How Do You Solve a Problem Like Eyjafjallajokull?

Several i4cp network companies are among those that have been cursing the name Eyjafjallajokull … that is, if they can pronounce it. The Icelandic subglacial volcano is still making headlines as we write this, with most EU flights resuming but the travel chaos far from over. The gigantic ash cloud produced by an April 14th eruptions shut down the skies over Europe over the last week and left millions of travelers in far-flung locations stranded and trying desperately to find alternate means of transportation. In all, more than 100,000 flights were canceled and airlines are on track to lose over $2 billion. With an as of yet unknown chance of further disruption, the saga continues.

Pain in the Ash

The unprecedented disruption caused by the Eyjafjallajokull ash release is responsible for the biggest shutdown of European airspace since World War II. Beyond the personal trials of the people whose airline tickets became as useful as paper airplanes, many businesses are also feeling the volcano's wrath and are scrambling for creative solutions to maintaining business as usual. Stranded business travelers and workers on holiday are affecting global operations - not just those in Europe.

So how are some of the companies we contacted dealing with the travel disruptions? Most report relatively minor issues and cancelled travel plans. One respondent said, "I suppose our staff has been very lucky and, due to their numerous travels, quite creative in finding ways to get home."

Some of that organization's Europe-based employees, he explained, simply had to reroute through Paris and rent a car back to the UK. "Two of our guys also offered a lift for 3 stranded strangers. I'm sure the 3 people appreciated it more than I could imagine."

He went on to say that members of their sales team who were "aiming for the Netherlands had to take a taxi for a 2-hour-trip to make it to the connecting train station." As an important note, he added, "All these costs would be covered by the company."

The same source also relayed that, in some cases, it's been necessary to make the most of the inconvenience. "Some Middle Eastern staff are currently stuck in the UK," he said. "Being originally from the UK, they're using this time to stay with their families, coming into the office once or twice and working the rest from home. For the rental cars, our company is paying for it. However, they also benefit from the additional home time."

And that wasn't the only person we contacted whose company is trying to make the best of a bad situation. Another reported on travelers who "were/are stranded (in Africa trying to return to the U.S.) and we arranged for them to visit another of our operations in Africa where they can do some work before returning."

One contact said that their organization avoided much of the chaos by building up their teleconferencing and virtual meetings infrastructure. "It is fortunate for us that we put a lot of investment last year into making our organization more ‘agile' - in the sense that we can connect from anywhere," he said, adding that they have "slowly changed our culture to be more tech-savvy and not too reliant on face-to-face business meeting/flights."

Turning Trials Into Lessons

Not too long ago, Investor' reported on how to use scenario planning to demystify the future, and the Icelandic saga brings home the case for such planning yet again. Scenario planning is, ultimately, a performance enhancement tool because it helps companies develop flexible cultures, mindsets, processes and infrastructures.

Consider that unpronounceable volcanoes are not the only threat to global travel. Harsh winter weather had a similar impact in many areas of Europe and the U.S. only a few short months ago, while hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorist threats and pandemic flus have all made headlines in recent years. Situations like these, although unpleasant to contemplate, are all fodder for scenario planning. That is, organizations can develop scenarios around such issues and then draft up action plans - or at least a set of good ideas - to help them react more quickly when a real crisis emerges. This can help minimize disruption in case of emergencies.

As they craft possible tactics for dealing with crises, organizations should consider the following suggestions and principles:

  • Have emergency plans in place, written down, regularly updated and ready to deploy. Make sure those plans are as flexible as possible so they can be effective in a variety of circumstances. Don't wait till disaster strikes to build the flexible infrastructure you'll need to implement your plans. These plans should have an owner that is a senior executive involved in strategic planning.
  • Employee safety should always be the number one priority. Whenever possible, cancel non-essential travel and have employees stay put until the crisis is over. Make travel decisions at the executive level, considering impact on business operations, the need for an on-site presence and the potential costs of rescheduling. Make special note of those with medical problems, as well as their medicine supplies and the availability of refills.
  • Keep communications flowing. Communicate your company's backup plans and policy's regularly with employees and ensure that employees communicate their status regularly through predetermined channels. Maintain links to appropriate authorities and monitoring agencies. Include travel departments and travel vendors in the process where necessary. Redundant and secondary communication channels are recommended.
  • Ask employees to make reasonable attempts to return to work even as your company maintains flexibility and understanding for their circumstances. In some cases, contingent travel options may be equally inaccessible due to overburdening of those systems. Where applicable, having virtual work options and IT infrastructure that supports remote workers is optimal for maintaining productivity.
  • Make the most of regional offices or business units and set up gathering points where stranded employees can connect. Map out where employees are and in what numbers and confirm contact details.
  • Alleviating worry and burden from a stranded or otherwise effected worker can positively impact both short-term productivity and long-term engagement and morale levels. Absorbing costs and assuring security at home for those with child care and elder care responsibilities is a great comfort. Such over-and-above thinking in trying times will be remembered.
  • While absences due to natural disasters are generally excusable, companies are not necessarily required to pay for time away from work. Clearly communicate telecommuting, flex-scheduling, paid time and unpaid time options. In cases where employees are stranded while on vacation, ask if they would consider using paid time as opposed to unpaid leave. If it's possible to make up time or swap schedules, this may also be preferable. Make sure that options are consistently offered to avoid discrimination claims.
  • Do not unreasonably burden workers who are still able to come to work. In the event that staffing levels are seriously depleted for extended periods, scale workloads, adjust shift schedules and reset deadlines as needed to operate sustainably.
  • Just because there's no direct effect doesn't mean your business won't be affected. Services, suppliers, partners and customers are all factors to account for. Make them a part of your scenario planning process. Consider what echoes and ripples could resonate out from the present situation.
Remember, nobody expects an Icelandic volcano to disrupt global travel, but that doesn't mean you can't plan for it.

Image courtesy of Daily Vs. Vidz
Eric Davis
Eric received his master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Marshall University in 1996. He has had 20+ years of workforce experience in a variety of fields. Before coming to i4cp, he worked as a laboratory technician for DuPont, a conference planner for Marshall University, the public relations manager for the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Technical Manufacturing, and a graphic designer for COX Communications.