Sarah Pearson, Ecclesiastical Group’s Head of Enterprise Risk Management, shares her views on business continuity in a pandemic world, and prompts organizations to look to the future by focusing on adapting and refining existing business continuity plans, by taking the learnings of the last year or so.
In the midst of every crisis, Albert Einstein once said, lies great opportunity. Winston Churchill, working to build the United Nations in the wreckage of post-war Europe, took a similar view.
‘We should never,’ said our greatest statesman, his tongue only slightly in his cheek, ‘let a good crisis go to waste.’
Of course, neither Einstein or Churchill wanted crises, but they understood the essential truth, that our increasingly complex and interconnected lives mean that, whether we like it or not, we are never far from difficulties – and that those who plan for the worst, and put in place strategies for business continuity, can protect their reputations, and their bottom lines, and steal a march on their more complacent peers.
The COVID-19 pandemic, still rumbling on around the world after nearly 18 months, provides a classic case study.
Some sectors had a natural advantage over others – for instance, in a locked-down world online retail was always going to fare better than bricks-and-mortar shops.
But within specific sectors there have been winners and losers, and the winners are those who worked out how best to keep their businesses going so that they could continue to serve their customers.
By definition, no-one knows what the next unforeseen crisis – the next Nassim Nicholas Taleb ‘Black Swan’ – might be, but whatever it is – whether it’s a new virus that sweeps the world, or something much more local, which affects only your sector, or even just your organisation – you can be sure it’s coming.
So now is the time to focus on adapting and refining your existing plans by taking on the learnings of the last year or so.
And don’t be put off by the unknown nature of the challenges you will face: the Pareto Principle, otherwise known as the 80:20 rule, suggests that most of the preparation you put in place for another COVID-style emergency would work for other entirely unrelated issues.
Without blowing our own trumpets too much, I’d like to share some of what we did at Ecclesiastical.
As soon as the first rumblings of COVID-19 started to appear on the media horizon, we invoked our business continuity planning.
This is an ongoing and evolving process for us, and as part of it we had already considered various scenarios – though not necessarily a global pandemic! – which might involve a shift to most, or even all, of our staff having to work from home.
We had also clearly delineated which parts of the business simply had to keep going seamlessly in such circumstances, and which could afford a little downtime.
Top of mind, as ever, was our customers – we are nothing without them, and unfortunately fire, flood, damage and theft don’t stop happening, even in a pandemic.
That meant our claims team was one of those really vital departments which had to keep running smoothly, so we focused a lot of our energies there.
Because of that prior planning, we were able to work very quickly to prioritise their server support, and to ensure staff were provided with the IT and communications infrastructure to enable them to work from home for an extended period, so that they could keep on giving our customers the speedy help and reassurance that they rightly expect from us.
As the crisis evolved, we were able to switch to all staff working from home within just one week, ensuring that continuity of service, and business, from then until the present day.
Of course, working from home isn’t just about business – if your customers are everything, your staff are a very close second, and it is absolutely vital to show them empathy and compassion.
A happy workforce is a productive workforce and the sociable and ‘fun’ parts of work – making plans to meet up for a drink, sharing a corny joke, or chatting over a quick coffee break about the terrible finale to Line of Duty – are crucial.
At a stroke, all of that was taken away, and we were suddenly faced with isolated teams, often staring at the same four walls for days on end.
Leadership is absolutely critical, and, again, our senior management team responded rapidly.
Staff were sent gifts – a bonsai tree here, a welfare package there – and we instituted regular meetings, virtual get-togethers on MS Teams, where people were encouraged to talk about anything but work… if you had a problem, your boss wanted to know about it, and to see if she or he could do anything to help.
It obviously wasn’t possible to completely replicate the social aspects of the workplace, but we could at least try to keep that human contact going.
And this isn’t a ‘fire-and-forget’ thing – it has to be an ongoing process.
The Harvard Medical School and the Ohio State Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health’s STAR (Stress, Trauma and Resilience) programme have identified four stages of crisis fatigue.
In the ‘Heroic Stage’, at the onset of a crisis, people are bonded by adversity. A ‘Honeymoon Stage’ follows – we’re all in the same boat, and we’re beating this, but eventually you hit the ‘Disillusionment Stage’, where people start to feel physically and emotionally exhausted.
Without intervention and support, they eventually subside into the ‘Fatigue Stage’ – their bodies are flooded with stress hormones and adrenaline for long periods, and they suffer burnout and become withdrawn.
Our attempts to mitigate the worst effects of the multiple lockdowns, and the changes to our working practices, helped to keep morale high and enabled staff to work efficiently and as seamlessly as possible, as I think our many happy customers would attest.
And note that Pareto Principle: these approaches and techniques apply both to a major worldwide emergency like COVID-19 and to a localised crisis like, for instance, the long-term loss of offices due to a catastrophic fire.
In other words, while the cause of your problem is important it’s crucial not to get bogged down in worrying about that – the question is what are you going to do about its impact.
You might even begin to discern unexpected benefits; Einstein’s ‘great opportunities’ may become clear once the fog of crisis has eventually started to lift. For instance, those companies which prepared well and are still standing now almost certainly have far better IT systems in place.
They have a more resilient management and staff, which has proved its flexibility and they may well enjoy financial spin-offs, such as reduced rental costs – there’s no need to renew expiring leases on large office complexes if flexible working means staff can ‘hot desk’.
(A McKinsey study from late 2020 suggested that ‘hybrid models’ of remote working are here to stay. ‘The virus has broken through cultural and technological barriers that prevented remote work in the past,’ said the study’s authors. ‘More than 20 percent of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they could if working from an office.’)
The fact that you’re reading this suggests you already have a sophisticated understanding of the threats and opportunities posed by our changing world.
You probably already have a Business Continuity Plan in place, and designated staff assigned to challenge, refresh and renew it on an ongoing basis.
You will already be reviewing your response to COVID-19, and trying to dig out those difficult learnings– what went well, and what you could have done better.
But if you don’t, now is the time to start – and to remember Winston Churchill’s wise words about not letting a good crisis go to waste.
As another great statesman – the United States’ Founding Father Benjamin Franklin – put it, even further back, ‘Failing to prepare is just preparing to fail.’