Employee Engagement, News and Events

Every Company Needs a Disaster Plan: Hurricane Irma Gave Us a Quick Education


Flooding in Houston. Destruction in the Caribbean. Storm surge in Florida. Terrorist attack in London. Earthquake in Mexico.

Natural and man-made, at home and abroad, disasters and emergencies seem to be everywhere we turn. We often hear about them on the news, watching them unfold miles from where we live. But what happens when one hits you – and your business – at home?

That’s what we experienced at The Penny Hoarder last week, when Hurricane Irma plowed into St. Petersburg, Florida, where our media company is based. It was a scary first for me personally, sheltering in a closet under the stairs in my home with my husband, toddler and 3-month-old baby. But it was also a first for our company: We were thrust into figuring out how to best support our staff during a stressful time, while simultaneously continuing to run a business.

In the end, our city was spared the brunt of the Irma, avoiding what could’ve been a catastrophic storm surge. We fared far better than our neighbors in other parts of Florida and the Caribbean, and for that, we’re grateful. And now that things are starting to get back to normal, we’re thinking about what we’d do differently if we faced another disaster.

Here’s what we learned from Irma that could help your business if you find yourself faced with an emergency.

Communicate expectations.

A few days before the storm, our CEO, Kyle Taylor, explained during a staff meeting what we expected from employees before and after the hurricane. He encouraged staffers to prioritize family and safety, assuring everyone they wouldn’t be docked vacation days or pay for taking time away to prepare.

We’ve grown fast over the last two years – from three employees in mid-2015 to 77 this month – so many of our employees are new and still learning about company culture. Kyle’s message of support brought those recent hires up-to-speed on how we operate and re-emphasized our values.

A number of staffers were ready to evacuate, particularly those who lived in flood zones, and Kyle let them know the company would use its American Express points to pay for hotels anywhere in the country. Our company mission is to make finance less stressful for our readers, and this was one way we could do that for our employees, too.

Kyle also asked everyone to stay in touch with their department leaders about what they could and couldn’t accomplish during this time. From that communication, company priorities emerged, and we were able to keep the majority of our operations running smoothly.

Trust your people.

We’ve worked hard to grow a culture of trust and autonomy from the beginning, so giving employees flexibility to deal with life wasn’t new. Still, Irma took this to a new level and put our approach to the test.

Know what we discovered? Not only did employees work together to keep the basics covered while preparing their homes and families, but they so appreciated the flexibility that they went above and beyond to pitch in. Our trust in them was rewarded with loyalty. Here’s what one employee shared with everyone on Slack:

Let your team lead the way.

With this flexibility and trust in place, our team tackled anticipated challenges. Our HR manager, Erin O’Neill, ran payroll ahead of schedule so employees would still get paid on time even if our accounting team couldn’t get online after the storm. IT Director Stephen McDermott identified who would be on call for unexpected tech issues, shifting critical tasks to employees who had evacuated to other states and had reliable power.

On Slack, our internal communications tool, employees supported each other with hurricane logistics. A staffer who had an extra case of bottled water offered it to others. Those who chose to evacuate by car reported back on traffic and where to find gas. And when staffers who lived in flood zones were required to evacuate, their colleagues offered them a place to stay. During a stressful time, we bonded together, and simply having that community eased the burden.

Practice working remotely.

Contrary to a lot of companies these days, we’re building an in-person workforce. We believe we do our best work when we share the same physical space. Still, we recognize there are benefits to working remotely on occasion, so we invite employees to work from home or elsewhere one day a week.

Because of that policy, we’re well-versed in using remote communication tools like Slack (for written communication) and HighFive (for video conferencing). We relied heavily on those tools throughout this natural disaster, and as a result were able to collaborate even when scattered around the country.

Create an emergency plan, even if you don’t expect to use it.

While the team was successful in keeping our wheels turning, this experience would’ve been less stressful if we had a more formal plan in place, a detailed checklist to follow.

We learned by doing, as young companies often do, and now we’ll have that checklist for next time. In addition to preparation tasks, it will include post-storm items like taking a roll call to make sure all employees and their families are accounted for and reviewing the event’s financial impact on the company.

While some lost productivity and revenue is inevitable during an emergency, we were able to minimize those negative effects by working together. And if we ever have to face a situation like again, we’ll be ready.

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About the Author:

Alexis Grant is executive editor at The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers earn and save money by sharing job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The St. Petersburg-based startup was recently named by Inc. as the fastest-growing private media company in America.

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