Smarter Working

Brrrr: Dealing with the Polar Vortex

Our strategies for not letting weather control your progress.

Most of us have seen the company missives: “Due to dangerously cold temperatures we’ve elected to close the offices,” or “The office will remain open, but please discuss with your supervisor specific plans for your team.” 

Such emails have gone out to thousands of employees this week in the Midwest and the Northeast, where bitter, record-low temperatures have paralyzed the region. Dozens of businesses and schools have shut down and more than 2,000 flights to the affected areas have been canceled.

Making employees come in or work when things are dangerous can create resentment.

It’s no understatement that weather can cripple our work. Within the past 40 years, the top five weather-related work absence events have been snowstorms or cold spells, with the worst being a January 1996 blizzard that caused 10% of workers to be absent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But for most professionals in this age of technology, that doesn’t mean you can’t get work done. Our tips for working through weather, regardless of whether you must trek into the office or are working from home

Concoct a contingency plan.

Many times, we’re scrambling to prep for inclement weather. While many companies have weather contingency plans, career pros say it’s smart to have your own plan in place for days when you may not be able to make it to the office. That includes having strong Wi-Fi, headphones that actually work—and that you’ve tested out with friends to see if they can hear you—and a tech person at your company on speed dial to call should you need some help. It’s also a good idea to charge all your devices. If the power goes out, you can at least get some work done before your battery dies.

If you have kids, your plan also means having babysitters, friends, or family who may be able to trudge through the rain or hail to help, should schools and daycares shut down. If you don’t have backup, you can still prep by letting your boss know you can’t find backup care, and working with him or her to see if you should still try to work some or not at all. If you and your partner both work, perhaps you can split the day of childcare so that you at least can get a half day of work done.

Be mindful of changes in the office.

If you do have to clock in at the workplace during bad weather, be aware of several changes that could affect your productivity or style of working. While it may sound nutty, watch out for being sleepy in the office, as many buildings turn up the heat. Sleepiness can affect judgment and lead to errors or even simple miscues in meetings.  

Depending on your office environment, you may also notice a tendency to dress down—jeans and snow boots instead of three-piece suits. What we wear can affect how we think and interact with others. A study from Columbia University and California State University found that more formal outfits lead to higher abstract thinking, while other outfits lead to better focus. So just because your boss is in a sweater that looks more like it belongs at a campfire doesn’t mean you should take the tone you’d take with buddies throwing back a few beers around that fire.

And another note: be careful where and how you walk. In 2014, the latest data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 42,480 workplace injuries or illnesses that involved ice, sleet, or snow.

Have empathy toward others.

Many people have trouble with this kind of weather. Maybe they get stressed from all the doomsday reports. Others may be worried about family at home, particularly if they’re elderly or can’t get around easily, or are stressed because they’re trying to watch their kids while writing a report. Whatever the reason, remember that health and safety matter most, and that making employees come in or work when things are dangerous can create resentment. There will always be more work to get done—but perhaps not a giant pile of snow to play in.

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