April 7, 2020
By Sarah Scafidi and Nitin Natarajan
Over the last month, managers across public and private sectors have operationalized pandemic or infectious disease response plans, assessed and/or implemented business continuity plans, and initiated widespread telework operations in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). COVID-19, like other large-scale disasters, has challenged not only the nation but the entire world in ways we had only talked about. It has helped re-emphasize the importance of preparedness and response against public health threats and how those threats move fast and far around the globe. It has also presented unique challenges regarding recovery, challenges that we have never considered in the past. Successful recovery among federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial governments and the private sector is essential to restoring the nation to a “new normal” and ensuring long-term health, safety, and prosperity.
In a matter of weeks, many organizations with missions that allow for remote operations quickly transitioned employees to telework. However, not all organizations can modify their business operations and have been forced to furlough or lay off employees.
New teleworkers are performing all assigned duties from home without the standard office infrastructure, while juggling childcare and caring for those impacted by COVID-19. Mass telework was a consideration that we assumed was wrought with technological complications; however, we’re finding that it is in fact possible with today’s IT infrastructure.
The abrupt transition to wide-scale remote operations and in some cases minimum acceptable levels of operation has exposed several new risks that, if left unmitigated, will have substantial consequences on business operations over the long term, including when and how we return to “business as usual.” The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant stress in the way we do business. Executives, risk managers, and business unit leaders are constantly assessing the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and actively working to stabilize the workforce with regular communications to staff on a range of topics including but not limited to office closures, new operating procedures, inquiries from staff, new tools or technologies to ease telecommuting constraints, revisions to corporate policies, etc. Further, we’re all left balancing a situation that is evolving daily with varying guidance, sometimes misaligned, from federal, state, and local government partners. Companies with operations in multiple states or nations are facing further challenges in implementing consistent guidance to their staff while maintaining compliance from various authorities.
As remote business operations become the new normal, business leaders must soon pivot from a response to a recovery posture. Without clear timelines for when we can return to normal operations, leaders should use this time to develop company-wide strategies for successfully reconstituting business operations. These discussions are equally about accepting risks as they are about mitigating risks. Organizations accept risks when they identify and acknowledge them but are unable to mitigate them, whether by choice or circumstance. The decision on which risks to mitigate is a separate one, and should be understood by the organization, its staff, and at times the general public. These are challenging issues and cannot be solved in a day. However, preparation today will result in a stronger recovery tomorrow. Developing an effective recovery strategy starts with answering these questions:
- Does your organization have a dedicated team of leaders to drive recovery/reconstitution activities?
- Who will be on the Recovery Team and is there adequate representation from major lines of business and/or shared services?
- What are the prescribed roles and responsibilities of the Recovery Team?
- How will the Recovery Team communicate with vendors, clients, partners, and internal stakeholders and when will communications begin?
- What processes and procedures are required to ensure a safe transition back to normal operations?
- What triggers will the Recovery Team use, recognizing not all of them are under their control, to identify when to return to normal operations and how will your organization make that transition while preparing for a potential second wave?
The process to “return to normal operations” requires two distinct actions: the decision on when to return and how to go about doing it. Both questions deserve thorough discussion with a multidisciplinary team of partners (Recovery Team) across the organization, whether in the private sector or in government. If you’re using employee safety as the key driver to your decision-making process, remember that the decisions and subsequent actions may not be linear in nature and may depend on factors both within your control and in the control of external parties. Discussions should be led by senior leadership and supported by stakeholders from key program or lines of business, human resources, information technology, accounting/finance, risk management, emergency preparedness/business assurance, and others. It is generally best to initially cast a wide net and allow groups/organizations that do not have a critical role to opt out, rather than investing significant resources to planning only to find out at the end that key elements were missing. These discussions need to begin now for any actions to be effective and coordinated.
When does an organization return to normal operations?
