During our first discussion on the need for a Pandemic Business Continuity Plan we emphasized that planning for a pandemic is different than planning for other contingencies.
The primary challenge you will encounter during a pandemic is not how to deal with the loss of infrastructure and communications, but how to provide essential services with significant employee absenteeism through sustained periods of time. The unavailability of key personnel in your own work force, in your contractor’s work force, and vendor’s work force are factors that should be addressed in you business continuity plan. A pandemic has unique characteristics that could require implementation of activities to limit contact, such as restriction of movement, isolation, quarantine, and closure of public gatherings. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that businesses should plan for up to 50% staff absences for periods of about two weeks at the height of a severe pandemic wave, and lower levels of staff absences for a few weeks on either side of the peak. Overall a pandemic wave may last about eight weeks. There will likely be additional waves of illness of varying severity over time.
One of your first actions as you plan for the possibility of a pandemic is to write a Pandemic Business Continuity Plan. Included in this step is the appointment of a Pandemic Influenza Planning Team. Task the team to review your organization’s entire existing emergency plans, pandemic planning guides and templates from government sites (e.g., www.pandemicflu.gov; www.who.int; www.cdc.gov), and other planning materials that you will want to incorporate. You can modify existing templates to address your business needs. Plan on meeting regularly so that team members stay informed and any issues you surface are resolved in a timely manner.
The next action is to exercise the plan. We have found that with most organizations (i.e., both government and corporations), the people who write the plans are not necessarily the ones who will implement the plan. Therefore plans should be tested through tabletop exercises or simulation exercises to find strengths and gaps in your plan. When possible, exercise your plan using a pandemic flu scenario and measurable objectives to ensure the plan is effective and realistic. Include not only the key individuals from all departments within your organization in the exercise, but also key stakeholders (e.g., partners, vendors, clients, contractors, etc.). Some of the areas you will want to address during your exercise are the identification of core people and core skills available to keep essential parts of your business operating.
You will want to consider:
- What are the “essential” parts of the business?
- Who are the core people required to keep the essential parts of the business running?
- What are the core skills required to keep business running?
- Are there sufficient backups for people and skills if there is a high level of absence? Are there other resources (e.g. volunteers, retirees) that can be drawn on? Is it possible to operate key parts of your business remotely?
Other issues to consider are:
- Key supplies. Shortages may occur because disruption in transportation system or suppliers’ inability to meet demand because of their own staff shortages. What are the critical supplies that you may want to stockpile?
- At what level of absentees and loss of core people and skills does business stop?
- Who should make the decision to shut activities down when absence rates threaten safe business continuity?
- Could some, or all, of your business operations shift to having most staff work from home with little warning?
The third action is to refine your plan. During the exercise you will find or surface issues that need to be addressed. We define an issue during an exercise, as something that is important to your continuity of business plan, but because of time limitations, cannot be fully addressed during the exercise. These issues should be prioritized and assigned to someone to take ownership, resolve the issue and report back to the planning team. Use the feedback from the exercise, employees, partners, vendors, and clients to update the plan.
Finally, plan for periodic education of your employees. The concept of a pandemic flu can be unsettling and scary. But if employees are informed and prepared they will be more like to succeed during an emergency.