What have we learnt about contingency planning from the Covid-19 pandemic?

No one could have fully predicted the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on businesses. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for poor planning. Let’s take some lessons from what we have learnt, and make businesses stronger and more resilient to deal with unexpected and unimaginable challenges of the future.
At the beginning of March 2020, before most of us even knew that “furlough” was a word, I wrote an article which posed the question: “Is your business starting to consider the risk of a coronavirus outbreak?”

(The full content of that article from March 2020 is attached at the end of this one).

At that time, I suggested “The impact of a COVID-19 outbreak on your workforce should now be on every employer’s risk register”, and said that “It may be a storm in a teacup. You may say it will never happen. But the point of planning for risk is that you can manage it IF it does happen.”

Less than 12 months later, things look very different, don’t they?

The reality is that everyone and every business has been affected by the pandemic (some more severely than others). Everyone has now been on (and many continue on) the journey of dealing with the impact of Covid-19 on their business, and the things I suggested 10 months ago seem really obvious now.

But what have we learnt from all of this?

My overriding observation from what happened in April 2020 (and for at least the following couple of months), was panic.

To be fair, many businesses implemented their contingency plans methodically, and dealt with the crisis really well. Others took an opportunity, pivoting or repositioning their business in a way that meant they have actually performed really well. Those businesses will exit the current crisis stronger than ever before.

Many others, however, simply reacted defensively to the changing circumstances, stage by stage and step by step (often one step behind), not having any real plan or idea of how and where they might come out on the other side. Many, of course, will never make it to the other side. Others will be severely or irrevocably damaged by the experience, with their employee trust eroded. A difficult rebuilding process will be required if they are to remain relevant and avoid further decline.

Furlough was, of course, an absolute lifeline to many. But the economy will need to recover, and there is no guarantee that a furlough scheme will be available in future crises that could affect your business.

And this isn’t just about Covid. Your contingency plan needs to cover a wide range of potential business impacts, some of which are unexpected or unknown. From snow days, to civil unrest; natural disasters to national security; cyber-attacks to virus pandemics – your contingency plan should be what you turn to when “something” is preventing the normal operation of your business.

In early 2020, many such plans were either absent, or lacking – and a number of things became increasingly clear to me over the course of the past year, including:

It is never too late to make a plan

Not everyone likes to plan for the worst. It doesn’t sit well with a positive business mind-set to think about potential tragedy or the stuff of nightmares. But when those things do start to look like a distinct possibility, then it is your responsibility to ensure that you have some kind of plan in place. You owe it to your employees, customers/clients and other stakeholders… and to yourself.

Your plan should include, how to make a plan

The people who wrote your contingency plan may not be around in your business when the time comes to make use of it. The people who need to follow your contingency plan may not have experience in dealing with that kind of business impact or crisis. And, the plan you do have may simply not work in the circumstances.

So, include some guidance about how to go about quickly preparing a new plan to deal with a novel and unexpected business impact. What are the main questions you need to ask (and answer)? what key steps you need to take? How quickly do you need to do that? Who needs to know now, and when should everyone know?

It is never too early to review your plan

The thing about planning for the unknown is that it is, well, unknown. You won’t know what you are potentially dealing with when you prepare a contingency plan. When a new risk presents itself consider whether your existing business continuity plan covers the risk in question. If it doesn’t, then start work on preparing for that, now. Don’t put off until tomorrow what can start today. Address the issue/question head on, and keep it under review. Plans can change, and it is a good thing to adapt your plan to changing circumstances.

Don’t lose sight of your values

So many businesses lost sight of their values during the pandemic. Or maybe their stated brand values were not their true values. There is nothing like a crisis to bring out true colours. But if your business has a mission; if you have a set of organisational values; if you have an employer brand and purpose – then stick to it. Explain to your people how and why your difficult choices and painful actions align with those values, and you should retain a greater level of trust with your people when the storm eventually passes.

This pandemic demonstrated that the majority of employees were quite generously willing to share some of the pain during difficult times. Employers who abuse that kind of trust to profit from their employees’ generosity may find themselves with an impossible rebuilding task.

