When to Tell Your Employees to Stay Home

When I sat at my computer last week, trying to write out a policy explaining under what extreme circumstances we might need to close our office and how we would define our work schedule on days when people might not be able to get to the office, I thought back to a situation several years ago.  One of my sons was working at a consulting firm in Nairobi, Kenya.  He called to tell me that there had been a suicide bombing, with multiple fatalities, at the bus station, through which he sometimes commuted.  He was obviously shaken and asked me for advice.  Knowing that he was disenchanted with the job anyway, I said “Come home.”  He did.

My son was lucky that he could pack up and leave when he wanted to. There are workplaces around the world located in violence-embroiled countries, or offices regularly assaulted by extremes of nature such as monsoons and sandstorms. As I sat down to craft our policy, I wondered how their employees knew whether they should go to work that day and who communicated that information.  Over the past few weeks, my city, Boston, has faced the most disruptive commuting conditions in my lifetime, as a result of a record 100 inches of snow in a little over three weeks.  The relentless snowstorms have caused a total failure of the city’s infrastructure, including the ongoing disruption of our entire public transit system.

My colleagues have been anxious, regularly emailing me at night to ask about work the next day.  Would we be open?  What if the train lines weren’t operating again, or facing multiple-hour delays? I would look out through my window, as another ten inches were falling, and feel at a total loss to provide a good answer.  We were offering reimbursed cab or Uber service, but sometimes those vehicles weren’t able to navigate unplowed streets. Drivers who could get out struggled around the snow mountains jamming every intersection.  And parking? What parking?

Human beings are drawn to rules. Whether or not we agree with specific policies, we want there to be a policy of some kind.  We crave clarity. But we also demand flexibility.  If school systems require that students attend a given number of school days to graduate, for instance, we also ensure that certain absences can be excused.   As CEO of our company, whatever rules I might establish needed to cover both business continuity and appropriate concern for our colleagues’ safety.  Having spent several hours one frigid and snowy night trying to change a tire that hit an invisible pothole, I realized that my determination to get into the office every day, regardless of the conditions, was possibly a sign of obsession rather than logic.

So I asked friends in other countries what happens when roads are impassible or police vehicles surround urban centers where they work.  Respondents from Hong Kong to Israel explain that everyone just carries on as if the situation were “normal.”  Government authorities rarely give any guidance as they worry that any widespread edict to close would be a sign of systemic weakness — which they are loath to express.  Employees in developing counties, with fewer legal safeguards,  fear that if they do not show up for work one day, at best they would lose a day’s pay and at worst, their jobs.

I then surveyed people who run investment companies (my field), venture capital, law, retail, and real estate firms, asking what they were doing about work interruptions.  I had assumed that as an investment management company, which typically follows the calendar of the New York Stock Exchange, we should operate when the major exchanges are open, and fellow CEOs agreed with that.  Thomas, one such executive, told his employees that safety was their number one goal, and to use their own best judgment.  If travel was extremely difficult, employees were urged to work remotely or commute at less busy hours.   Another, Steve, said that he’d received a number of emails from colleagues asking for flexibility given that they had to shovel or snow blow the driveway.  Exhibiting some frustration, he told me, “I have the same problem.  I’m not taking my G4 from Palm Beach every day.  I’m shoveling and driving just like they are.”  He was also crafting a new policy. Marcia, a venture capital executive, told me that she felt these policies encouraged critical decision making, and, at the very least, people needed to think through how important it was for them to be in the office, versus enduring a multi-hour commute.

Some non-investment companies found it easier to close the office on a couple of days, although the professionals were expected to keep working from home on current projects.  Every CEO acknowledged that a parent with young children, whose schools were closed, and who had no childcare options, needed to stay home.  John, a real estate executive, framed this as a labor relations matter to be handled carefully so that no one felt marginalized.

After listening to my peers discuss their firms’ policies on extraordinary conditions, I wrote up a draft and asked a couple of my partners to review and revise it if necessary.  We agreed that we would be open if the New York Stock Exchange was operating, unless something truly disastrous occurred at our office’s location, or the state or city government ordered all offices to be closed.  At the same time, our greatest concern was the safety of our employees. Some members of our team live within walking distance of our office, but others live much further away.  They needed to use their own judgment on whether or how they might get to work, would be reimbursed for alternative transportation, and would not be penalized if they didn’t come into the office.  Everyone seemed relieved to have something in writing.

And mercifully, spring will come. Eventually.

Karen Firestone is the President and CEO of Aureus Asset Management, an asset management firm which serves as the primary financial advisor to families, individuals, and nonprofit institutions. She cofounded Aureus after 22 years as a fund manager and research analyst at Fidelity Investments.