Preparing for a pandemic

Control Risks North America’s Brian Kaye discusses maintaining business continuity in the face of an influenza outbreak


In “traditional” business continuity planning, a natural disaster of other event has destroyed a facility and managers must find new spaces, assets, and systems to allow workers to resume their duties. Pandemic planning turns this scenario on its ear—the building and systems are still there, but fewer people are available to run them. Which products and services will receive first priority in this situation? 
 
Prioritizing business operations in this way is particularly difficult and requires considerable time and expertise to prepare—certainly far more time than the recent outbreak allowed.
 
5. Has the firm implemented a robust employee health program that will guide ‘safe workplace’ protocols, such as facility access, social distancing, and surface cleaning?
 
In addition to crisis management and business continuity measures, human resources plans for ensuring a safe and clean workplace comprise a third critically-important element of pandemic preparedness. A key lesson from past pandemics has been the importance of non-pharmaceutical interventions in preventing the spread of disease. Some common measures from recent experience include stepped-up cleaning of common surfaces such as countertops and door handles, the “handshake hiatus”, and other minor, but effective social distancing and hygiene measures.
 
6. Has the firm documented human resources provisions that outline actions employees should take if they become ill and how to handle sick leave and family care issues?
 
If an employee is unwell, the last thing anyone wants is for that person to come to work and potentially compromise other workers. Employers should ensure employees understand what to do when they feel sick, who to advise, and how to account for their time. This can be a particularly touchy subject, however, for employees who lack available leave and who may be reticent to stay home in the face of lost wages.
 
7. Are strategies for remote work and connectivity backed up by actual IT capabilities in terms of VPN bandwidth and hardware availability?
 
There is a common refrain heard in the early stages of pandemic preparedness discussions at many firms. That refrain is “We’ll just work from home!” Note the emphasis on just, which implies a simple and logical solution to the firm’s many issues. 
 
Unfortunately, maintaining a baseline amount of day-to-day remote connectivity for normal work conditions does not automatically mean the firm has the kinds of resources and bandwidth available to support a wholesale movement of the firm out of office. Firms absolutely must check to confirm that their IT systems can support the remote work assumption in corporate plans. Frequently, they do not. Additionally, depending on the firm’s IT service arrangements, consideration will still need to be afforded to IT professionals who will be keeping all this connectivity running.
 
8. Has the firm prepared guidance for expatriate employees and travelers? Does the firm have the ability to re-create travel patterns for employees to support investigation into exposure risks?
 
When the 2009 H1N1 outbreak emerged, travelers and expatriate families contacted employers within minutes seeking guidance. In practice, each group required slightly different considerations—but both groups required reassurance that the company was in control of the situation and would be taking measures to protect staff. Firms have faced tough decisions around withdrawing expatriates and grounding travelers, with each such decision imposing real costs on the firm. In general, firms with existing preparedness programs at least had a mechanism and team identified to deal with the issues. Unprepared firms faced additional delays given a lack of clarity as to who would make such decisions and what the real impacts might be.
 
9. Has the firm discussed its pandemic preparedness efforts with key vendors, suppliers and other business partners? 
 
The best-prepared firms were in talks with key partners and suppliers for months or even years before the recent outbreak to discuss contingency plans. In cases where partners could not provide reasonable assurances of viability during a pandemic, these firms diversified their contracts or took other steps to manage risk.   A well-prepared firm can still run aground if it has a critical dependency on an unprepared partner.