Following the current COVID-19 outbreak and spread, Charlie discusses 7 steps you should be taking to prepare your organisation.
I am sure readers of the bulletin have been taking my advice by doing lots of horizon scanning and following the coronavirus incident as it progresses. I think we are at a stage of no longer asking the question ‘if’ but 'when' this virus will spread across the UK. There is no doubt that the coronavirus will become a pandemic and we will see cases in every country. How bad it will be, whether containment measures work or whether in the end the virus will circulate uncontrolled worldwide, we don't yet know. I feel at the moment, we are in the ‘Phoney War’ stage, there are small events taking place affecting UK citizens and our European neighbours, but there is yet to be widespread UK impact.
If you haven’t been doing already, now is the time to prepare and get your organisation's framework in place outlining your approach to dealing with the coronavirus. Even if top management are not yet engaging with the issue, as was mentioned at the BCI East Midlands Forum yesterday, you can still put in place your planning so that when top management panic and engage with you, you have done your preparation and thought about how your organisation should prepare and respond. You cannot prepare for every single eventuality, but what you can do and should be doing is building your framework to respond. Below are the 7 steps you should be taking to prepare your organisation:
Step 1 - Decide where you will get advice from
The web is full of misinformation, conspiracy theories and quack cures concerning coronavirus. As an organisation you need to decide where you get your information from and which sites you will use for getting advice and guidance. Following official guidance is always preferable, but sometimes different government sites give different advice. I think someone or a team of people should be designated to this role and monitor a number of websites for any updated information or advice. This should be done on a day-to-day basis. The information should then be given to the Pandemic Team and they should decide if future actions need to be taken or advice communicated throughout the organisation. You will also have to note that if you operate across a number of different regions or countries the advice may vary.
With all incidents, logging information is extremely important, and with this incident I think if you make a decision on government or any other guidance you should log where you got the information, what it was and how you actioned it. If it is on the web, you should record it as all iterations of the advice may not be kept.
Step 2 – Understand the impact of coronavirus on your organisation
This step is to help you understand what the impact on your organisation will be and how it may change your demand. Once you understand this then in Step 3 you can take appropriate steps to mitigate the impact.
- Will the virus quickly increase demand on your organisation, and will it increase demand for your services? If you run a hospital or make medical equipment, or clothing which is required for the response, then your demand will definitely go up. If you run a cleaning company, the demand for your services is also likely to go up.
- Will it decrease demand for your service? This will likely apply to organisations such as airlines, holiday providers, hotels, venues, large events and entertainment, amongst others.
- If your supply chain comes from China, or even one item crucial to manufacturing your product comes from China, will the slowdown or closing of Chinese factories cause items to be delayed or not to be produced?
- Key products in short supply will dramatically increase the price of these items, impact your products and possibly the ability to protect your staff. At this week's forum, one organisation said it had to secure a month’s worth of face masks for each of their Chinese employees, by law, for them to be allowed to go back to work. They managed to source a number of boxes from Brazil, but had to pay 10x the price than they would have done six weeks earlier.
- Will how you deliver your product to your customers change? Will you have more calls to your call centre or online interactions, rather than face-to-face contact? If your service involves delivery to people’s homes, such as parcels requiring a signature from the receiver, meter reading or social services visits, you might have to change how these are delivered.
Once you have explored the possible impact to your organisation you can then go on to Step 3, looking at how you can mitigate these impacts.
Step 3 – Mitigate the impacts and improve your organisation's resilience
In this step you can look at how to mitigate the impacts of coronavirus, to make sure your staff are less likely to catch it, less staff are affected by a case within the company or so that staff can continue to work and deliver your services under a number of different scenarios. These could include ideas such as the points below:
- Make sure that staff can work from home. Buying laptops for those who don’t have them, making sure that they take them home every night, not forgetting their power cable, as the office could be closed at short notice. Checking people know how to VPN in and that your VPN can cope with the additional traffic. Noting that different groups of users have different data requirements and some staff, as developers, may download large amounts of data. I suggest that you get your staff to practice for a day working from home so that any issues are addressed now, not on the day when the office is closed. You may need to put on additional staff in the IT help-desk to cope with the increased number of calls, if staff who are not used to working from home do so for the first time.
- Can you split teams across two different buildings, so that if one office has a case and all staff are told to go home, you don’t lose the whole team? Especially if the team are involved in an activity which can’t be delivered from home.
- If you deliver to people’s homes, then you may have to have an agreement that you will no longer need a signature for packages.
- You may need to increase your numbers working in the call centre to cope with an increased volume of calls.
- Can you stockpile items which could be in short supply or look for alternative supplies if your supply chain from China could be lost?
- Can you segregate parts of your offices so that if someone tests positive for the virus the whole office doesn’t need to close, but only a particular floor or part of the building? You may have to stop staff using common areas, such as the canteen, and other faculties, such as meeting rooms, and have designated toilets and kitchens for particular staff groups.