Communicate

We are now all experts in using Zoom, Teams and G-Meet etc (but not Skype for business. Nobody knows what happened to Skype for business). Remote communication is easier than ever, but it still isn’t as natural as sharing a physical space. Managers and leaders must find the time to communicate, and to be available, even when they do not have any particular information to pass on. If you are “too busy” to check on how your employees are doing, then you need a reality check. You are never too busy to check on your people, but you just choose not to. Your employees will see right through that, and you may find that when you come to lean on them in the future they are no longer there for you.

Passing on information is really important too. Employees feel worried and isolated during such a crisis. This is amplified by remote working, but is also present in the workplace if there is an eerie silence about the most important subject on everyone’s mind. Honest, transparent and appropriately serious communication has the best chance of maintaining, or even improving working relationships. Trust your employees and for the most part they will trust you back.

Ultimately, no one could have accurately predicted the impact that the pandemic has had on businesses individually and generally. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for poor planning. Let’s take some lessons from what we have learnt, and make businesses stronger and more resilient to deal with unexpected and unimaginable challenges of the future.

(The content of this article is not intended to be specific legal advice)

 

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(Article below first published March 2020)

How your business should prepare for a coronavirus outbreak

Is your business starting to consider the risk of a coronavirus outbreak?

The impact of a COVID-19 outbreak on your workforce should now be on every employer’s risk register. Matt Huddleson explains why, and what you should do.

It may be a storm in a teacup. You may say it will never happen. But the point of planning for risk is that you can manage it IF it does happen. In that sense it is no different from planning for a cyber attack, fire, or natural disaster.

Cases of COVID-19 in the UK have so far been limited, but you only need to look at Italy to realise how quickly the situation can escalate. Regardless of the severity of the illness and speed of its transmission, the public health reaction means that a coronavirus outbreak could have a significant impact on your business operations (as your employees are forced to self-isolate; or the their workplace is quarantined). And that is without even considering the secondary impact on customers and supply chains.

As a first step, it is worthwhile considering whether your existing business continuity plan covers an outbreak of disease or infection. If it does, then that will be your plan for dealing with an outbreak of coronavirus in your area/workforce. You should take a moment now to consider whether that plan will work, and implement any changes that you feel need to be made now.

And if you don’t have a business continuity plan? Get a plan!

The next step is to consider to what extent your business (or business divisions) can withstand a complete or partial close-down, and for how long, and what will be required to get business up and running normally again. What will be the impact on work-flow, turnover and cash-flow? Can you flex your workforce to soften the impact or mitigate the risk? Are any of your existing contractual commitments at risk, and what is your legal/financial position if they are? Do you need to look at your short term business finance facilities? Do you have insurance to cover any of these risks (if not, I imagine it is too late to change that now)?

You should start to consider your policy in respect of paying employees for the time they spend off work related to these issues. Employees who have contracted coronavius will be entitled to sick pay. Those who are told to self-isolate may not necessarily be legally entitled to sick pay, but it depends on how your contracts and policies are worded; and either way, you could face employee relations issues if you don’t pay them. If you instruct an employee to stay away from work (essentially for health and safety reasons), they will be entitled to their full pay.

Tied into that will be your policy about whether and in what circumstances you will instruct individual employees to stay away from work, and how you will respond to requests from other employees (who are not suspected of having the virus) to stay away from work due to their perception of the risk to them personally (especially if they are frail or suffer from other respiratory problems).

You should also consider what practical steps can you take. Can you put in place additional hygiene and cleaning arrangements. Can you purchase and distribute hand and workstation sanitising solutions? You should expect the availability of these things to dry up pretty quickly as people start to prepare for the spread of the virus. If you wait until am outbreak hits, it will be too late.

Finally, you should tread very carefully around conduct and poor performance issues which relate in some way to the actual or perceived risk of coronavirus. Public interest will be on the side of the employee, and employers can expect employment tribunals to look very sympathetically on employees who have been impacted (or who fear being impacted) by coronavirus or any policy decisions made in relation to it.


(The content of this article is not intended to be specific legal advice)