PhillyInc: Days like this let you know if you matter

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How essential are you at work? Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, many of us know where we stand.

For safety reasons, lots of businesses, schools, government offices, and nonprofit organizations were closed Monday. Given the magnitude of the storm, that certainly seemed like the right call.

As a rule of thumb, if you carry a badge, you're working through this latest 100-year weather event. That's easy enough to figure out, but essential is usually in the eyes of your supervisor and is often spelled out in some policy manual.

I don't carry a badge, but there I was, driving to work, early Monday as the rain began to fall harder. (Yes, I'm essential.)

No SEPTA buses were in sight, thanks to the systemwide shutdown that began at 12:30 a.m. But there were plenty of cabs cruising Market Street. That doesn't mean SEPTA isn't essential in the wider public-good sense. Rather, it means cabbies were hoping to make a few bucks with a major competitor absent.

After parking in a largely empty garage, my short, soggy walk to The Inquirer's office at 801 Market St. was unimpeded by any other essential personnel in the Market East area. I even crossed Market against the "Don't Walk" sign.

Of course, this is an "eds and meds" city. Hospitals must remain open, and in general, those who provide direct patient care are considered essential. But not all hospital services are, such as outpatient centers, where elective procedures are performed.

Like their public-school counterparts, colleges canceled classes for Monday and Tuesday. As happy as an extended weekend may make students, lots of university staffers remain "essential" - those providing safety, residential, and dining services. A school's gotta eat.

Being considered essential may offer a psychic lift, but it's certainly a drag on a day when nothing is normal - from your commute, to the absence of your favorite lunch truck, or to even finding an open Starbucks. (Say it ain't so: Starbucks baristas aren't essential?)

For many businesses, being essential is tied to the physical nature of what they do. On Monday, Boeing Co. shut down its Ridley Township rotorcraft complex, where it makes enormous Chinook helicopters. But a lot of information-technology firms likely didn't miss a beat, with employees able to work remotely.

AppRenaissance Inc. president Bob Moul shut the Old City offices of his company developing mobile-phone applications, but work went on.

"Nonessential?" he said, laughing. "The opposite is becoming more uncommon," as more people develop the ability to work anywhere. He had just finished a morning staff meeting, his part of it conducted from home, where he had two computers and two phones running. "I'm OK as long as we don't lose power."

Moul said the work-from-home policy is already pretty flexible for AppRenaissance's 12 employees. "That obviously comes with a lot of trust. But work is getting done, product is being developed, sales are being made. I think over time you can see if someone is taking advantage."

But old-economy feelings die hard, even for someone as wired as Moul: "I'd rather work in the office, and I'd rather have my people in the office, too."

 


Contact Mike Armstrong at 215-854-2980 or marmstrong@phillynews.com, or @PhillyInc on Twitter. Read his blog, "PhillyInc," at www.phillyinc.biz.

Inquirer staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen contributed to this column.