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Business Continuity in a Pandemic: Steps You Can Take to Mitigate Risk

March 23, 2020
Four steps businesses can take to navigate unforeseen disruptions and implement successful business continuity strategies. (Photo credit): Vedfelt

How to keep business going in the middle of an emergency

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all 50 states and Washington D.C., with infections in the U.S. surpassing 12,300 people as of March 20. Not only has the novel coronavirus disrupted people’s everyday lives, with bans on travel, supply shortages and disruptions to work, but it’s also caused some serious roadblocks for businesses across industries. Businesses have had to close and move operations offline. A survey released by the Young Presidents’ Organization said that 82 percent of business leaders expected declines in revenue over the next six months.

The full impact of the novel coronavirus on the global economy is still unknown. However, there are still steps that businesses can take to limit the impact of the disease on employees and business operations. Below are some tips on what businesses can do to mitigate risk, whether for COVID-19 or any future emergencies.

1. Protect and communicate with your employees

The best way to ensure your business continues on as well as possible is to make sure the employees who keep the business running are protected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is encouraging people to practice good hygiene and social distancing. Businesses should make hand soaps and sanitizers readily available to essential employees who must remain on business premises, as well as perform regular cleanings of work spaces. They should also emphasize the importance of practicing good hand hygiene and detail steps to effective hand washing, as well as tell any employees still coming into work to practice social distancing and remain at least 6 feet away from each other

Just as important as encouraging hand hygiene is keeping all employees up-to-date on the situation at hand. That requires businesses to enact frequent and clear company-wide communications on everything from sick leave policies, plans for working remotely, and any breaking updates regarding the novel coronavirus, says Mark Norton, test and recovery manager at Agility Recovery.

Norton adds that there is a lot of misinformation regarding the coronavirus, which could potentially endanger people even more. For instance, there are rumors that heat can kill virus, or that packages from China can carry the coronavirus.

“It’s so easy to hear a rumor and have that start circulating within your business and cause unnecessary panic,” Norton explains. That’s why it’s important for businesses to make sure their employees understand the facts about COVID-19, so they know the appropriate measures to take.

Businesses also need to explicitly state what their sick leave, paid-time-off policies and remote work policies are to avoid any confusion and concerns among employees. The CDC suggests that businesses should implement flexible policies for employees, such as not requiring a healthcare provider’s note for prolonged sick leave, and allowing people to stay home to care for sick family members.

Norton suggests that businesses also look into backup measures for employees that can’t work remotely but are required to stay home. “Are they required to take PTO?” he says to ask. “Can you put them on short-term disability? What does that process look like? You don’t want that information to stay insulated, so you do want to make sure you’re communicating those policy updates and changes to your employees, and potentially to stakeholders, clients and even vendors.”

2. Form an emergency response team

In order to streamline communications, businesses should establish an emergency response team, ideally including a representative from each department.

“You want to make sure that you have representation from each department so you can understand the impact each function is having, and also if they’re receiving any sort of indirect impact through the supply chain,” explains Norton.

3. Rank your business’s most critical functions

The emergency response team will also identify your business’s most critical functions for continuity, as well as any of the necessary resources for performing those duties. Norton says that all businesses should conduct a business impact analysis, and then rank the functions in order of importance.

Businesses should be asking: How would they be impacted if one function stops? What are their customers’ dependencies on their products and services? Are there any alternate methods of completing these functions? Once you understand the consequences, you can then establish risk mitigation policies and techniques to help “insulate that from risk.”

Norton emphasizes that it’s best to assign emergency duties to job roles rather than to specific people. “You don’t want to have a critical function referred to as ‘Joe’s responsibility’ or ‘Susan’s task,’” he says. “You’d rather have that by the official title and roles so that, after COVID-19, you still have a very functional plan for other types of pandemic situations, because you can start to build into that role different responsibilities.”

4. Cross-train employees for different roles

A good way to mitigate the risk of losing a critical function is to cross-train employees for different roles. Especially during pandemics like COVID-19 where people have to work from home or may be out sick, having backups can help keep things going.

“If you uncover a particular function that’s unique to a specific person, I would consider that to be high risk,” states Norton. “So if it is isolated to just one person and that function is incredibly important to your organization, cross-training is a very cost effective way for any organization to be able to start training somebody else to step into that role.”

For more tips go to our business continuity toolkit with the latest resources on how to deal with the pandemic