There is no single “trigger” to return the nation to “normal operations” or whatever the new normal will look like. Waiting for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and/or the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare the pandemic over will take much longer than society will accept to continue social distancing. Basing return on case counts in a geographic area is risky due to the potential for travelers to transmit the disease back into areas that may have a low case count. We need to remember, the entire pandemic started with one sick person. Returning staff too soon when social distancing is in effect can result in further spread of the virus. Some potential triggers to consider are:
|•||Status of critical infrastructure in the area. Are there any impacts to water, energy, transportation, others and if so, have they been mitigated? Is public transportation fully operational and on full, regular (or acceptable partial) schedule?|
|•||Status of the healthcare system. Is the healthcare system back to or close to a baseline to provide routine care? Do hospitals have capacity for critical care patients? Are private physician's offices operating under normal conditions?|
|•||Status of schools/daycare centers. Are schools and day care centers open? Do your staff have facilities and resources to take care of children if parents return to the office?|
|•||Scientific and regulatory indicators. Are you addressing regulatory and non-regulatory requirements within your organization? Are those decisions guided by best available, reliable data?|
|•||Status of supply chain. Are transportation issues mitigated? Do grocery stores have full shelves again? Have your key supply chains returned to normal? Are you able to order, stock, and resupply your key products back to normal par levels?|
|•||Local ordinances. Are local restrictions on gatherings and non-essential business closures lifted?|
|•||Travel. Are domestic and/or international air and rail transportation available? Can your staff safely and efficiently travel to other states or countries as needed to meet organizational needs?|
The decision on when to have staff return is also dependent on your organizational mission and risk tolerance. There is no single matrix for the items above as they will vary from organization to organization and jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Having the challenging discussion with your Recovery Team early is the key to a successful recovery. Those discussions should start now. As a starting point, three potential scenarios on when to return include:
|•||Wait until a vaccine is developed and administered to a vast majority of the population. However, we know from the influenza pandemic in 2009, a vaccine was not available until after the second wave had already begun. Barring a vaccine or effective anti-viral treatment, we are limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social/physical distancing.|
|•||Have all essential staff or those serving in mission critical functions return first–consider either maintaining any staggered or adjusted scheduling that may have been in place during the pandemic or return to normal schedules—where staff who are asymptomatic and conduct a self-screening/temperature check daily, can return to the office on alternating days while maintaining adequate social distancing.|
|•||Have all staff return in shifts, where staff who are asymptomatic and conduct a self-screening/temperature check daily, can return to the office on alternating days while maintaining adequate social distancing.|
How do we go about returning to normal operations?
Once the triggers for returning to normal operations are selected, and any mandatory state/local restrictions have been lifted, the organization can begin the process of planning your return and settling in to a new operational construct. To do this, it’s helpful to consider the 4 Ps: Personnel, Physical Infrastructure, Permanent Changes to Operations, and Preparing for the Next Wave.
Telework arrangements present a range of challenges especially when instituting such a format as quickly as the COVID-19 response required. For some, telecommuting has replaced long commutes with increased productivity, but for others the arrangement has been alienating and difficult as working parents look for creative ways to manage childcare and work responsibilities. Staff morale and employee well-being contribute greatly to a productive and positive workforce culture. As the spread of COVID-19 infection slows, organizations must consider the effects of prolonged telecommuting on the workforce. Personnel may have been infected with COVID-19, lost loved ones, or may meet the return to normal operations with hesitation for fear of another wave of infection. Business leaders must identify solutions for addressing staff concerns while balancing requirements put forth by state and local governments and health officials. Personnel issues include the physical and mental well-being of your staff in addition to any challenges they may be facing within their households. Some items to consider include:
|•||Has the time on extended telework had any negative impacts on the morale and well-being of the staff? Are there activities and opportunities for teams to re-integrate into the physical workplace and reinstall an esprit de corps?|
|•||Are all staff willing to return to the office? If not, do you know why, and can you implement steps to mitigate those concerns?|
|•||Do you have mechanisms in place to address burnout/fatigue, stress management, or other challenges and are they being addressed?|
|•||Do your policies and actions ensure that the privacy of staff who may have been impacted is protected?|
|•||Are you providing the flexibility to those staff who may have unique circumstances such as those who may be immunocompromised or taking care of family members?|
|•||Do any staff need additional family support?|
|•||Do you want to maintain any personnel restrictions such as domestic and/or international travel, conference attendance, large meetings, etc.?|
|•||Do you have a protocol for self-evaluation?|
– A self-evaluation protocol can be as simple as:
|•||Are managers at all levels prepared to remind staff to stay home if they get sick or are experiencing symptoms?|
For organizations that maintain traditional office infrastructure—physical offices and conference rooms, company cars, shared IT equipment, common spaces—the transition from remote to normal operations will require extensive coordination among internal and external partners to ensure safe working conditions. Prioritizing safe working conditions is paramount for a successful transition and if not managed effectively may contribute to a new wave of infection or permanent loss of confidence among staff. Organizations should take inventory of all physical material (e.g., desks, shared spaces, etc.) that requires proper cleaning, document and identify the kind of cleaning services required to effectively render the physical office environment safe consistent with EPA and CDC guidance. Some items to consider prior to wide-spread re-entry into the physical workspace include:
- Has the facility been adequately cleaned, consistent with CDC and EPA guidelines? Do you need additional janitorial/cleaning services during the transition?
- Do you need to make any changes to your IT infrastructure to facilitate the transition back to the office?
- How will you account for and “make safe” any IT infrastructure that was removed from the physical office space?