Step 4 – Decision-making and information management
However much planning you do, there will be a decision to be made which can’t be anticipated and pre-planned. You will also have to make operation decisions on how you will respond, how operations might change and on a daily basis look at the impact on your operations and deal with any questions staff or customers will have. A ‘Pandemic Team’ should be set up and given this role. They will also be responsible for communications internally and externally. To do this, you need a team of people. This could be based on your existing crisis management or business continuity response teams. As a minimum you need a team which could consist of representatives from the following departments:
The team may be a tactical rather than a strategic team, as they can deal with day-to-day response to the incident, leaving the strategic/crisis team, consisting of top management, to take more of an overview of the situation and to make major decisions. In large organisations there will be the need for operations teams to relay information back to the Pandemic Team about the local impact of the virus, and to carry out or pass on instructions from the Pandemic Team to the rest of the organisation. Operational teams could be configured on a department level, or a team or person per building. The authority and decision-making power of the Pandemic Team must be clear, pre-agreed, documented and known to all throughout the organisation.
For all internal staff and possibly customers, there should be a location where all information on the organisation’s response is published. This could be on the staff portal or website. It should also be clear to staff where they can go to get advice or to ask questions. This could be through their manager or a single point of contact, helpline or channel, such as Slack or Yammer, where staff questions can be answered in a timely manner.
Step 5 – Review your HR practices and check they could deal with the issues associated with a pandemic
Some of the most common questions can be thought through to see if your organisation's existing procedures meet the requirements of the incident. Some of the questions you should consider are:
- If I work from home, will I be paid?
- If I self-isolate myself, will I be expected to work from home and what if I can’t work from home?
- If I am told to self-isolate, is this taken as sick leave, time off or should I work?
- If I can’t work from home, do I have to come in to work if others are working from home?
- What if I have to stay at home to look after my children as their school is closed, if I have a caring role, or if need to look after a sick partner?
- Do I have to meet visitors, especially if they are from another country?
- How does the organisation deal with staff quarantined on holiday?
The questions could be endless, but it is worth brainstorming the most obvious questions you are likely to be asked and thinking though your organisation's response. If you are not sure how to answer some of them and the answer is not obvious, always be guided by your existing policies, organisational norms, culture and your values.
You may want to also review your death-in-service procedures and to think through whether you are going to do anything different for your medically vulnerable staff.
Step 6 – Prepare your scenario responses
It is very difficult to prepare for every scenario and how you might deal with it. If you are going to run an Pandemic Operating Regime (see this previous bulletin) and run your organisation in a different way, changing the way you deliver your services as per some of the decisions you made in Step 3, then you need to decide what would be the trigger for implementing them.
One of the issues you may have is when one person tests positive. You might have some predetermined responses to these issues, some of the scenarios could be:
- What to do if your staff become unwell and believe they have been exposed to COVID-19 (either through travel to a specified country or area or contact with a confirmed case).
- What to do if a case of COVID-19 is suspected in your office or place of work.
- What to do if a case of COVID-19 is confirmed in in your office or place of work.
- What to do if the staff in your institution have been in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19, who was symptomatic in your office or place of work.
- What to do if staff in your office or place of work have travelled from a Category 1 specified country/area in the past 14 days.
- What to do if a pupil, student or staff member has travelled from a Category 2 specified country/area in the last 14 days – these categories and dynamically changing on a day-by-day basis.
- What to do if pupils, students or staff return from travelling anywhere else in the world within the last 14 days.
These seven scenarios are taken from the government's guidance on schools and adopted to an office scenario, but for me they give a good framework for thinking through the possible selection of different scenarios you might face.
There are other responses you may want to think through such as, will you require staff to wear masks? You see lots of people wearing them news reports, but advice in the UK says that they should be worn by symptomatic passengers, to reduce the risk of transmitting the infection to other people. These are not the only scenarios and you should brainstorm possible others, especially from your discussions during Step 2.
I think you need to have thought through a number of different options and decisions you can take and have them ready to be deployed or taken as required, depending on the circumstance and how the situation unfolds. You want to avoid making the situation worse by unnecessarily carrying out action which will have a major impact on your organisation, without them needing to be taken. There is a fine balance to tread.
Step 7 – Prepare your communications plan
Your organisation should be making regular communications on the coronavirus, even when the incident is not yet widespread within the UK. The communications may just say that as an organisation you are preparing your plans and will give regular updates as the situation develops. If you have not done already you should do this now. The following should be thought through:
- Who will you need to communicate with internally, how often will you do it, what will they need to know and how will you do it?
- Who will sign off communications? What sources will you base your communications on, especially medical advice? How will you cope with differing regions or countries advice?
- Who are your external stakeholders, how will they be contacted and what are their information requirements?
- Will you be running a helpline and where will advise be posted?
- Will you develop questions and answers on the incident, containing advice to staff - how will this be collated and distributed?
- If staff are at home, how will you communicate with them?
- Communications with staff will be critical in the success or failure of your response.
In each step I have only included some thoughts. There is a lot more content which needs to be thought through. Now is the time to prepare before further spread of coronavirus, as if you start your response unprepared and on the ‘back foot’ you may lose the confidence of your staff and stakeholders and may struggle to regain the initiative. If you want to accelerate your learning, I would direct you to the two Pandemic Planning Sessions BC Training are running next week, which will help provide you with the knowledge to prepare.
NEW! PANDEMIC PLANNING TRAINING: THE TRUE ACTION REQUIRED FOR COVID-19
Following the current situation surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak and related training enquiries, BC Training are running two training sessions on Pandemic Planning next week.
Written by Pandemic Planning expert, David Hutcheson, the training will help to provide delegates with the tools necessary to effectively plan for a pandemic.