HR was in at the deep end last month when faced with the daunting task of keeping staff safe and helping businesses stay afloat.
As hundreds of HR professionals drove to their offices as usual on the rainy Monday morning of 25 June, they could never have guessed that within hours they would be ordering staff onto rooftops to be winched to safety by helicopters.
Incessant downpours brought floods to large areas of the UK that day, claiming up to eight lives, causing an estimated £1bn of damage, and leaving thousands of jobs in the balance.
In Sheffield, the worst-hit city, more than five feet of water surged through the streets after the River Don burst its banks. Entire floors went under water, computers were ruined, staff were trapped, and invaluable data was simply washed away.
The destruction was so great that the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce (SCC), which represents companies in the Yorkshire city, has been forced to direct 100% of its activity into disaster recovery.
“We are focusing staff on getting out and about meeting the immediate needs of our members,” SCC finance director Stephen Mitchell told Personnel Today. “Businesses want to know about the health and safety aspects of getting people back to work, how to claim on insurance, and so on.”
Law firm Irwin Mitchell, which has 1,000 employees at its Sheffield office, had to close its doors to the flood at 3pm, with 40 workers still inside.
Acting HR director Sue Lenkowski told Personnel Today how the events unfolded. “It was raining heavily all day,” she said. “We can see the River Don from our offices, and it became clear that it was going to overflow.
“I phoned the managing partner, who was off site, and then e-mailed line managers to let people go if they wanted to. Some people wanted to finish off a piece of work, or were not sure how to get home, so they decided to stay.”
Before they knew it, these 40 members of staff were hostages to the water and being moved by Lenkowski up to the fifth floor of the building.
As cars were washed away in the streets below, and roads turned into rivers, it became apparent that some employees were going to be spending the night at work.
Sofas were carried up from reception, a director made sandwiches in the staff canteen, and staff were made as comfortable as possible.
As the waters subsided, Lenkowski was able to wade out of the building at around 10pm, but other senior members of staff worked through the night.
“We have a business continuity plan, and there is a system we can access remotely that gives us line managers’ contacts at the click of a button,” she said. “At 6am the next morning, we were letting people know who could come back to work that day.”
In fact, by 3pm on 26 June, all the firm’s staff were back at work, although many had been relocated to a dryer, safer, but smaller, part of the office. “What has been brilliant is how staff have mucked in,” said Lenkowski. “I have heard very few grumbles this week.”
The SCC has been inundated with calls for help and advice as the city tries to get back on its feet. This was made all the harder by the fact that the SCC’s offices had themselves been wrecked by the floods.
Mitchell was evacuated by helicopter after electing to stay with staff who could not get home. The scale of the situation invoked training he had received as a disaster relief worker. “I used to work for a charity called Medair, and was stationed in Kosovo during the war and in Mozambique during the floods there,” he said. “This reminded me of that.”
The flood was so fast that nine members of staff were trapped inside the SCC building before they could be safely evacuated. Mitchell stayed with them and took the employees to the roof after calling the emergency services.
Eventually, with five feet of water surrounding the building on all sides, helicopters turned up to take workers to safety. But the HR mission was just beginning.
“Our HR manager Brenda Jordan was calling staff all night making sure they were accounted for and offering further support if they needed it,” said Mitchell. “One employee did not get home until 8:30am the next morning another disabled member of staff got stuck in water trying to get home. Some lost their cars in the floods. We offered people counselling, but everyone just wanted to get back to work.”
Within a week, most staff were back at their desks and, although the lower ground floor was “reminiscent of a refugee camp”, the chamber was operating at 95% of usual levels.
It was a hugely damaging day for many parts of the UK, but Lenkowski is able to look back with some satisfaction. “I can’t believe we got through it,” she said. “It was very stressful, but out of something negative came something very positive. In a strange sense, I did quite enjoy it.”
how to survive floods, bombs and other 21st century DISASTERS
Both Mitchell and Lenkowski found themselves implementing business continuity plans they thought would always remain hypothetical.
Having such emergency response plans in place is critical to surviving events that are becoming increasingly common in the current climate of global warming and heightened terrorist activity, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).“It is important to have policies for what to do if your office becomes uninhabitable, your data gets destroyed, or it is dangerous for people to come to work,” Angela Baron, CIPD organisation and resourcing adviser, told Personnel Today. “There are companies that specialise in risk management, and they can help you put procedures in place to maintain the safety of employees and protect your business.”
Once a policy is drawn up, it should be circulated to staff so that everyone knows what to do and who to contact in an emergency, said Baron. Then it is important to use common sense, flexibility and consistency in reacting to a disaster, both immediately and during the aftermath.