As the world scrambles to fight against the COVID-19 virus, many businesses have reported a breakdown in continuity and significant losses. According to the Harvard Business Review, "Reports on how the Covid-19 outbreak is affecting supply chains and disrupting manufacturing operations around the world are increasing daily. But the worst is yet to come. We predict that the peak of the impact of Covid-19 on global supply chains will occur in mid-March, forcing thousands of companies to throttle down or temporarily shut assembly and manufacturing plants in China, U.S. and Europe."
Pandemics are not new by any yardstick but from a business perspective, it is perhaps a good time to regroup and strategize about how you can make your business more agile and more immune to global events such as these.
Global crises are opportunities that reveal whether employers and leaders are ready to respond rapidly to unexpected workplace changes. While business travel is likely to decrease or come to a full stop, it shouldn’t paralyse the continuity of the business altogether.
When interviewed, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases has said that : "...schools could be closed, mass public gatherings suspended, and businesses forced to have employees work remotely.” It becomes a domino effect - consumer confidence is lost, fear from humans exhibited in unparalleled ways and worldwide economy is halted.
In this climate, it is certainly timely to think about how robust your business is in the event of global outbreaks. The survival of your business may in part depend on how fool proof your contingency working plans are. Have you given thought about the possibility that all or part of your workforce may need to work remotely? Have you mapped out the jobs and tasks that could be affected? There are many jobs and tasks that could potentially be remotely accomplished if there has been strategic planning involved.
Business leaders need to take the lead on this issue and start mapping out the various roles and job scopes within their organisation. A contributor for Forbes Leadership Strategy, Bill Conerly has said that while the evidence so far denies reason to panic, it does justify the need for contingency planning:
"Business challenges fall into two categories: direct effects and quarantine/restriction effects. The most likely direct business problem is several workers fall ill around the same time. Because the disease spreads best when people are close, such as within 6 feet of one another, cases are likely to cluster among different work groups. One team working in close quarters may have several people falling sick, while others in the company remain healthy. Thus, companies could lose one or two functions while otherwise operating at full capacity.
The key business issue is what functions are lost when the illness takes hold. If the engineering department is late producing a new prototype, the company rolls on. If new order processing is struck, then the company could be severely damaged. And if a function such as tech support or production scheduling is hit, then slowdowns would spread across the business."
Given the technology and the advanced infrastructure we have today, it is much easier to ensure that business runs as usual with chat platforms, project management dashboards and other platforms that are online or in the cloud. In fact, conducting business via Skype or video conferencing has always been something of a norm when working in a multinational corporation. Unless your work is based heavily on-site and location-dependent, your company should still be able to operate at full capacity with the exception of losing 1 or 2 functions. Whether the employee works from home or in the office should not matter, as long as the work is being delivered.
So, how can we implement flexible contingency work policies in the midst of outbreaks and global crises and become “pandemic-ready”?
Develop an Emergency Response Plan
First and foremost, setting up medical advisory protocols such as temperature screening points, extensive hygiene procedures at work and establishing alert communications that are in line with the public health authorities’ recommendations have to be executed immediately. Be sensitive and aware that this plan has to be fluid and flexible. When dealing with employees who are sick and need to be quarantined, assure them they will not be penalised if they aren’t able to get work done. Instead, employees should be adopting a sense of social responsibility rather than trying to cover up their sickness for fear of their remuneration being affected. Set up a small task force within your company to manage these emergency policies and communications with transparency and accountability.
Internally, remind your employees that their well-being and health is of the utmost importance and notify them constantly on the updates of the precautionary measures the company is taking to protect them. Externally, be sure to inform your partners/customers if the company is carrying out temporary closures or other disruptions to normal operations and ensure them the company’s plans to maintain business continuity going forward.
Continuing Daily Operations
Once leaders have a handle on how an outbreak could impact their business, start delegating responsibilities across different business units in case of a temporary loss of management. Initiate a Business Continuity Procedure whereby departments have to be split into smaller teams to minimise contact. Prepare a list of emergency outsourcing partners, have back-up suppliers aside from your main vendor list and a comprehensive emergency contact information list. Be prepared to change your business practices if needed to maintain critical operations. Start by asking yourself these difficult questions - Who should initiate this response plan? Should you temporarily suspend some of your operations? How much of the workforce can you suspend without hurting the business? 10%, 20% or 50% of the workforce?
It is vital for the survival of businesses that these contingency plans help to cushion the effects of such outbreaks and mitigate the risks and threats they may face economically during such difficult times. If possible, every organisation needs to avoid the path of executing extreme measures such as cutting employees' salaries or even retrenching them.