People today have become so accustomed to our globalized world with its easy access for one and all, and to the ease of internet communication in general, that we tend to take it all for granted. Few dwell on how easily we could be cut off at a stroke, unable to work, carry out projects, answer our clients, obtain valuable information and receive payments.
In fact, your whole operation can come to a grinding, screaming halt, leaving you feeling helpless, faced with this unforeseen and totally unexpected state of affairs. Worst of all, you could lose everything. Try to imagine the situation — it is like being parachuted into a war zone without any warning or preparation. This is what happened during the Egyptian revolution of January 2011, when the sky almost literally came tumbling down around our ears.
It was a strange time. Nothing was as it was before; all normal life had disappeared. Communication with the outside world had been cut off, chaos prevailed on the streets, people were dying. A deadly pall of silence hung over the city outside of the protest areas, interspersed by gunshots, shouting, people running. Road blocks composed of tree trunks and large stones were set up by residents to protect their property and lives. Uncertainty reigned everywhere. Rumors abounded; state media were ignored as part of the regime; nobody knew what to believe; everyone felt stunned by the turn of events.
It was a world where all communications were cut. For a short time there were no cell phones, no internet (Figure 1) and no newspapers, with limited news broadcasts on the state-run television station. There were also no police on the streets — they had been ordered off by the dying regime. Their stations were burned and looted of their guns, which ended up in the hands of who knows who. There was no security, with law and order a dream of the past.
How would you keep your company up and running in such a situation? Imagine the difficulties that would need to be overcome. Economically, the country was paralyzed; very few companies were operational during the two week period that followed, as most of the workforce stayed at home due to lack of transportation and the perceived dangers of violence as seen on the television. But we managed it. How?
What we did
Management swiftly organized a satellite connection so that within one working day we were online and able to continue working. More importantly, we sent out a notice informing and reassuring our clients that we were operational and could continue supporting them. This was paramount, as we risked losing everything if we did not continue to supply our services and complete projects already in hand, as well as be available for new ones. Especially as the workload increased due to the fact that most other language service providers in the country were unable to communicate with their clients. We even fielded queries about the safety and whereabouts of some of our competitors!
A plan was drawn up in which a few key personnel, including management, controlled operations in-house when possible, based on their geographical location in the city (our offices are located in a suburb northeast of the center), as well as the actual situation on the street, as this changed on a day-to-day basis.
To protect other key staff members, especially our translators and project managers, we set them up to work from home via a remote server whereby they had access to their work PCs at all times. Thankfully, 3G cell and normal internet connectivity were restored after a few days, so in this manner we managed to keep our operation running during a very difficult and totally unexpected period, and continued to work with our clients as usual.
From this, we learned that you should be prepared for every eventuality and never take anything for granted. You can be cut off at any time by circumstances that are beyond your control. Anything can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Yes, it could even happen to you! In the interest of preparing for this, have a variety of resources for the internet and ensure that all employees have remote access to their work stations. Have an emergency work plan which can be set in motion the moment there is an urgent situation. Have a power source backup. In the worst case scenario, make sure you’re keeping your clients up to speed. Inform them as soon as possible of any contingency, what it is and how long you expect it to last, and what you are doing (where possible) to alleviate the situation. Continue to communicate with them through ongoing updates about any changes in the status quo.
As it turned out, at the time of the revolution we had already partially prepared for a crisis. Back in February 2008, the undersea internet cable to the Middle East and India was cut, affecting bandwidth in the whole area, impacting all users. This continued for a period of around ten days, in which there was very limited capacity. This really affected our operations badly as uploading and downloading of files was extremely slow on top of poor communications with clients. So in a more limited way, we had already faced a similar situation, although nothing on the scale of the revolution.
Since 2011, we have continued to implement more measures. Uninterruptable power supplies have been added to all key personnel computers due to ongoing outages. These were set up to be able to work for at least three hours, since many power outages have been around 10 minutes, and increased last summer to a maximum of about one and a half hours.
All staff have secure access to company resources such as our server and file transfer protocol from home so they can work as usual no matter what happens. Ongoing backups are made more regularly, and we keep external copies of these so that our company data is always available with or without the internet. Additionally, we have more than one internet provider. We keep up to date on any technological innovations that might offer extra support for any future breakdown in communications and are looking to install a backup power source.
It is imperative that you keep an eye out for any news that could affect your company no matter how insignificant it might seem at the time — heavy snow or rain that might impede circulation, floods, earthquakes, tornados, street protests or strikes in your area — anything that could impact your operations. Be prepared for every contingency as already mentioned, such as personnel not being able to access the workplace due to snow or floods or lack of public transport. Be prepared for outages, blackouts and internet providers being unavailable due to a variety of reasons, including a government shutdown. Have different internet options, draw up contingency plans to deal with unexpected events and also have a variety of solutions and processes that can be implemented in any urgent situation. An alternative, secure location from which to operate in a contingency is also a good idea.
A revolution is highly unlikely to happen to most people. However, much of the above could occur at any given time and you could find yourself in a similar predicament to ours, when all communication with the outside world is lost.