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Updated by Charles Bystock on 07/15/2020

It’s a safe assumption that most business continuity plans didn’t extend to the idea of a global pandemic. For the sheer scope of business impact, COVID-19 is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. This event has redefined how the c-suite must consider crisis management and business recovery in a scenario that has little historical data to inform us. How can organizations take what we’ve learned and apply it to future preparedness?

How pandemic disruption differs from a normal crisis

The reality is that a pandemic is a low probability event that most organizations fail to consider. It’s no wonder that many companies may have failed to plan for COVID-19; the last pandemic, the H1N1 virus in 2009 in no way touched the level of impact of this new viral threat.

It’s evident today that traditional business continuity plans just aren’t enough to handle the level of disruption to the economy, to human behavior, and our very social structure. Should a natural disaster, cybersecurity hack, or market crash be considered a “standard” type of crisis?

We know that the global disruption caused by the COVID-19 has reached a level unseen in modern times. One difference is the sheer global scale of the event, both in geographies and in time duration. Many “standard” business disruptions are localized, impacting a specific company or a swath of the country. Standard crises are of shorter duration, causing temporary shortages of supplies or labor. They often require short-term coordination with government, healthcare, law enforcement, or even state or federal regulators (in the case of cyberattacks affecting certain industries).

We now know global pandemic disruptions are systemic, affecting the workforce, customers, competitors, and vendors. They spread quickly across geographies and can last months. The shortages experienced are greater and longer lasting. A pandemic event also requires a much higher degree of coordination with authorities as well as more of a public-facing corporate response to the crisis.

While there is no standard crisis model, these differences necessitate a different response to manage risk and coordinate our corporate response during a pandemic. Here’s how business continuity should change in light of our COVID-19 experience.

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How business continuity planning should change

Business crisis planning under a pandemic modeling scenario has similarities to crisis planning for a weather event or even a cyberattack, but it is different. Some pandemic planning steps to consider include:

  • Preparing for geographic segmentation of corporate functionality. Some pandemics, like Ebola, can be geographically contained. At least that is generally the goal. Companies should identify interdependencies by geography and diversify the knowledge chain, creating redundancies that reduce the risk of a single point of failure for any one corporate function.
  • Investing in the infrastructure that supports a remote workforce. We know from COVID-19 that virtual collaboration slows down the spread of the illness. Planning for heavier traffic on remote networks while making technology tools available that support tasks and teams is critical.
  • Making an effort to put your human workforce, customers, and stakeholders at the forefront of your efforts to respond to the crisis will help you build goodwill. Plan for employees that struggle to protect or support their families during the crisis. Make work the safety zone (virtually and physically) that employees can count on to be their shelter from the storm.

All crisis planning requires employee tracking and communication to share critical information. Consider back up plans in case traditional telecommunication networks fail. Train employees in crisis planning that includes core infrastructure failure, such as transportation shut down. Given the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, multi-national corporations must deploy these strategies across multiple geographies quickly. It’s a daunting task that takes typical cursory crisis planning to an entirely new level.

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Next steps for business leaders, post-COVID

Managing risk in this new normal means organizations must incorporate the data from this crisis into the next round of disaster recovery planning. In addition to adding pandemic planning into the roster of crisis scenarios, companies must increase the complexity, speed, and intensity of their testing process. There is simply no other way to stay prepared for the complexities of a pandemic event.

The Windsor Group Sourcing Advisory provides executive-level council to help mitigate risk. We are trusted advisors to enterprise organizations meeting the challenges of COVID-19. We can assist your organization with a process and functional crisis assessment that will help highlight the vulnerabilities and impact locations for your organizations. Talk to our team.