COVID-19 – Preparing for the Worst; Hoping for the Best

By: Kim Hirsch, Manager, Advisory Services

March 2, 2020 in Business Continuity, Crisis Management, Risk Management

An increasing number of infectious disease experts have started to talk about “when” COVID-19 will be raised to the level of pandemic rather than “if.” Last week, The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it’s hit the “highest level” of risk for the world.

First things first – this is the time to prepare, not panic. Keep in mind that the term “pandemic” refers to how widespread the virus becomes, not how severe. Right now, your focus should remain on how to minimize impact to your organization by being proactive in several specific ways.

Policy Planning and Modification

It is important that your executives and human resources department ensures that you have appropriate policies in place and distributed throughout your organization. Considerations should include:

  • Authority levels, triggers, and levels of activation (our webinar Best Practices for Pandemic Planning discusses this in some detail)
  • If needed, modify sick leave policies that incentivize your employees to stay home if warranted. This policy also needs to consider making room for employees that need to care for sick families or have children to care for at home if schools should close. Forcing employees into the office when they might well be carrying germs is not going to serve you well. Ensure that employees know your expectations and that they won’t be penalized for doing the right thing, if appropriate.
  • Establish if employees will be required to report diagnosed illness and ensure that you have reporting systems in place that meet all associated legal requirements. When employees do report in, ensure that you can support enhanced cleaning of their workspace and any common areas they might frequent.
  • Establish thresholds for when you might choose to suspend business travel. Amazon recently announced that they are suspending non-essential travel, including domestic within the US. They are the 12th largest buyer of corporate travel in the US, so this was a significant decision and one that your company will likely face soon. Remember – you might not want to tell your employees to stop making important business trips, but your clients might not want your staff at their locations at some point.

Clients and Vendors

Ensure that the policy decisions that you are making for your own employees are being considered with how you will deal with clients and vendors as well. If you tell employees to stay home if they are sick, ensure that you communicate the same expectations to your vendors and that they, in turn, ensure that their employees understand your rules and requirements. Consider that this might impact their ability to hit SLAs and how you will deal with downstream impacts.

Clients are a more complex issue – no one wants to turn them away at the door. So, you need to be proactive. If your clients are invited into your facilities by appointment, ensure that their internal host understands leadership expectations and acts accordingly. Don’t wait until they are in your lobby to ask about their health or travel history. If your clients can walk into your facility at any time, things get trickier. Consider posting messaging about not entering if sick, but know that people may ignore it. Protect your employees by giving them cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment and encouraging its use. It’s unlikely that you will be able to get masks at this point and experts agree that they will have limited effectiveness anyway. That said, you can get gloves – I’ve noticed more and more cashiers wearing them throughout this flu season – and you can ensure that staff are able to take frequent breaks to wash their hands thoroughly and often.

Work from Home

Remote working has been an absolute gift to business continuity planners. Companies being more and more willing to consider this a viable option during normal business conditions will see a payoff now as they will have a workforce practiced in doing it well. But make no mistake – working from home a day or two a week is very different than potentially doing it for weeks at a time. I myself made that switch a few years ago and it surprised me how much of a difference there was. I needed to go from working from my comfortable chair or dining room table once or twice a week to setting up a dedicated home office with a good speaker phone, dual monitors, comfortable chair, and a host of other considerations.

Employees should be encouraged to think about what equipment and supplies they would need to keep work at acceptable levels and companies need to think about potential policy exceptions. One example – at one of my employers, we were not allowed to use personal printers with corporate laptops. That was fine when I was in the office, but when activating for a crisis while at home, I got dinged more than once for violating corporate policy by emailing myself a critical document and then printing it. Don’t force your employees to violate security rules to get work done. Review your policies now and decide where accommodations can and should be made during a crisis.

Can your systems support a large influx of staff remoting-in? Often, in business continuity, people say to plan for 30% of your employees being out at any one time. Based on what I’ve heard from experts, I would put the number at a minimum of 60% (people who are sick, people who are caring for the sick, people afraid to go outside). It’s also not outside the realm of possibility that there could be local or regional quarantines that would mean 100% absenteeism. Ensure your IT team knows if they can support this heavy system load and test, if at all possible. If your systems can’t handle it, work out a schedule for enforced split shifts now, rather than later. People with kids at home might welcome being assigned a third-shift for the duration.

Key Processes and Personnel

Hopefully, you have proper systems in place that will give you a comprehensive overview of which processes and staff are essential and give you a good picture of when impacts will become intolerable so that you can prioritize accordingly now.

  • If you haven’t refreshed your BIA in some time, go to your business partners now and update necessary elements. Ensure they have identified key staff and minimum levels of operation. You don’t need to do a full refresh now, but make sure that the information that you would need during an activation is current.
  • Ensure contact information is up-to-date.
  • Ensure conference bridge lines are known to everyone that needs them and test them to ensure they work.
  • If key staff will need to be onsite to work, establish requirements for social distancing and how you ensure people entering your facility aren’t symptomatic. Ensure that personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies are widely available.
  • Recommend that process owners identify critical work streams and establish a system for knowledge sharing amongst backup staff. As an example, my own team is required to enter notes into our system about any client work that they have in-flight. That will ensure that anyone else having to pick-up a client will have a current snapshot of what any projects entail.

These are just a few things to think about as we get closer to potentially experiencing the kind of pandemic that the world has not seen in a very long time. As business continuity professionals, we don’t always have a chance to see the plans that we work so hard to produce get used. Take this opportunity, while we are still at the early stages of what could be a long siege, to get the fundamentals right and you could see dramatic payoffs in the coming weeks and months.

Learn More

Check out our webinar recording COVID-19: Turning a Challenge into Visibility of Your Risk Management Program.