy that is gaining attention during the one-two punch of blizzard conditions and multiple power outages in the Washington area. For the third day in a row, the federal government and most local governments are closed while a second major snowstorm blows through on the heels of a historic snowfall Feb. 8. Utility companies in Washington and Baltimore were reporting about 17,000 homes without power this afternoon.

Many federal employees are relying on their BlackBerrys today. “I haven't slowed down one bit,” wrote Kurt Bardella, press secretary for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), in an e-mail message. Bardella has sent a flurry of messages from his BlackBerry during the recent storms on topics ranging from the Toyota recalls to health care.

“Part of the workaround is to ensure that your BlackBerry is charged,” wrote Bill Cline, director of the Federal Communications Commission’s Reference Information Center, in an e-mail message he sent from an alternate workstation today. “In the worst-case scenario, recharge from the car.”

But all that BlackBerry activity might be tying up wireless bandwidth. Some cell phone coverage areas maxed out today and delayed conference calls, said Andrew Robinson, senior vice president at consulting firm ICF International. "Instant messaging is therefore coming in handy!" he wrote in an e-mail.

Although industry and government officials do not necessarily factor power outages into their telework planning, if such outages are likely to recur or continue, officials should change their thinking, O’Keeffe said.

And he reminded teleworkers that if their home loses power, the top priority is to stay as safe and warm as possible and take care of their families.

“You have to have your priorities straight,” O’Keeffe said. “First, take care of your family and then let your supervisor know. If possible, look for alternative work sites.”

If the power outage is limited to your neighborhood, federal telework centers might be a possibility, along with public libraries, cafes, hotels, offices and other buildings with Internet access. Of course, they might be shut down during a blizzard, too.

“In this area, the majority of people have power,” O’Keeffe said. “If you lose power, you call in, check in and make alternative plans.”

In situations in which outages are extensive and likely to continue for long periods of time, such as New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, business and government agencies ideally had made arrangements to carry on operations and store data at other locations.

“For business continuity, after a point, you have to look at alternative work sites,” O’Keeffe said.

This week has proven to be a “forced telework experience” for many federal managers, O’Keeffe added. The Telework Exchange plans to develop a lessons-learned report that will examine how many employees teleworked, how successful it was and whether the communications infrastructure held up.

“Most ‘normal’ teleworking operations will stop during extended power outages, although many teleworking facilities have backup power that can provide for continuing operations for some extended period of time,” said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president of the Professional Services Council. However, the use of backup power can sometimes present health and safety issues for workers, he added.