Swine Flu: The New Excuse to Work from Home?

By Donald Sears  |  Posted 2009-05-01 Print this article Print

While Google tracks the spread of swine flu and Vice President Joe Biden tells people to stay put (not totally unreasonable), expect co-workers to log in to that VPN, listen for prolonged mute-button silences on conference calls and watch overall productivity slide in the coming weeks and months.

Many businesses are preparing for swine flu and telling people if you have anything close to flu symptoms, stay home. This is great timing for some.

Did I mention it's getting nicer out in the Northeast and other parts of the country where winter is long and spring fever is a joyous flu-type high of being able to finally be outdoors mixed with severely itchy eyes, running nose and bouts of hay fever?

"Working from home today" e-mails are more than likely to increase, as are requests to the help desk for VPN software, synchronization of smartphones, more instant messaging, Web mail accounts and upticks in the use of wikis or other Web-based collaborative sharing programs.

Yankee Group analyst Josh Holbrook sees it this way:

"The idea of people holed up in their homes, afraid to step outside due to a pandemic, sounds like something from an H.G. Wells sci-fi novel--but businesses are preparing for just this scenario. In times of catastrophe, mobile technology will be the fuel that keeps the wheels of industry churning. A pandemic will simply expedite the inevitability of a mind shift from work as a place we go to a thing we do."

In these recessionary times, that may not be the best thing, but spreading the swine flu--or even the threat of it--at work is enough to get your human resources department and executive team in a tussle over best employee practices in a time of serious outbreak concern.

It's sort of difficult not to panic when you see the daily rise in cases, the extensive media coverage (yeah, me too ... second post on it this week, sorry, but in addition to the Yankee Group, the other major analyst, Gartner, is on the bandwagon too) and the news of human-to-human transmission. Every other flu I know of is transmitted by humans, but this one is at the very least helping out the surgical mask industry.

Am I making light of a serious illness? A little, but it's more a reaction to the hype machine and shortcuts for employees who would really rather not get on that train or get in their cars when the sun is shining and Wi-Fi works on the covered patio. Can you blame them, really?

For those looking for a break after a cold, heartwrenching winter of surviving layoffs, being on call way too much and constantly being asked to find ways to cut more from your already depleted IT budget, the notion that you may be feeling flu-like symptoms could be an attractive reason for putting on shorts or not getting out of your pajamas more than usual in the near future.

I'm not condoning it, but I can predict that employees will absolutely be taking advantage of it ... Working from home can be the gift that temporarily gives when a recession's productivity pressures linger long, hard and never-ending.

What I want to know is, how many people are going to work with masks on?

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