Best Practices for Pandemic Planning

By: Bob Sibik, Senior Vice President and Co-Founder

February 5, 2020 in Business Resilience, Risk Management

Pandemic planning: surgical maskThe recent outbreak of the novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) has created a sense of urgency amongst many organizations to review and update their pandemic plans. Most of those plans hadn’t been exercised, reviewed, or even updated since the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 or the MERS Coronavirus outbreak in 2012.

After dusting off the old plans, many organizations have come to realize how much has changed since they last documented the tasks and teams required to execute their pandemic strategies, and how much information in their plans has become obsolete.

It’s not about the plans, it’s about the planning.

While going through the process of updating their plans for a pandemic, organizations must realize that the plan itself is not the end game. It is not practical to document every action to be taken for every possible scenario. The greatest benefit that results from updating your pandemic plans is the identification of what is needed to continue operations during the disruption, including: the information for making effective decisions; the bi-directional communications for maintaining control; and the trained resources for successfully executing the plans.

To avoid over-documenting and underdelivering, and to ensure your organization gets the maximum benefit from the current pandemic planning efforts, it is important to focus on the following.

Your organization’s viability is predicated on a healthy and available workforce. Protecting your most precious asset – your employees – requires:

    1. Having a plan to isolate your employees should the threat of possible infection arise. Ensure your employees can effectively work from home. Verify that you have the tools, technology, capacity, and security measures in place to support a large, remote workforce.
    2. Reviewing your HR policies to ensure your employees will not be personally impacted if they must be quarantined for an extended period and modify any policies as appropriate to give greater flexibility to normal working arrangements.
    3. Determining your priorities and minimum staffing requirements should you need to function with a significantly reduced workforce.
    4. Identifying key employees and ensuring others are trained to back fill in their absence.
    5. Establishing a communications plan and protocol to continually update your employees and other stakeholders of the current situation, any actions taken, and ongoing updates.

While reviewing your pandemic plans, ask these important questions:

    1. What is your current strategy to deal with a disruption to your workforce? The best strategies will result in the least amount of disruption to your operations.
    2. Do you have the appropriate tasks documented to execute the strategy, and are there clearly defined teams with roles and responsibilities to execute these tasks? The best method of determining readiness is to conduct walkthroughs of the tasks with the teams and ensure everything is properly documented.
    3. Do you understand the decisions that might need to be made if your workforce is affected, and do you have access to the information necessary to make those decisions quickly? The faster you can respond, the more effective you will be in minimizing any impacts.
    4. Are your critical third parties (suppliers, vendors, service providers, etc.) prepared? Understanding your dependence on other entities outside your organization is important to address the potential disruption caused by an impacted critical third-party.

Don’t forget about execution risk.

Your organization’s ability to survive a disruption of the workforce or the disruption of a critical third-party will not only depend on how effective you were in the planning process, but also the tools you have and the training you implemented. The tools you use to communicate, maintain situational awareness, and provide current and accurate information will have a major impact on the execution of the plan. Practicing your plan ensures all involved parties understand their roles and responsibilities.

As you review and update your plans, you should also conduct walkthroughs and exercises. This is the best method for identifying gaps in the plans. It will also change the dynamic for executing the plans. Active participants will become familiar with the goals and objectives and begin to use the plan as guidance rather than a prescriptive list of tasks to be followed without any rational thought applied.

While you are evaluating your plans, you must also assess the tools used to maintain relevant information and assist in the execution of your plans. Old technologies and obsolete tools will put execution of even the best plans at risk. Identify any deficiencies in the tools you have available and create a comprehensive list of requirements to enhance your ability to execute. The sooner you begin to upgrade your tool set, the sooner you will be able to reduce your execution risk.

The bottom line.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower was attributed with saying: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Organizations need to heed his advice as they work through their plans and identify the resources required for dealing with the possibility of the pandemic disrupting a significant portion of their workforce or the workforce of one of their critical suppliers.

We are all monitoring the situation, and are hopeful that it doesn’t result in more significant impacts. It is important to remember the keys to successfully managing through a disruptive event:

  1. Situational awareness
  2. Clear and concise communication
  3. Quick decisions based upon accurate information
  4. Coordinated execution by trained and informed resources
  5. The best tools and technologies