The COVID-19 outbreak has been declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization, causing a significant impact on people’s lives, businesses and the wider economy.
Whilst a significant effort is underway globally to contain the virus, crises such as these can unfold unpredictably. Therefore as the situation develops, firms across all sectors are having to work rapidly to ensure that their business services can continue to operate, their staff (and places of work) remain safe and their customers remain properly and appropriately served.
Effective and successful management of crises such as these is directly related to how well prepared organizations are to respond, and should act as key operational resilience considerations for firms.
Crisis response planning: some areas for boards to consider
A robust crisis response plan and capability is key to minimizing the impact the crisis has on a business, its staff and its customers. Firms should have in place crisis management and business continuity plans as part of their operational resilience frameworks that consider a range of scenarios, including a health pandemic, which should help them respond.
Given the various unknowns at this early stage in respect of COVID-19 and its impact nationally and internationally, it’s important that firms create crisis response plans if they haven’t done so already:
ACTION POINT 1: Assemble a proportionate but robust cross-functional response team to review plans in detail:
It is possible that an outbreak such as this could touch all parts of an organisation. Therefore it is important to include relevant stakeholders from across the business – HR, communications, customer services, legal, compliance etc – headed by an appropriately senior individual to ensure it gets the profile it requires.
ACTION POINT 2: Scenario plan and consider the impacts on the crisis response plan:
Consider the range of scenarios that could occur as a result of the crisis in the short, medium and longer term. These should be plausible, but severe in nature so as to prepare the organization for what could be a prolonged period of high stress. Various factors can influence this. Take for example, as we have seen in a number of areas of the UK already, the impact of school closures, which may seem insignificant at first glance. Some things to think about in respect of this example may include, but not be limited to:
- Staff: will more people need to work from home as a result (particularly those with child care responsibilities)?
- Systems: if so, can systems accessed remotely cope with a higher number of users for an extended period?
- Operations: if system bandwidth is an issue, are there other measure that can be taken to reduce the impact (e.g. amend working hours, operate a shift system etc)?
- Customers: if there are factors impacting the level of service change (such as a change to opening hours), how will this be communicated to customers? How will customers be kept up to date if and when your response changes?
As part of scenario planning, it’s important to establish accurate factual information from credible sources. In situations such as these, social media in particular can be awash with inaccurate information or speculation, which may be unhelpful and impair decision-making.
ACTION POINT 3: Test the plan and its key components:
Undertake testing of your crisis response plan using the plausible, but severe scenarios that you have considered. Some of the key components of the response plan include the communication media that you intend to use to keep staff and other stakeholders appraised of your response to the crisis, systems stress testing and effective / safe management of sites from which you operate, be they head offices, operations hubs or branches.
As you conduct the testing, what do the results show you? To what extent do they highlight previously unforeseen weaknesses that need to be addressed promptly? Which stakeholders need to be involved in addressing these weaknesses and how do you satisfy yourself that once action has been taken, this resolves the situation?
All of these factors will serve to enhance your crisis response plan and overall preparedness.
ACTION POINT 4: Communicate to stakeholders:
In fast moving and unpredictable circumstances such as these, clear and timely communication to stakeholders is key. Staff, customers and regulators are all important stakeholders to keep updated about an organisation’s planned response in the run up to and throughout the period of crisis response:
- Staff will need to know what is expected of them if the crisis management plan is invoked. It is important that staff know how they should prepare, what action they should take, when they should take it and how they will be communicated with in the run up to and during a period of crisis management response. Staff will likely want to know how their safety has been considered; this should also form a key element of any communications.
- Customers will need to know the impact that any implementation of a crisis management plan will have on them and this should be communicated in a timely manner. Consider the extent to which their access to services will be impacted in any way. Will online systems / apps be available as normal? Will telephone lines operate as normal? Is it likely response times / processing times will take longer? Clear explanations of the impacts, timescales and reasons behind these will help to manage your relationships with your customers.
- Regulators will expect firms to have in place robust crisis management and response plans and may ask to see these. Be ready for them to ask how you are satisfied that your plans are sufficiently robust as it is likely any request will require an almost immediate response.
More detailed checklist
We have produced a more detailed checklist for firms’ COVID-19 planning. For further information please contact Iain Hawthorn and John Coley.