Remote Work, Employee Impact and Business Continuity Planning

March 17, 2020
|
Author: Glenn Hunter

The novel coronavirus pandemic has been an equal-opportunity disruptor. Due to COVID-19, the U.S. stock market has lost trillions of dollars. Supply chains have been upended. Companies have revised their profit projections, frozen jobs, laid off workers and temporarily shuttered. Travel restrictions have been imposed. Public gatherings of 50 or more people have been banned. And K-12 schools have closed in several states.

The school closures have tens of millions of parents scrambling, faced with the choice of either taking time off from work to care for their children or, if possible, tending to their children while working from home. If there’s a silver lining in all this, it may be that organizations are dusting off their business continuity plans (BCPs), or devising one for the first time, to cope with the effects of the pandemic.

Many parents must balance childcare with working remotely.

One key element of many BCPs calls for large-scale teleworking or working from home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise employers to consider teleworking as part of “social distancing,” especially if an employee is feeling sick for any reason. A recent survey of employers by Willis Towers Watson showed that 46 percent of organizations have already put into place, or expanded, “remote work” policies because of COVID-19.

While teleworking is an option for many white-collar professionals, that’s not the case for workers who clean hotel rooms or serve food, for example. At this point, no one knows the final impact or longevity of COVID-19. However, company and unit leaders have been encouraged for now to:

  • Set and communicate expectations about teleworking, and provide ongoing monitoring to ensure accountability for questions like:
    • When is the organization’s workday expected to begin and end?
    • How quickly should employees expect answers to work questions from other team members? In one hour? By the end of the day?
  • Make sure the IT team is available to ensure that teleworkers have the right equipment and can use it. Encourage the use of communication and document-sharing software including the likes of Zoom, GoToMeeting™, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Salesforce and Google Docs. Ensure that virtual meetings are relevant and helpful, and all members can successfully connect.
  • Check in with employees frequently and be transparent with your communications. Ask employees what you can do for them and be flexible, extending deadlines if necessary if they’re stressing out over family matters. With the increasing number of school closures due to COVID-19, many remote employees may be attempting to balance work with their family needs, at least in the short term. Realize that because team members will adapt to working from home or remotely in different ways, leaders should provide extra help to those who need it.

For employees, the good news about teleworking is that many of them prefer working remotely and may actually be more productive without unnecessary meetings and stressful daily commutes. Teleworking also means companies may be able to save on office management costs and tap into top talent sources worldwide.

But remote work can also keep organizations from creating and nourishing their culture. Since cultures are solidified via meetings and team-building in a central location, too much teleworking could make employees less likely to identify with the organization’s values and engage with their work.

Intelligent Planning for Business Continuity

With the spread of coronavirus, there is probably more focus now on teleworking than on any other element of an organization’s business continuity plan (BCP). But there are many important parts of a typical BCP, which is a plan of action outlining ways to maintain the organization’s functions, or resume them quickly, following major disruptions like pandemics, fire or cybersecurity attacks.

Before updating the policies and procedures to be followed to cope with situations like COVID-19, an organization should first review its existing BCP. Ideally, it will be sufficient to address the likes of pandemics and other emergencies. If not, the organization should identify the cause of the deficiencies and consider adopting new internal guidelines based on real-world experience.

If no BCP exists at all, it’s past time to develop one. It will be a living document and, as such, should be copied and made available to all employees. One model that’s often used for developing a BCP is called PPPR, short for Prevention, Preparedness, Response, Recovery. Each element in this comprehensive framework plays a part in the planning process.

Prevention refers to risk management planning or identifying and managing the likely risks associated with any potential incident.

Preparedness refers to business impact analysis or identifying and prioritizing an organization’s key operations or services that might be affected by a disruption.

Response refers to individual response planning, which outlines the actions that are taken to contain and minimize the impacts of an incident.

Recovery refers to recovery planning, or those actions that will be taken to quickly recover from the disruption.

In planning and preparing its BCP, an organization needs to identify and be mindful of its core services and supply chain, its staffing arrangements, its communications strategy, the financial implications of any interruption and how its BCP will be tested and updated on an ongoing basis. Here are some key elements to consider:

Assemble

The organization should assemble and document all its physical locations, equipment, passwords and inventory, and identify its emergency contact persons. It should create a list of these key stakeholders by name, title and contact information, including those in senior leadership by division or department. Here’s a form one company used to document its emergency contacts:

Emergency Response Contact template
Business Continuity Planning template

Organizations should also prepare a contact list of their customers, vendors and suppliers. Hopefully, alternative vendors and suppliers already have been identified and will be at the ready in the event of an emergency disruption.

Assess and Act

Once critical operations and services have been identified, individual staff members should be assigned the responsibility of keeping these operations on track. Arrangements should be made as necessary to back up day-to-day processes. At the same time, customers and suppliers should be notified in advance of any interruptions that may be unavoidable.

After the organization has identified which areas of the business are most vulnerable to disruption, it will be able to estimate the potential losses over time in order to understand the financial implications of downtime. If a significant interruption does occur, organizations will need to closely monitor their short-term cash flow and maintain discipline with their working capital.

Protect and Communicate

Social distancing has made people aware of how coronavirus is transmitted.

During business interruptions like those caused by COVID-19, the safety and well-being of employees must be the organization’s top priority. Besides maintaining strict standards of cleanliness, organizations should encourage employees showing any signs of illness to stay home.

To keep everyone in the loop during a disruption, leaders should communicate frequently with their workers and key stakeholders by text message, phone call, email or social media. If more flexible policies like teleworking aren’t feasible for employees during a pandemic, those working on-site or directly with customers must be provided with measures protecting them from infection.

Organizations should also consider adding elements to their BCPs based on their unique needs. For example, they might identify nearby housing for employees who may need to stay overnight for extended periods or develop a transportation plan for staff in case public transit systems are disrupted.

The plan should include a review of insurance policies that are in force — types, agent names, policy numbers, deductibles, limits — to determine whether the organization has enough coverage to recover.

Review

Finally, the organization should “debrief” on execution of its BCP and the lessons it learns. It’s also important to evaluate the plan with drills on an annual basis, at least. Drills can be conducted either through a “tabletop” exercise or a full test of the process for recovery.

ThinkWhy It Matters

Whether the COVID-19 pandemic lasts for two months or six months or longer, the way organizations conduct themselves and communicate about it with their staff and stakeholders will be critically important for their continued success. Employers that remain responsive and flexible and are prepared with intelligent BCPs will fare best in the current environment.