Coping with a Power Outage

When a power outage darkened our downtown office building, CFM got to practice what it would be like operating in a virtual, mobile environment.We talk a lot about mobile devices and even offices. But we have a lot to learn as we experienced when our downtown Portland office went off the grid for more than three days because of a major power outage.

Ironically at our annual staff retreat last Friday, we discussed what operating in a mobile office environment would involve. Little did we know that we would get an object lesson over the weekend and into the middle of this week.

Without power, our server was rendered useless, which meant we had no internal email. It took awhile for staff members enjoying their pre-holiday weekend to realize something more serious was going on than a server burp interrupting email service.

Our firm has used Yammer for several years as an enterprise-wide, closed group internal communication tool. It turned out to be invaluable as an alternate way to exchange information, initially about the status of the outage and our powerless building.

Yammer was augmented by text messaging, especially for staffers who tune out from company communication channels over the weekend. By Sunday night, everyone was paying attention to Yammer and we were able to alert everyone to Monday as a "work-in-your-virtual-office" day. It turned out we had to tell staff members to work at home Tuesday and Wednesday, too.

Once we had our own staff around the same campfire, we started letting clients, contacts and colleagues know of our situation. We sent emails via gmail and made telephone calls. We tried to ensure the disruption wasn't any more disruptive than possible. We didn't think of everybody, so some clients were left hanging with only a bounced email as our response.

Some initial lessons we learned are:


  • Don't put all your online eggs in one basket. There are many ways to communicate and you need to be prepared to access an intelligent assortment so you aren't relegated to either the real or virtual sidelines.
  • An enterprise internal communications tool is invaluable. But our experience shows staffers have to pay attention to it on a routine basis. You also have to establish a protocol for staffers to read a thread before posting to avoid confusing, overlapping comments.
  • The telephone, especially the cell phone, remains a staple of communication. You can still talk directly to someone and convey critical, timely information even if your office is dark and without heat. However, without access to records and your rolodex back at the office, make sure you attend to keeping your contacts up to date on your cell phone.
  • Familiar, centrally located places can become office substitutes. A team met at a pub with free wi-fi to prepare for a major client interview.
  • There are efficiencies in avoiding long daily commutes. They also are inefficiencies that accumulate if regular, informal staff contacts aren't maintained. Working alone has its values, but also its drawbacks. But working without an office reminds you that you can be just as isolated sitting in your office at work as sitting in a Starbucks.