Lessons from the Polar Vortex

By Mary Lynn Fayoumi, CAE, SPHR, GPHR, President & CEO
Published February 5, 2019

Last week, the extreme weather conditions experienced in the Midwest made headlines around the world. Polar vortex, a term I first remember hearing in 2014 when Chicago also experienced record-breaking low temperatures, seemed to be the phrase of the week. Unlike 2014 however, employers were better prepared this time around … prepared to make decisions about closing or maintaining operations, prepared to allow employees to work from home to avoid dangerous commutes, and prepared to answer questions from customers, members, patrons, suppliers, and partners. Organizations that focused on the safety and well-being of their employees were not only able to survive the polar vortex, most actually thrived due to the goodwill generated by their actions.  

outdoor thermometerIn reflecting back on what has changed since the last winter weather crisis in Chicago, several things occurred to me. First, social media is much more prevalent.  It allows news to spread quickly so that employees and customers can stay abreast of what’s happening. The old “telephone tree” of yore doesn’t have to be activated as “real time” alerts and status updates can be accessed from anywhere.  Keeping all relevant stakeholders abreast of important information, such as early closings, delayed starts, rescheduled events, special deals, etc. can be accomplished with just a few keystrokes in 2019.  

Second, the prevalence of remote work continues to expand each year.  Globally, it is estimated that 70% of workers telecommute at least one day a week, so adding a few extra days in special circumstances is relatively seamless. Although there are certainly considerations that need to be reviewed (e.g. exempt/non-exempt pay) when determining how to approach weather-related emergencies, many employers have policies in place that speak to how these will be handled. More examples were published in our article last week. The combination of more flexible policies and the advances in technology over the past five years makes the decision to allow employees to work from home much easier. 

Finally, organizational culture is increasingly important in today’s competitive labor market.  Leadership that nurtures a culture where employee safety and well-being is valued reaps the benefits. Employees who did not have to scramble to find back-up options for kids who didn’t have school last week or take risks driving on icy roads will show their appreciation in various ways. Employers who show empathy in difficult situations are likely to experience a boost in employee engagement, which should in turn improve retention. Depending on industry and circumstances, some organizations cannot temporarily close, or even allow remote work, but there are other ways to exhibit empathy to employees.  From bringing in meals to relaxing dress codes to providing lodging stipends, there are myriad of ways to demonstrate concern during challenging times. Although I can’t predict when the next polar vortex will hit, I am sure that savvy employers will be prepared to face these situations with the best interests of not only their businesses, but also their employees, in mind.  


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