Yonkers, New York, January 1996. Photo by Dennis Harper
All my life, public officials have asked people to stay off the roads in anticipation of big snowstorms. It is a sign of the changed and changing times, however, that in advance of this week’s forecast blizzard on the East Coast, Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked New Yorkers to work from home.
Advising people to stay home ahead of major weather disasters is more or less standard procedure. The exception: Officials urge residents to get out of vulnerable areas in anticipation of hurricanes, but even then, they note that once the storm strikes the only safe thing to do is to stay put.
These days, working from home is possible for many more people. A lot of people could, and did, follow Cuomo’s advice, but many others could not. The difference says a lot about the kind of work we do, and the kind of things we value about our jobs, in the 21st century.
If you work behind a desk, chances are good that you can do your job, or at least a few days’ worth of your job, from home. But if your work requires you to see and touch other people, that is probably not possible.
Barbers can’t work from home, unless home happens to be where the barbershop is situated. (In any case, not many customers go to the barber during blizzards.) Beat cops, traffic cops and accident investigators can’t work from home. Doctors, hospital nurses, EMTs and ambulance drivers have to show up at the office. Firefighters and other first responders know that some of their most important work happens during weather emergencies. So do hotel housekeepers and desk clerks, though we don’t often think of them in this context.
One evening just before Christmas in 1989, my car’s timing belt snapped while I was driving through Jacksonville, Florida. I was traveling back to New York with my wife and our 3-year-old daughter. I walked to a nearby exit ramp through a cold, heavy rain to find a gas station with a tow truck. They brought the car to the station, and we checked into a Holiday Inn next door. Just as we were getting to the hotel, the rain changed to sleet and snow, the start of one of the greatest ice and snowstorms ever seen on the Southeast coast.
Jacksonville shut down completely. Not only did the city lack even a single piece of snow removal equipment, but it is laced with rivers spanned by bridges, which immediately iced over. Every hotel in the region promptly filled with stranded travelers. But the guests were not the only ones stranded; so were the members of the hotels’ staffs. Most of them could not have gotten home even if they wanted to try. But they did not abandon their posts or their guests.
At the Holiday Inn, the staff worked what amounted to a single 48-hour shift to take care of us. The table service restaurant became a three-meals-per-day buffet. It, plus the Waffle House across the icy street, sustained us. (Where do emergency workers get their sustenance? In the South, it’s the Waffle House. It takes more than a once-in-a-century storm to shut them down.) “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” entertained us, or at least our daughter. The hotel had the VHS tape available for rent, and we probably watched it 10 times.
When the storm finally broke, the service station that had our car was without power. And, of course, it had no timing belt and no way to install one. So we took Amtrak back to New York, passing through Savannah and Charleston on their only white Christmas of the 20th century. I had a business trip a week later, so rather than fly round trip between New York and Chicago, I returned via Jacksonville, picked up the now-repaired car, and drove it home.
About six years later, a major blizzard closed in on the New York region on a frigid Sunday morning, Jan. 7, 1996. I had started my own firm by then, working with one full-time employee in our office at Moviehouse Mews, the onetime movie theater in Hastings on Hudson, New York. We were just gearing up for a busy tax season, and I did not want to lose a few days of work. All the software was loaded on the office computers; there was no way to access it from home.
So I went to the office that Sunday and planned to stay there for the duration of the storm. I put a few supplies in a small refrigerator. Just before the snow arrived, my wife came by with our girls - there were two of them by then - to outfit me with pillows and blankets. I would be sleeping on the floor that night.
That blizzard still ranks among the five biggest snowfalls to hit the New York City region. Close to two feet fell in Hastings, and the winds heaped it into high drifts. At our nearby apartment building, there was a swimming pool surrounded by a chain link fence that was 6 or 8 feet tall. At the end of the storm, certain spots on that fence were completely buried.
It was several days before my employee was able to reach the office. He commuted from Manhattan and the trains were snarled. But I stayed and worked until Tuesday evening. I even had hot food: The Manor Market, a deli across the street, was open that Monday, at the height of the storm, and stayed open throughout. To this day I don’t know how they did it.
I did not have to sleep on a floor or rely on a deli for hot food this week. I worked comfortably from home in New York. Early on Sunday, as forecasts for the impending storm took a dire turn, Eric Meermann - the manager who serves as our Scarsdale “station chief” - alerted staff members that we would probably dismiss early on Monday and close the New York office completely on Tuesday, and possibly longer. He encouraged them to either take days off or come to Scarsdale before the storm hit. These days our phone system is Internet-based, so employees in Florida and Georgia can answer phone calls directed to Scarsdale. Most of our staff can do most of their work remotely. If a storm shuts down an entire office, even for an extended period, we can still do what needs to be done.
In October 2012 we ran a test of our backup systems. We pretended that a major storm had cut power to our Scarsdale office and the computers we maintain there. We told Scarsdale staff to work from home, and we switched to backup servers in Atlanta. The test went smoothly, though it uncovered a glitch in our procedure for switching back to the main servers. We knew exactly what to do in case the disaster we practiced for ever came.
Less than two weeks later, Superstorm Sandy hit Scarsdale and knocked out our servers.
Most emergencies are not regional and weather related; they are personal. Being able to work from home lets staff members adjust on the fly to whatever life throws at them, from a family member’s illness to a child’s after-school activity. The ability to control one’s work life and work schedule is widely recognized as a key component of job satisfaction. Since it is our firm’s goal to attract, train and retain talented employees as long as possible, giving our people this sort of flexibility is not just good employee relations; it is sound business strategy.
Not every job and workplace can offer workers the chance to work from home. As I sat with my hot coffee at my dining table, watching the snow fall on Monday, it seemed like the perfect time to reflect on Cuomo’s advice to work at home. I am glad I could, and grateful to all the people who can’t but who went to work that day anyway.