- Will you maintain increased or partial social distancing for a period of time?
- Should staff work in shifts or with increased social distancing in the workplace? How will you divide the staff? Are any physical office changes needed?
- Will you limit external visitors?
- Will you limit attendance at conferences and large meetings?
- Do you have the proper IT hardware in place to continue maximum usage of virtual meeting platforms?
- Are local transportation means available to staff and how will you assess hygiene practices upon entry into physical office space?
- Do you have adequate supplies of anti-microbial cleaning and sanitizing supplies?
Permanent Changes to Operations
In response to the pandemic, companies and government organizations around the globe have changed their business practices with little to no notice. Business continuity plans, in some cases outdated or inadequate plans, were quickly operationalized, and personnel were forced to adapt to a decentralized operating model. Teams that travel regularly have adapted to conference call and video meetings or have adjusted requirements to accommodate travel restrictions. Incremental changes to business operations is inevitable over time, but in the aftermath of an incident of this magnitude, it in inevitable that some business operations are changed permanently. Many of the changes made or may make as an outcome of this effort, will undoubtedly increase the resilience of our organizations and the nation.
As some operations slowed due to significant impacts to supply chains, others were met with opportunities to support the COVID-19 response in ways previously not imagined. In some cases, companies were called upon to support community and response operations such as restaurants supporting healthcare locations with contactless deliveries, businesses finding old stockpiled personal protective equipment (PPE) and donating to healthcare providers, and manufacturers retooling existing product lines to develop products in need, e.g., PPE or ventilators.
Now is the time to begin exploring changes in or adding new services. As organizations pivot to recovery, leaders should conduct an analysis of business operations before and during the COVID-19 pandemic and engage in future-oriented strategic thinking sessions to assess the future landscape of business operations and determine how the organization will adapt to changing circumstances and be successful in the new environment. Some items to consider include:
|•||Conduct a thorough after-action review and develop a corrective action plan that details the capability, area for improvement, corrective action, responsible party, point of contact, start and end date|
|•||Re-evaluate continuity of operations plans|
|•||Assess your supply chain|
|•||Assess your financial status throughout the pandemic|
|•||Assess alternatives to conducting business in the absence of travel options (local regional, and international)|
Preparing for the Next Wave
As the COVID-19 pandemic emerged and grew, organizations found themselves in three different and distinct groups. Those that had business continuity and/or response plans and implemented them, those that had plans but didn’t follow them, and those that didn’t have plans at all. All three of these groups likely had vastly different experiences as the pandemic continues forward. While it’s too soon to know which group encountered the most challenges or whose planning assumptions were closest to the actual event, all three groups most likely suffered some disruption to operations. All three groups have an opportunity, albeit in potentially a short, limited window to better prepare their organizations and staff for the next wave or the next pandemic. Some items to consider are:
|•||Assess existing and emerging products and services to determine the level of risk the organization is willing to accept in order to support community and response operations in the future or decide that you will not provide that type of support.|
|•||Evaluate the organizational response posture and ongoing efforts to mitigate the effects of the pandemic|
|•||Do any personnel policies, SOPs, etc. need to be updated based upon unexpected questions or issues that arose?|
|•||Was your continuity plan sufficient?|
|•||Were there any issues with IT Infrastructure? Did staff have the IT resources needed at home to successfully telework for a prolonged period of time? What upgrades or changes need to be made, if any?|
|•||Have you replenished inventories of disposable goods that may have been depleted during the pandemic?|
|•||Are any changes needed regarding insurance plans (health, corporate, etc.)?|
|•||Have you identified ways in which you can contribute to the broader community/nation, in the event of a second wave or future pandemic or disasters?|
|•||Have you developed a comprehensive corrective action plan?|
|•||Have you scheduled exercises for your new plans, policies, and procedures?|
|•||Are you prepared for other natural or man-made disasters that may occur during your recovery operations or during the next wave?|
|•||When a vaccine is available, do you have a plan to get staff vaccinated? Will you rely on local public health/healthcare plans? Will you utilize an internal occupational health program? Does your local public health authority have facility-based vaccination options?|
Our personnel, suppliers, clients, partners, and the nation depend on business and government leaders to determine what the new normal will look like. Absent of a crystal ball, we must act now in order to control our future versus letting it control us. Planning for and taking concrete steps toward recovery from COVID-19 is challenging while in a response mode, but leaders and managers must capitalize on the time available to form a Recovery Team and begin addressing the hard question “How do we go about returning to normal operations?” Answering these questions should be a planned and proactive process and not a reactive one. In addition, how these decisions and actions will be communicated with your organization, partners, and/or the public is critical. Whether private sector or in government, some of our attention needs to be focused on recovery.