When Disaster Strikes, Flexible Organizations Are Prepared

Scenes of hurricane damage in downtown Manhattan, photographed by Amelia Costigan on Feb. 4, 2013.

February 8, 2013Hurricane Sandy may seem like old news, but those of us who work in downtown Manhattan, where Catalyst is headquartered, are still getting back on our feet: our phone service is unreliable, generators continue to clog the streets, and our favorite lunch spots are still shut down and even condemned.

In today’s workplace, maintaining organizational agility is key: employees who work in organizations with strong work-life effectiveness (WLE) are generally happier, less stressed, and far more productive—and they are in a much better position to weather a storm, both figuratively and literally.  

At Catalyst, we believe that flexibility must be more than a benefit for some—in fact, we think it’s a crucial work strategy for all employees.

I have relied on WLE for most of my life. First, as an artist, I needed to be able to block out times to paint. But early in my career, jobs with WLE were available mostly through contract or freelance work, which is financially unstable and typically offers no benefits and little to no opportunity for advancement. Now at Catalyst, and as a parent of twin boys, I work a reduced schedule and often work from home. This is important to our family since my husband’s work does not offer a WLE program.

WLE is also crucial in a crisis. I work for Catalyst’s Information Center (IC). When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and our offices were closed for several weeks, the IC, with its culture of flexibility (and the technological and communications infrastructure to support it), remained almost fully operational, despite our lack of physical office space. By relying on technologies we were already using on a daily basis, we were able to continue to do most of our work as usual. Many of our members were surprised to learn that our offices had closed at all!

Maintaining flexibility, offering employees the option of working at home, and prioritizing work-life balance are win-wins: they empower people to do their jobs without sacrificing their needs, and allow organizations to get and keep people who excel at their jobs and remain devoted to the organization.

Below are some reflections from members of Catalyst’s own Work-Life Issues Specialty Team on how WLE benefitted them before and after Sandy.


I recently gained an even deeper appreciation of employers who foster work-life effectiveness. During Hurricane Sandy, a tree fell on my house and my family and I had to move out. In the weeks that followed, I had to re-settle my family in a new apartment and get my children back to school, while dealing with countless insurance companies and contractors. I felt lucky to be working for an organization that (a) was already prepared for its employees to work from home, and (b) understood that after a disaster, employees needed to tend to their families and rebuild their lives first and foremost. Catalyst sets a great example of how to be a compassionate employer on a daily basis, as well as in a time of need.

Emily Zuckerman, Senior Director


I celebrate the fact that, for me in Northern NJ, ‘working at home’ (often at the ambulance corps building, which was the only place in my town with electricity and heat) was an easy option. I worked. I did some shifting of priorities and modified my workload to deal with the reality of life without power. I held major phone meetings sitting with a flashlight at home and then returned to the ambulance corps to power up. I celebrate that I was able to pay attention to the needs in my community, spend time with my husband, help our neighbors share food before it rotted, and even enjoy dining by candlelight. I celebrate that I had colleagues to help and to get help from and it worked. Finally, I celebrate that I could do what I needed to keep going, with some caring and joy through it all. 

–Meryle Mahrer Kaplan, Ph.D., Senior Vice President


At about 8:30 on the morning after the storm, my neighbor entered our apartment building dressed in full rain gear and carrying his bike. Incredulously, I asked him if he had been out for a bike ride in this weather. “No,” he answered. “I just got back from my office; I biked all the way there only to learn that it was closed.” He works five and a half miles away from where we live.

Contrast this with my own experience: Catalyst preemptively advised employees who normally work in our NYC office to work from home the week of the storm. Further, our IT department sent an email specifying what would happen to our technology systems in the event of a power or Internet outage, and reminded us how to use our back-up systems, Egnyte, Gmail, and Skype. Every worker—regardless of gender, parental status, age, or job type—deserves to be treated like a human being. When workplaces operate from a foundation of mutual respect, trust, and communication, everyone benefits. 

–Liz Mulligan-Ferry, Senior Associate


As a born and bred Floridian, I am no stranger to hurricanes. Yet this time, being sick the day Sandy hit left me unprepared on the work front. I felt fortunate to have power in my apartment and Internet access most of the time, although I was not able to be as productive as I typically am when I work at home. My work for Catalyst requires the use of many files, programs, and interfaces. Without access to Catalyst servers or email, I had only the scattering of files I had saved to my laptop, leaving me at a virtual standstill in terms of my “to do” list. But a team effort kept my big project, the annual Fortune 500 Census reports, on track for their publication in December. Moreover, I had the opportunity to roll up my virtual sleeves and help the Catalyst Information Center with work that I was able to access through cloud sharing and Gmail. Working for an organization which already has flexible systems in place means being able to take care of myself and get my work done at the same time.

–Rachel Soares, Senior Associate Research


Being in an area without power, I felt so grateful when my Smartphone sporadically updated and displayed Gmail messages from my coworkers. They didn’t say, “Who is going to take care of X, Y, and Z?” but rather “Please check in so we know you’re okay.” Staff in areas that were unaffected by Sandy were able to pass along messages and updates on co-workers who were experiencing the brunt of the storm. Within hours, we knew where everyone was and how they were doing. If that isn’t effective management of work and life, I don’t know what is.

–Emily Cohen, Knowledge Management Librarian


Hurricane Sandy hit NYC two weeks before the release of my first Catalyst research report, and despite the shutdown of our office on Wall Street, the report launch was going ahead as scheduled. In preparation for the release, I had been planning a presentation to share our research findings with the rest of our staff. Unable to access our physical office, I was eventually able to conduct the meeting from my own kitchen table. Over a third of our organization attended, and the presentation was a huge success.

–Anna Beninger, Senior Associate


How has WLE improved your life? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!


The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.