Gearing Up for Grueling Blackouts

Power companies are warning that sweeping power outages may be imminent. With staffs that are both in-person and remote, are firms ready?

After two years of a hybrid-work model, the company thought it had a strong contingency plan for power outages: its production facility would run on generators, enabling critical team members to remotely access databases and assets. Others could go to the office as needed. 

But the plans had a weak link: they didn’t account for the kind of extended power outrages that are increasingly common today. For three days, remote staffers accomplished what they could on their laptops and internet hotspots—until their batteries died. Then, they sat on their couches for two more days, waiting for the power to return. 

With summer heat waves around the corner, power companies are warning that we could see blackouts akin to the record power outages experienced in 2021. Caused increasingly by severe weather and overstretched electrical grids, such blackouts left 350 million people globally without power at some point last year. The dire power predictions throw yet another wrench at chief information and operations officers, who may no longer be able to rely on the lights staying on at either their traditional workplaces or the homes where many employees continue to work remotely.. “This is an extension of the challenges IT leaders are already facing with hybrid work,” says Korn Ferry’s former CIO Bryan Ackermann, who is now the firm’s managing partner, assessment and succession, leadership and professional development. “The question is, where are your colleagues and assets and how do you connect them—without power?” 

Many firms experienced no-power workdays last year when substantial outages—some lasting more than a week—hit Texas and Portland, Oregon. But the same outages can have wildly different effects on different firms. For example, a business with employees in multiple cities can probably withstand a long outage with only minimal disruption, simply because most of the firm’s employees would be unaffected. But a hybrid workforce centralized in one city could face catastrophic issues. And the specter of outages while employees are working from home raises a broader contingency-planning question. “The larger issue here is whether you put more onus on individual employees working from home to create backup plans,” says Juan Pablo Gonzalez, sector leader for professional services at Korn Ferry.

Experts say the first step is to think through the potential impacts of the outage, some of which the firm’s contingency plans may already address. Ron Porter, senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Global Human Resources Center of Excellence, suggests identifying mission-critical staffers and ensuring they have access to backup power options. To test the plan, he suggests, run a drill: ask employees to turn off lights and unplug computers. Then note which pivotal tasks are left hanging in the balance. Porter emphasizes that some departments may not have any time-critical tasks; instead, the organization’s contingency planning can focus on mission-critical teams. 

Be aware of possible disparities in the quality of workers’ home-office equipment, says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global diversity and inclusion strategist. Wealthier employees may own newer devices with longer-lasting batteries, along with redundant solutions for internet access, portable batteries, or second laptops. “Be proactive and provide benefits for all employees to build the infrastructure to do their work,” he says. This includes allowing employees to expense certain items and providing a website where they can order certain items on the company dime.

Brandon Johnson, Korn Ferry’s chief information officer, encourages prioritizing communications both before and during blackouts. Beforehand, firms can communicate what to expect this summer, he says, along with their general expectations for workers. For example, employees may be asked to find a nearby location with power when possible, be it a home, the office, or a café. As soon as the crisis begins, firms need to quickly communicate who is affected, the expected length of the outage, and the actions that are being taken to resolve it, says Johnson. Many employees may see their no-power days as merely a blip amid years of surprise disruptions. “People have become more resilient and used to managing crises themselves through the pandemic,” Johnson says. “This may be more about managing battery life.”