By Ben Gladstone, CEO, Conosco

Ash clouds, floods, strikes, swine flu … these are just some of the unexpected events that have happened in recent months, all of which seriously affect small businesses. This year, the worst snow since 1991 saw most of the public transport suspended, hundreds of flights cancelled and the majority of schools closed (forcing parents to stay off work). BA strikes are not helping and to top it all, volcanic ash is causing chaos and lost business around the world.

A recent YouGov survey revealed that the recent extreme weather during the Winter affected over 70 per cent of workers in the UK, and over a hundred million working hours were lost by staff not being able to make it into the office or having a much longer commute than normal. This depressing news just reinforces the need for small businesses in particular to be prepared and to have a flexible working policy in place. Yet, despite repeated advice and firms suffering at the 'hands of fate', many are just not getting the message.

For most of us today, email and web access are at the heart of everything we do at work. But it may also be a regulatory requirement that you keep records and store your data with appropriate levels of security.

A business continuity survey commissioned by Sungard in 2008 revealed that the UK’s small to medium-sized business community is particularly vulnerable to disruption, with only a third having a business continuity plan in place to enable them to continue to operate under difficult circumstances, including bad weather and unreliable public transport systems!

Although IT cannot prevent ash, snow or floods, it does offer sensible solutions to reduce the impact of unexpected disruption, and means that employees can be productive, even if they are unable to make it into the office or need to work remotely.

Mobile or remote working should be part of every company's strategy — business continuity or otherwise. And remember, the technology has moved on. Mobility has extended the perimeter of the traditional company network, and now offers several technology developments and applications that provide a range of solutions to fit every businesses' needs.

Here are a few top IT tips to help ensure your business keeps working, and productivity and communication levels are maintained, even if your staff cannot make it into the office:

• Try web-based (cloud) services: You can do anything on the web nowadays, and this includes running your business processes and applications. If you don't need applications like PowerPoint or Excel, use Google Apps for e-mail and documents — quick, easy to use and ideal for sharing, there is the added benefit of not paying Microsoft's licensing fees. Most providers now offer cloud-based services, from sales and marketing systems to accounting. As a bonus, they rarely involve any capital outlay and are often much cheaper than running your own servers.

• Connect all your home offices with an enterprise-grade MPLS network: This provides seamless access to your shared files and office applications just as if you were in your office, without the unreliability of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and other remote access offerings.

• Use Voice-over-IP (VoIP) telephony: This uses the Internet for your voice calls, so that home and remote offices can seamlessly integrate with traditional PBX-type features like hunt groups, call transfer and conference calling. Remember if you use an application like Skype, it is free to call another Skype user, but with the added benefit of being able to call mobiles and landlines as well.

• Backing up: A third of small and medium sized businesses still fail to back up their data. With any number of unexpected events just around the corner, this is critical to keep the business up and running. Try automated online backups instead of tapes, and check them regularly. Check the basics when choosing an online backup service, for example, how long are deleted files kept and how quickly can you recover your data.

Whatever the size of your business, from a small start-up to a fast-growing entity, all companies should have in place a plan in place to deal with a serious business (or IT) breakdown. It doesn’t have to be expensive. But the message is plain and simple: be prepared for emergencies, because one day — who knows when — you will need to execute on that plan and offer flexible ways of working.

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