Most countries across the globe have been in Lockdown mode since March (or earlier) with varying degrees of lockdown measures such as the Circuit Breaker in Singapore, the Movement Control Order in Malaysia, the total movement control in China or the semi-lockdown in the United Kingdom where they still allow for individuals to head outside to exercise. One thing is for sure, that these lockdown measures have greatly affected businesses from all industries and sectors when only essential services can continue their businesses.
With the situation somewhat abating since early May 2020, some government-mandated measures have started to ease, and businesses will be starting to resume their operations and to return back to offices. Most economic sectors are slowly being allowed to reopen their businesses and employees can return to work in offices with the exception of activities that involve mass gatherings that may result in more outbreaks, i.e. the second wave of infections.
Business continuity planning has become crucial for all sectors since the COVID-19 outbreak struck the globe. With the ease of movement restrictions, could there be a possibility of another wave of COVID-19 outbreak in the community? Should businesses start getting employees back to business or continue operations with lock-down measures? The easier part of dealing with the pandemic is over with the government deciding on what is good for the nation and society. The next phase is now for businesses to decide for themselves on their next stage in the post-lock down stage, with pockets of infection cases still happening in the community which may be the second wave outbreak anytime if the community becomes complacent. Businesses will need to assess their own risks and operation needs to determine their BCP.
The biggest question for most businesses is how should they proceed with resuming their business back to normal. This article will discuss on how organisations can return to their business normalcy and what will be the new normal.
Resuming your business back to normal may take months or even years since many aspects will be affected with the pandemic not being completely eradicated.
Certain behaviours in the workplace will need to adapt to accommodate to government mandates such as the need to wear masks in communal spaces within the office and the need to practise social distancing even among colleagues and workspaces. Business gestures such as shaking hands will have to be reduced and so should face-to-face meetings, catching-up for lunch or coffee that allows for small talk and networking will be reduced and replaced with virtual meetings in continued efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19. What this means is that the habits cultivated during this time period will be brought forward to months and possibly years ahead as society and business landscapes continue to reshape to a post-pandemic era. Foreseeing this new normal, organisations need to step in to set some guidelines, such as whether to keep the webcam on during online meetings, allowance criteria for setting face-to-face meetings, for the employees to make reference to.
For employees heading to work using public transportation, the restrictions put in place to encourage social distancing may lengthen their travel duration substantially. For example, a regular train carriage may be carrying 100 passengers during normal peak hours, will now only carry less than half due to social distancing. Travelling time now takes up to 3-4 times longer compared to pre-COVID-19 days. Furthermore, what about the elevator situation? 5 persons at a time instead of packing it to maximum capacity? These are all situations that businesses should consider and to perhaps introduce staggered work timings so that employees can avoid peak travel hours.
With COVID-19 movement restriction measures taking effect with such short notice, most organisations, especially those without a business continuity programme, were caught off-guard and had to react to the situation with a mere few days to prepare employees to work from home (WFH). Returning to business as per normal would also mean a need to relook or kick-start a business continuity programme that will prepare the business to deal with any unforeseen situations so as not to be caught unprepared again. Having business continuity in place will reassure employees, clients, partners, shareholders and other stakeholders that the business is well-prepared and will greatly boost the confidence and reputation of the organisation.
Since the COVID-19 cases are still being reported daily, several precautions should be considered by organisations when restarting their operations.
Organisations should continue to practice their Human Resource (HR) policies and pandemic response plans to remain vigilant while the infection cases are still active in the community. Precautionary measures such as split team arrangement, segregation of work zone, staggered working hours, wearing masks, temperature taking, visitors records will need to be continued. This will reduce human interactions, maintain social distancing and ease the contact tracing efforts, if required. Most importantly the business activities can be resume and gradually return back to normal days.
The Human Resource team needs to review the organisation’s HR policies especially when the workforce is starting to head back to their offices. By now, it should be a standard practice to require all employees to monitor their temperature every morning before starting work. This will enable the quick identification of sick employees and immediately separate them from the rest of the workforce. The HR team will also act as advisors to employees for the guidelines, measures and current situation for any overseas or cross-state travel. If any business travel is required, the employee should update HR for recording purposes.
HR is responsible to set up a contact tracing procedure for visitors to check in at the office premise through a Visitor Declaration form in order to collect their details, temperature check and self-declaration of travel history and that they have not been in close contact with a confirmed case. Constant reminders to employees and visitors on social distancing and incorporating this habit into the company culture will help maintain a safe environment during this time and in future. Organisation should also continue to practice increased frequency of cleaning for common areas such as the pantry, lobby, and toilets.
Consider getting the HR team to be the Post-COVID-19 Precautionary Measures Ambassadors.
