Preparing for a pandemic

A pandemic has the potential to cause greater, and more unpredictable, disruption to organizations than any other business interruption. As such, pandemic planning should be an integral element in a corporation’s business continuity capabilities.
 
The recent swine flu outbreak has forced corporations to assess their level of preparedness in the event of a pandemic. Unfortunately, a comprehensive, off-the-shelf pandemic preparedness plan cannot exist. The plan must be carefully tailored to meet the specific needs of individual companies and their employees. There are, however, important aspects of a preparedness program that can serve as a blueprint to steer companies in the right direction towards creating a reliable, consistent and flexible plan. In the event of a pandemic, how would your organization answer the ten questions below? Your answers will help you determine your level of preparedness and single out areas for improvement.
 
1. Have you defined reliable information sources to monitor for situational awareness on the influenza outbreak? 
 
Managers need sources they can trust when protecting staff and making difficult commercial decisions. In the early days of the H1N1 outbreak, news media frequently missed nuances when reporting government information. For example, on travel warnings, employers relying on media alone have faced extraordinary difficulty in maintaining a balanced perspective—both during the early “hype” and then later “dismissing” phases of reporting. At a high level, the risk hasn’t changed, even though the tone of reporting has.
 
2. Has top management documented a set of guiding principles that outline, among other things:
 
-         Commitments the firm will make to protect employees and ensure duty of care;
-         Types of preparedness measures the firm will create and maintain;
-         Budget available for planning; and
-         Individuals responsible for implementing these programs
 
Few observers would have predicted a new, novel influenza strain would emerge in North America (most eyes were still on Southeast Asia after the SARS and H5N1 scares). And fewer still would have guessed that so many people would be sick—and containment a failure—by the time we became widely aware of the outbreak. Indeed, many firms figured they would begin planning if and when a new strain emerged. In reality, firms without preparedness plans had little to no time to prepare for the H1N1 outbreak. And without strategic, guiding principles to guide tactical implementation, all many employers could do was stock up on soap and worry.
 
3. Does the firm have in place a robust crisis management and communications program that will allow executives to make key decisions on a timely basis and communicate messages to both internal and external stakeholders?
 
Someday, researchers will mine the treasure trove of information on the widely varied corporate responses to the most recent outbreak. Some firms were caught completely off guard. Weeks later, those firms continue to deal with the internal wrath of senior executives who were unsatisfied with leadership team’s response to the outbreak. Other firms appeared masterfully prepared and stepped forward with well-time communications to employees and industry analysts that, more than anything else, provided reassurance to worried minds. 
With events unfolding unpredictably in real time, management’s ability to make and communicate decisions remained paramount. Good decisions were of no help if employees and strategic partners didn’t get the message.
 
4. Is there a business continuity program in place that documents key products and services that will receive prioritized attention during a time of reduced staff availability? If only 50 percent of staff is in the workplace on a particular day, which business activities will be conducted and which will be deferred?
 
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.
 
10. What is the firm’s position on the procurement and stockpiling of both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical protective measures? 
 
This has been such a hot topic, one viewing media coverage might conclude that antivirals are the sine qua non of pandemic preparedness. In fact, the successful procurement and deployment of antiviral medications is a hugely challenging task which is difficult to get right and should be examined carefully considering the opportunity costs in terms of time, effort, and money when compared to other influenza mitigation options. 
 
While there can be no absolute right or wrong answer on this matter where all firms are concerned, antiviral stockpiling can make more sense for certain types of businesses than others. The question remains “What’s right for your firm?” 
 
There are a number of specific areas and measures companies should consider to minimize the risk exposure of their businesses and people. These measures can help corporations guarantee the continuity of their operations. For corporations with outdated or without pandemic preparedness plans, the first step is for the executive management team to set guiding principles for the coming weeks and months which address duty of care responsibility and to communicate those decisions, as appropriate, to the workforce. There are also policies and protocols that, once put in place, can have a strong impact in countering a pandemic emergency.
 
 
About the author: Brian Kayeis vice president and national practice leader, business continuity, for Control Risks North America. He is responsible for developing, implementing and managing world-class business continuity solutions for Control Risks’ client base, including Fortune 100 companies. He also chairs Control Risks’ International Business Continuity Working Group. Before joining Control Risks, Brian served as an Intelligence Analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), specializing in terrorism. Brian holds a Masters degree in International Affairs from The Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) from the Shenandoah University Byrd School of Business.

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