September 16, 2011

Returning to Your Office After a Disaster

By: Gisela B. Bradley, CEO
Law Practice Management Consulting

Where , oh where do I begin?
This is what many of you will be asking yourself if your office has been struck by a disaster. For purposes of this article disaster is defined as a fire, tornado, flood, hurricane, or other natural occurrence.

If you have never experienced a business disruption of any magnitude, it will be difficult to know where to start. Even if your firm has an emergency response plan, it is not a recovery plan. Recovery is yours, even after the Red Cross serves you food, and you hold your insurance check in hand – it is up to you to get back to some level of normalcy as quickly as possible. Unfortunately you will need to work on recovery and resurrection of your firm as it was – at the same time. Following are some suggestions on how to accomplish that.

At your first visit to your office after the disaster, briefly assess the extent of damage to your property. How much clean up is needed? What type of damage has your office suffered i.e. water, smoke, fire or wind damage? Are the premises usable to an extent that will allow you to begin the clean-up? If so, make sure that you have potable water, sanitary facilities, protective gear such as masks, gloves, boots etc. to protect workers from mold and other toxins. Before you begin any clean-up efforts, take photographs of damaged areas and property, you may need them for insurance purposes later. You may also want to first assign someone to be in charge of the recovery of your practice and someone else to start setting up temporary operations.

The next step would be to take inventory of all your equipment, furniture and fixtures. Determine what is usable and what needs to be replaced. Remember not to plug in any computers or other electronic gadgets if they are wet, as data may be lost or damaged.. Examine your files and records (take pictures of destroyed files) and document their condition. This inventory is needed for two purposes: to asses the damage, and to establish how much money is needed to replace unusable items.

If you have lost power, water, telephone or any other utilities, communicate with the landlord or the utility companies to find out when the utilities will be reconnected.

Some of the supplies you will need for facility clean-up will be: tarpaulins and plastic sheeting to protect materials from water, to insulate windows, and to cover desks during salvage operations. Interlocking plastic crates to pack materials in, because cardboard boxes will weaken from the moisture in the materials if you had water damage. Generators to power equipment such as emergency lights, air conditioners, fans, etc.; waterproof and grounded heavy duty extension cords for fans and dehumidifiers; washing tanks or large plastic garbage containers, along with sponges, brushes, and hoses to wash materials; freezer paper, wax paper to keep items from adhering to each other in a freezer, and last but not least, cellular or satellite telephones or ‘walkie-talkies’ to coordinate the process, portable battery operated 2-way radios and petty cash in case the ATM does not work.

While your recovery team is taking care of the impacted location, your organizing team looks after finding temporary space to work out of, and rent needed equipment and furniture, coordinate staff and work schedules, and contacting clients to let them know that you are still in business and how and where you can be contacted.

Contacting your clients is the most crucial aspect of your business continuation. If your clients have been impacted by the disaster as well, they will be happy to hear from you and know that you are concerned about their well-being. At the same time, they can tell you if they have new needs for your services. You will want to get an idea of the work that is coming in, and what kind of cash flow it will create. Prioritize the work to most urgent, somewhat urgent, and can wait a while, until your practice is fully functional again. It is important to know how much money you will need during the recovery period, and knowing what type of work is coming in, will help determine that number.

Technology can play an important role in disaster recovery. The first is to realize that the physical location of your office is no longer as crucial as it once was. You can have several ‘virtual’ offices to work out of, i.e. associates’ homes, secretaries’ homes, etc. by utilizing technology to communicate the written and spoken word. You can dictate your work into a telephone and your assistant can email the work product back to you almost as easy as if she/he were sitting outside of your door. If you are working out of several locations, plan on having regular conference calls (your telephone company can set that up for you) to promote the feeling of working together. At the same time, if your computers have suffered during the disaster, this may be a good time to upgrade to newer technology for a more efficient practice.

It is possible that you will be in more than one temporary location before your office is settled again in a more permanent facility. It is my opinion that the two most important things in getting back to work as it was before the disaster are to remember : communicating with your staff and communicating with your clients. The first facilitates a quicker return to normal operations by keeping everyone informed of the progress of recovery and the need for all to return to work as quickly as possible, the latter is to assure your clients that you are still there to serve them and that you will continue to provide the same quality work as before.

If you cannot reach your clients, please remember to document every effort you have made to contact them, just as you need to document every step you have taken to get your practice back in operation.


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