There are organisations that believe that they can survive COVID-19 even without a BCP. COVID-19 is a pandemic and a major crisis for our generation. A prolonged crisis, some experts say that it could last for up to 2 years like the Spanish Flu, while other scientists’ predict that it will take at least 4 years for any vaccine to be available. During this time, another crisis could happen and further jeopardise the situation for the organisation.
Only organisations with an effective Business Continuity Management System (BCMS) are able to recover faster than the competitors as they have a clear Business Continuity Plan (BCP) that outlines the Recovery Process and employees across the organisation know their roles and responsibilities in this recovery process and the steps to be taken. With BCMS in place, these organisations have already identified their prioritised activities and activated their plan for the continuity of these activities during the lockdown period. While other organisations with no BCMS were stumbling with last minute purchases, planning and communicating to employees, to ensure continuity of their operation during the lockdown period; the BCMS-ready organisations can seamlessly activate their plan using the previously pre-determined channels.
Disruptive incidents, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, accelerate the implementation of contingency plans, such as Pandemic response plans, to react to the situation. Within a span of 1-2 weeks, a response plan to react to COVID-19 was developed and implemented immediately. There was no time for testing; it was real-time reaction to the situation progression. Organisations need to realise that the Pandemic Response plan is a contingency plan that reacted to an incident but it is not a Business Continuity Plan. BCMS takes into account a much wider context such as the organisation mission and objectives, the contractual and legal obligations and dive deeper into identifying the dependencies to ensure the continuity of the key activities. BCMS is based on the consequences of events and can be used or adapted to fit almost any type of disruptive scenarios. Through implementing a BCMS in the organisation, suitable strategies customised to the organisation’s environment can be activated quickly to respond to possible incidents that could damage the organisation’s business operations in an effective way. In this way, the survival rate of the organisation greatly increases even when faced with a crisis or incident and improves their resilience to such situations.
Many organisations have changed their working mode during the time where most employees had to work from home.
The biggest change would be the digital transformation of the organisation. Through tapping on new technologies such as online meetings and video conferencing, this allows employees to attend meetings from anywhere without having to meet up physically, bypassing geographical boundaries. Other examples include classroom training and workshops switching to eLearning and webinar training; contracts and agreements going paperless with e-Signature acceptance; cloud-based file-sharing applications between team members. It is more effective since all teams are able to access the most updated file anytime from any device with an internet connection. This change in the working mode may continue Post-COVID-19 as organisations see opportunities in the changes.
So what are these opportunities?
More systemised approach in communication. Prior to the outbreak, organisations may be using WhatsApp, Telegram, WeChat, or even traditional call-tree systems to disseminate information to their employees. This approach is acceptable if the message is not critical or needed response that needs to be tracked. Since the outbreak, due to the increased communication needs to different groups of employees, many organisations have made use of automated communication systems, such as ezNotify, to send across urgent messages and trace the responses from the targeted recipients such as staff or clients through multiple channels such as SMS, email, and call. This has since tremendously reduced the tracking and reporting time for the call initiator and can spend more time to manage the situation.
Employee productivity and performance measurement. During the WFH period, managers measure employee performance and productivity based on the deliverables and ability to keep to a deadline or meeting a Key Performance Indicator (KPI). It will no longer be enough to simply measure based on the number of clocked workhours spent in offices. With performance parameters in place, competent employees are more motivated to perform and for the underperformers, managers can perform job restructures or review for improvements or as a last resort, to let non-performing employees go.
With the potential reduction in the on-site workforce, there will be no need for a large office space or facilities. This will translate to a reduction in the rental and operating expenses or in the case for purchased properties, excess space can be rented out for additional income.
Through taking note of the needs of the organisation during the Lockdown period, we can introspectively review the business practices and adopt the new practices as the new norm if it has worked during a difficult time.
The importance of Business Continuity Planning is now clear. It is crucial for organisations to have an effective and strategic plan in order to continue their operation and maintain sales performance even during and after the pandemic is over, since for prolong crisis is highly possible another crisis happen before COVID-19 is clear.
With some points that have been shared, we hope this will provide some tips on how to kickstart your recovery process in your journey to resume normalcy. Although it could take some time, at least with a prepared Business Continuity Management System, it will secure the development of your business in the long-term.
About the Writer: Henry Ee, FBCI, CBCP, ACTA
Henry Ee is the Managing Director for BCP Asia (www.bcpasia.com). He is a certified professional with more than 25 years experience in the business resilience industry. Henry has developed business continuity and crisis management programmes across many different industries including Healthcare, Financial, Manufacturing, the Public Sector and many others. Currently Henry holds many voluntarily positions including Vice-President of RIMAS, Chairman for BCI Singapore Chapter, SEA chairman for IAEM, Member of UNISDR. He was also recently involved as a Technical Expert in the International Standards Organisation (ISO) for Business Continuity and Resilience and was involved as a working group member for Enterprise Singapore and SBF's Guide on Business Continuity Planning for COVID-19.