We had 13 years to learn hard lessons from SARs. The 2019-nCoV is the acid test of business complacence or foresight.

The ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak demonstrates that organisations have a clear responsibility to their employees to prepare for an epidemic or worse—a pandemic—including specialised planning to address the unique risks a global outbreak presents to both parties.

According to a new report from Forrester, “Prepare Your Organization for a Pandemic”, enterprises should be taking practical steps such as refreshing plans, updating employee policies, communicating frequently, and carrying out succession planning. This is because a single outbreak that affects employees and/or a company’s supply chain can completely upend business operations.

Organizational Strategies for Workforce Continuity And Recovery

Here are some key considerations:

  • Planning for a pandemic involves a three-step process: Identifying an executive sponsor and building a pandemic planning team; conducting or updating business impact analysis; and developing/updating a pandemic response including employee cross-training and outsourcing.
  • While it is uncertain how quickly the novel coronavirus will continue to spread, business leaders should not discount the risk outright—preparation makes all the difference in protecting employees and keeping services operational.
  • Climate change will become a threat multiplier when it comes to pandemics, helping infections spread more easily—thus heightening the need for plan creation and regular updating.

Almost 11 years ago in 2009, the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic of 2009 forced many organisations to develop their first pandemic plans, if SARS had not already created that urgency in 2003.

Yet, during those crises, many enterprises still felt unprepared when they emerge. According to Forrester’s Stephanie Balaouras, there are a few reasons for this.

First, enterprises did not conduct enough business continuity (BC) exercises; one large simulation per year is typical, and when they did conduct exercises, they were not selecting a pandemic as the scenario. They opted for more common scenarios such as extreme weather or IT failures.

Secondly, climate change will actually increase the frequency of pandemics in the future as rising temperatures change the distribution of insects (for example, mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus moving north) and habitat loss forces more animals and humans into closer living conditions.

Thirdly, planning a pandemic scenario exercise is not easy. It is not episodic like a hurricane; it unfolds over weeks and months as the virus progresses through various stages, with numerous downstream impacts.

Finally, the people side of BC planning has always been a challenge for organisations—everything from understanding and accounting for human reaction and behavior during crises, to creating robust and multimodal communication plans.

Tips for really learning from the outbreak

To be brutally introspective, recognise that the world had had a period of 13 years since SARs to prepare itself for similar contingencies of today. It is arguable that governments made full use of this time to prepare. With that in mind, here are some starters to kick off serious debate on how to toughen BC plans to weather epidemics, pandemics or worse calamities:

  • Seek out and maintain risk intelligence during the entire outbreak. Immediately familiarise your response teams with the latest recommendations from leading authorities. Experts WILL differ on their recommendations, and social media rumors, leaks and fake news will add to the complexity of the risk intelligence. BC plans need to address these factors and define a framework for fact verification, top business priorities and acceptable levels of damage if any concerted decision proves wrong.
  • Communicate essential advice—NOW. Some organisations are afraid to communicate too early, worrying that this will add to unnecessary panic. In fact, it is the absence of information that sows panic. Partial disclosures, or subjectively biased communication plans will do the organisation no favours in compliance and buy-in. Plan to communicate regularly before, during, and after any crisis. Let employees know now that the organisation is monitoring the situation; early communication should reiterate any travel bans and best practices for prevention, rescue, damage control, panic containment and general crisis management. LISTEN to constructive feedback and be ACCOUNTABLE to all reasonable feedback.
  • Direct all managers to put employee health and safety first. If employees feel uncomfortable traveling currently or want to avoid risky work activities, it IS their prerogative, so please support them. It is during crises that leaders can demonstrate true commitment to their employees.
  • Review, revise, and communicate work-from-home and sick-leave policies. If the crisis is expected to linger for a period of time, you want to encourage employees in higher-risk locations to feel comfortable working from home or taking sick leave to take care of themselves or their loved ones.
  • Plan a walk-through of current plans immediately. Walk-throughs do not require the development of complex scenarios and objectives necessary for a more robust tabletop exercise. The important thing for now is to refamiliarise everyone—from executives to line-of-business managers to the core response team—on the rubric of the plan, on their roles and responsibilities, and so on.
  • Challenge plan assumptions and ensure that everything is still current. Today’s businesses change on a dime. Since the SARS outbreak, how many new third-party relationships has the organisation built? How many new locations or offices? How many new employees have you hired? Or contractors or gig workers? What assumptions are built into your plan? Is the assumption that most employees can work from home practicable? Can your IT environment handle this scenario? Do all your critical employees have enough bandwidth at home to serve customers effectively?
  • Remember, it is ALL about PEOPLE. Remote access technologies will play a huge role if a huge portion of your workforce will need to work from home or other remote locations. But remember, for a large outbreak, during which potentially 20% of your own employees (plus contractors, partners, etc.) are affected, it will be important to have succession or backup plans in place for critical roles and skills.
  • Meet weekly until the crisis subsides—especially if you have an out-of-date plan. It might take multiple walk-throughs and iterations to make the plans current and viable. Use this same meeting to decide on necessary communication updates.

Developing a good immune system

Just as there are vulnerable groups with impaired immune response or pre-existing chronic diseases, some organisations large or small, will be more resistant to crises with or without a well-defined business continuity plan.

However, the larger or more complex a business is, the more important such a plan will be. Regular testing, updates and improvements to the plan are similar to vaccinations. And just as vaccinations sometimes incur mild but transient discomfort, so will the task of developing and managing a BC plan.

Considering that the growing cyberthreat and fraud climate worldwide has already necessitated the widespread development of crisis management and mitigation frameworks, a BC plan can now be a superset of such preemptive action and insurance, so its development may just incur an incremental rise in investment needs.

Remember, even organisations with BC plans may still collapse under the sheer overwhelming burden of say, a global economic depression arising from a disaster. But the well-being and safety of countless lives and families will have been safeguarded by their employer and colleagues—this is all that really ever matters.