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Designate Essential Personnel for Your Contact Center

During an emergency, having the right people on hand at the right time is vital to your company's recovery. Do you know who those people are?

People won't stop contacting your company for help during a disaster. They may be more inclined to contact you because they're concerned about the continued availability of your services.

The concept of essential personnel is familiar to government agencies, but it's often not well defined in the private sector. This article will guide you in determining who your essential personnel are and how to prepare them to continue work through disasters.

When disasters threaten your community, employees are naturally concerned about their safety, and business leaders must contemplate how their organizations will operate in an emergency. Clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of your employees during a crisis is vital to ensuring business continuity.

This is where the designation of essential employees fits. Essential employees, also called emergency employees by the U.S. Federal government, is a designation for staff who are so mission-critical that they must report to work during emergency incidents. Law enforcement, firefighters, healthcare, and utility workers are all prime examples of essential personnel.

Understand Your Minimum Acceptable Service Level

The first and most important consideration for emergency staffing is the service level at which you intend to operate during an emergency. You may find it necessary to close specific contact channels, accept longer than usual delays, or defer certain types of requests until the crisis has ended. Carefully review all service level agreements that might apply to your organization, and consult your legal team if your obligations during an emergency are unclear.

If there will be any changes to your scope or level of service during a crisis, begin preparing your customers as early as possible. Creating templates for emergency messages in advance can help you to react more quickly and communicate more clearly in the heat of the moment. You'll find that clear, concise, and frequent communication helps reduce customer worries, thereby lessening the number of avoidable contacts during an incident.

Although it's frustrating, it will probably be necessary to postpone activities and projects that aren't immediately related to disaster recovery. You should be equally transparent with your team members about which tasks must be delayed, where they should focus their energy instead, and when you expect the suspended projects to be resumed.

Identifying Essential Employees

Once you've outlined how service will be delivered during a disaster, you can begin to answer the question of who and how many people need to be involved. While it's easy to designate an entire department as essential, it's often not necessary or realistic. Be deliberate about selecting only positions that are utterly vital to your mission.

One must also evaluate whether roles, responsibilities, and reporting structures should change while an emergency is ongoing. It may sound counterintuitive, but low-level management is often not considered essential. If your team leaders and front-line managers are primarily preoccupied with coaching and paperwork, these tasks can probably be paused during the emergency. If you decide this approach is prudent for your organization, ensure that the essential employees have an open line of communication with the emergency response team or executive leader in charge.

Defining Essential Employees' Role in Emergencies

Emergencies necessitate a different playbook than normal operations, and it's crucial to consider how the work of your essential employees in a disaster recovery context must differ from their daily work. Perhaps there are different guidelines for triage, escalations, or setting customer expectations. The differences will be specific to your company, so it's essential to give them some thought before the situation arises. Where possible, create knowledge articles that are ready to go when needed.

The hallmark of an essential employee is that they must show up regardless of the circumstances. However, we should always strive to minimize the risk to our team members. Depending on your teams' work, it might be possible for them to serve the organization remotely effectively.

Whether they're working from the office or an alternate site, emergency operations will be stressful for your team. The strain is worsened if they must work with less support than usual. The more you can plan for emergencies in advance, the less taxing the already stressful situations will be on your employees.

Cooperating With Human Resources

Designating employees as essential is a big deal, and you shouldn't go down this path without the support and advice of your human resources (HR) department. There are many concerns for essential and on-call employees, especially if they're not exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) rules.

Your essential employees may need to work more hours, longer weeks, over holidays, or at inconvenient times. They'll need to be compensated appropriately per your company policies, labor agreements, and applicable laws. Depending on your organization's risk profile, it may be necessary for essential personnel to receive special or incentive pay for this designation. Additionally, your HR team will advise you whether flextime and comp time is available for the specific employees designated as essential.

If this designation is entirely new for your organization, you'll need to develop a plan for notifying the affected employees of their essential status and for answering questions that will inevitably arise. Be prepared to provide reimbursement for unusual expenses such as mobile phone usage and travel that may be required by an emergency. It may be necessary for your essential personal to have a company credit card or authorization to issue verbal purchase orders to your vendors in emergency circumstances. New employees might be required to live within a specific distance of your primary or alternate work sites. All of these policies, and the risks associated with them, must be carefully considered in advance.

Connecting Essential Employees

Once you've identified your essential employees and their responsibilities in an emergency, you'll need a way for them to stay connected with the organization. Special consideration should be paid to how you'll communicate with essential employees if a disaster interferes with your standard communications infrastructure.

While it's not necessary for your entire team to become licensed amateur radio operators, you should have at least a few different backup plans for reaching your essential employees. There are commercially available services that make emergency notifications more streamlined. Of course, it's vital to have up-to-date contact information for anyone you need to contact. You might make it a routine to update this data regularly.

Preparing Your Essential Employees

Lastly, ensure your essential employees are fully informed of their roles in an emergency response. Don't wait until disaster strikes to discuss expectations, and don't leave employees to guess about their part in the recovery process.

Revisit your disaster recovery plans regularly and share them with your team. If a potential emergency is on the horizon, make a point to recap everyone's responsibilities beforehand. Take a few moments to remind them of the tools they might need to fulfill their role, like a work laptop to be kept at home. If your organization has an alternate worksite, verify that everyone is aware of its location and access procedures; you may need to confirm with your security team that keys and credentials are still valid.

All of these tips will help your company to be smart and resilient in case the unexpected happens. This is a process, and one that will need to be refined with practice and experience.