In a few short weeks, the COVID-19 crisis has upended daily life and businesses around the world. Unlike more traditional natural disasters, where one region is affected and the damage and remedy are relatively clear, COVID-19 is universal and pervasive. This current crisis will exceed the scenarios covered in most business continuity and disaster recovery plans in both scope and duration. That calls for some new thinking across management, communications, HR and central IT functions: crisis thinking.
"True crisis management kicks in when there is a blade at your neck and everyone has to drop whatever they are doing," said Crystal Rockwood, principal of Rockwood Communications Counsel, which specializes in crisis management. In a perfect world, companies should plan for a spectrum of potential scenarios and crises of different degrees, she said.
"COVID-19 is what I would call an ambush kind of crisis, where for most organizations it was difficult to anticipate and where the impact is now very serious," Rockwood said.
Traditional business continuity and disaster recovery (BCDR) plans consider a wide range of potential threats. Because the crisis management response plan needs to be practical and affordable, most organizations focus on reasonably foreseeable events -- an earthquake in California or a hurricane hitting the Gulf coast. These plans often don't include contingencies for "wild" possibilities like an asteroid strike or a global pandemic. So, while helpful, in the black swan world of 2020, they might not be enough. Now that this current crisis has stepped beyond the bounds of what most organizations planned for, almost everyone is in a crisis mode.
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"Some companies have been thrown into a crisis, but the ones with a good BCDR plan are in a much better place," said Greg Schulz, senior advisory analyst at StorageIO.com. Unfortunately, BCDR is generally seen as overhead -- a place to trim costs -- rather than as an essential part of doing business, he said.
Even if a company does not have an established BCDR or crisis management response plan, they can still take the first step by gathering important stakeholders and decision-makers to form a crisis management response plan. Here are five tips for getting started.
1. Form a crisis management team
A crisis can threaten the very existence of an organization, so it's critical that the right people are involved in managing the response, Rockwood said. She cites the analogy of an air traffic control tower, with a small number of people monitoring activity across a wide area in real time.
"The team should include a C-level person, but not just because of their title," Rockwood said. "They need to have the breadth of knowledge and influential leadership style."
Operations and legal personnel are also mandatory. Representatives from HR, IT and facilities are sometimes overlooked but should be included as well. The key is to include people from each domain who can make decisions and get things done quickly, she said. Finally, the team should include a veteran communications person who can ensure the organization, stakeholders, the press and the public get the right information at the right time.
"When it comes to communications in crisis situations, organizations often shoot themselves in the foot," Rockwood said.
A streamlined, single source of communication is vital for internal audiences to reduce the effect of the rumor mill and keep everyone focused. External communications are more complex but aim to avoid gaffes or misstatements that could cause harm or embarrassment to the organization, she said.
2. Adjust to a remote workforce
Panicked bosses are busy acquiring all kinds of spyware in hopes of being able to monitor and manage their new, stay-at-home workforce, according to a recent Los Angeles Times article. But that might not be the best approach.
Although it is more common now, remote work is still a challenge for many organizations. Maintaining accountability and supporting team collaboration are areas of concern, said B. Lynn Ware, an industrial/organizational psychologist and CEO of Integral Talent Systems. Especially for those new to remote work, "there can be a lot of missed connections and people don't always know how to keep patterns and processes going," Ware said. Video conferencing can be critical because studies have shown collaboration improves when many people are less able or willing to commit based on a phone conversation as compared to face-to-face interactions, even when they are virtual, she said.
"People ask me, how can they determine whether people at home are working, and I ask, 'How did you know when they worked on premises?'" Ware said.
Many organizations don't have a good answer. In fact, there is probably information available that could provide a point of comparison, such as number of phone calls made or received in the last 60 days or the number of reports filed.
"You need to just shift your focus to deliverables," she said. Managers might also need to provide support and encouragement to employees and be prepared to work around unavoidable conflicts between family responsibilities and work responsibilities, she said. "Ask people to meet expectations, but also be sure to ask them what factors might get in the way of meeting those expectations," she added.
3. Prepare for supply chain and economic disruption
"My father had an expression: 'You don't know what you don't know,' and I think that sentiment is relevant," said Richard Weissman, an assistant professor at Endicott College.
"My worry lurks down the supply chain and with small business. … Those businesses who will not survive or be damaged," he said. The problems those small businesses face can show up quickly and unexpectedly, affecting the entire global supply chain, including the things IT might need.
Crystal RockwoodPrincipal, Rockwood Communications Counsel
Most organizations will face a cash crunch as well as a lag in getting needed materials and supplies. There will be competition for scarce resources and those with money and leverage will get products faster. "With no cash coming in, companies will be strapped, and I think that is not being recognized," he said. As a result, relationships will be tested, and many will need to be reset.
"One of the things your average CIO won't think about is, simply, access to money," said Alizabeth Calder, an IDC analyst. Many organizations are in the process of gathering cash wherever they can find it to protect themselves, she said. Critical credit lines could also be at risk. If a similar business announces that they can't make payroll or they file for bankruptcy, banks are likely to pull back credit on the whole sector. In such an eventuality, IT managers might suddenly be asked to furlough staff or reduce other expenses.
"Boards need to think about how to get cash, and IT needs to figure out how to hit pause on their strategic roadmaps," she added.
4. Plan for a long recovery
"Of course, CIOs know that when things do get back to normal, people in the business will be asking why this project or that project isn't done yet. So, the most difficult things are yet to come," IDC's Calder said.
Even after the immediate crisis recedes, businesses will still face a long recovery.
"We saw with SARS and 9/11 that a new normal evolves," Schulz said. "We will get back to where we were, but organizations need to use this as a wakeup call to invest in remote and distributed work -- not just the technology but the whole culture," he said.
5. Prepare for the next crisis
Looking to the future, Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Christophe Bertrand said companies should make sure they have an adequate plan for future BCDR challenges.
Companies also need to rethink staffing and make sure they have the people and skill sets that are most critical, Bertrand said. Additional issues to consider include:
- making sure you have physical and cloud systems in place to support remote and lights out operations;
- managing and minimizing break-fix operations;
- regularly testing and honing backup and recovery processes;
- revisiting performance needs and definitions of mission-critical for opportunities to redistribute loads;
- investing in capabilities, such as VPNs, to keep remote workers secure; and
- ensuring adequate supplies of quality video cameras to support remote work.
Drawing a lesson from agile manufacturing operations, IT operations should now think in terms of surge capability, StorageIO's Schulz said. They should have the space and equipment to spin up additional applications and data infrastructure to support whatever the company needs -- including universal remote work.