Preparing a Business Continuity Plan For Return To Work

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If there’s one thing the last two years have taught us, it’s the importance of being prepared for all possible circumstances.

The global pandemic has caused massive disruptions to so many levels of business, from the breaking of supply chains to the closure of shops and the exodus from offices. Many businesses have unfortunately not been able to weather the storm. Those that have are probably feeling some level of relief at this point.

But this is no time to get complacent. We have to remember our recent lesson. We need to be prepared for everything. 

In the world of business, being prepared for everything means having a rock-solid continuity plan in place. So that’s what this blog edition is all about. 

Back To The Office

Many organisations would have had a business continuity plan in place before the pandemic started. But no doubt heading back to the office in 2021/2022 has demanded a whole new set of considerations. 

To deal with things properly, we’re going to address the general features of a business continuity plan before identifying the major considerations for a return to work in these strange times. 

Business Continuity Plans 101

These are the elements of the process of drawing up a business continuity plan. 

1. Identify Objectives 

The ‘continuity’ in business continuity plan means this: what are the essential capacities that a business needs to continue its operations?

Obviously, if serious issues arise—like we’ve seen over the past two years—continuing business won’t necessarily mean continuing business at the same level as before the disruption. So, part of setting up your business continuity plans is identifying what your core business functions are—the functions without which you can’t really proceed sustainably. 

In turn, you can identify essential resources, clients, customers, suppliers, leaders, teams, and infrastructure. 

2. Identify Disruptions

Next, an organisation needs to look at how its essential operations can be disrupted. This is often referred to as risk assessment or business impact analysis.

Having been thrown into the deep-end in 2020, we should all have a bit of a broader mind about the level of disruption that can occur to a business. But even still, we need to keep wide scope, considering disruptions that have not yet eventuated.

3. Consider Mitigation Options

Next, we need to work out some strategies to either nullify the effects of disruptions or mitigate them to a degree. 

For some businesses, this might mean diversifying suppliers so that, if one supply chain breaks, others can keep things rolling. For another business, it might mean boosting online infrastructure so that, if brick-and-mortar shops have to close, the selling won’t stop. In the case of office work, more particular strategies can be implemented, and we’ll look at these below. 

4. Develop Clear Strategy/Protocols

Once an organisation has considered its options, it then needs to go about developing a thorough and robust strategy. This means moving beyond ideas and on to having a concrete plan of action in place.

5. Implement and Test

Now an organisation needs to put its concrete plans into action and see how they fare. This might mean, for example, setting up a backup IT infrastructure and then switching over to it, as though simulating a serious security breach or the failure of a cloud computing provider. 

6. Monitor and Amend

Lastly, it’s imperative that complacency doesn’t rear its head. A business continuity plan can soon become out of date as new circumstances arise.

Therefore, it’s essential to continue to monitor any new disruptions emerging on the horizon, reformulating and retesting the plan as required. 

A Post-Covid Business Continuity Plan

A business continuity plan of course needs to be based around the individual nature of an organisation. But there are some big considerations that are likely to be relevant to quite a number of business types. So, here are some of those.

You can use a business continuity plan template (like the one offered by the Australian government) to fill in your own organisational specifics as you go along. 

1. Covid-Safe Business Operations

We’ll talk a bit further down about disruptions caused by general lockdowns, but from the outset, businesses need to be taking care of their own backyard before worrying about the bigger picture. If Covid spreads within an office, it could mean that large sections of the team—if not the whole team—are forced into isolation.

This could pose a big disruption on a number of fronts, as all of us now know. Plus, employee safety should be paramount. 

Therefore, the first aspect of a business continuity plan should be strategising how to make the office space itself Covid-safe. You can get government guidance on what specific steps to take for making an office environment Covid-safe, including taking measures for physical distancing, record keeping, and ventilation.

Special consideration should be taken for coworking office spaces, particularly because furniture and equipment are being used by multiple people. There should be clear plans in place regarding who is responsible for wiping these items down before and after use. 

Also, there should be a robust system in place for alerting employees about possible close contacts and other safety issues. 

2. Skills Exodus 

A skills exodus is a dark horse in terms of major business disruptions because it’s unlikely that employees will all quit at the same time. But even if you lose a few key capabilities in a six-month period, this can throw a spanner in the works.

The reason this is such a big problem now is that more professionals than ever before are looking to move jobs very soon, having avoided or been prevented from doing so during the last two years.

Businesses need to be planning concrete recruitment strategies now so that they aren’t the ones looking for a chair when the music stops. 

3. Flexible Work Expectations

Related to the skills shortage is the possibility that many employees are not going to be willing to return to pre-pandemic work arrangements. 

Flexibility is in.

Although Fairwork Australia has pointed out that, in most circumstances, employers can require their employees to return to the workplace, applying this requirement across the board may turn out to ruffle feathers and get some team members checking out other job openings. 

Businesses should plan to make reasonable allowances for flexible work if and when it is appropriate.

Another step that businesses can take is adding coworking arrangements to their planning. Coworking during the pandemic in shared office spaces proved to be a major bonus for many organisations, offering them maximum flexibility in a time of uncertainty. 

Now, when lockdowns have ended, coworking is an option that gives businesses a lot of flexibility as contingencies pop up. 

4. New Consumer Habits

Another way in which businesses could be disrupted in the long term is by changing consumer habits. We all know that the pandemic fundamentally altered the way in which people consume the goods and services they want and need. 

In particular, online consumption has skyrocketed. But it would be a mistake to assume that, with lockdowns ending, things are going to go back to the way they were. Old habits die hard, and after so much lockdown, our habits have indeed become old. 

It would also be a mistake to assume that competitors are going to go back to the old way of doing things. Many businesses have spent the last two years investing in technological infrastructure, the full impact of which may not yet be fully realised. We’re talking AI, big data, new customer interfaces, and so forth. 

Businesses need to take steps to identify infrastructure that may soon become obsolete.

5. Further Lockdowns

We know, we’re all very tired of it by now. And we’re hoping that lockdowns are behind us. But given the way things have gone, we can never quite trust that we’re past things. 

Hopefully, though, most businesses should be more or less set up now for working from home. But there are no doubt many businesses that, even though being able to operate remotely, have been impacted by customers being unable to get out of the house. 

Some of these businesses are now struggling in terms of short-term liquidity. If we return to normal, they may be fine. But contingency planning is needed to stay afloat if that doesn’t happen. 

Planning steps could involve securing alternative sources for borrowing, identifying new potential revenue streams, finding insurance options, and establishing mutually supportive partnerships. 

6. Overseas Lockdowns and Legislation

Depending on the nature of business operations, if key regions around the world go into further lockdowns, this can have a big impact on foreign markets, foreign manufacturing, and global supply chains. 

Businesses that are directly affected by what’s changing overseas should already be monitoring the relevant developments. But there are many businesses that are only indirectly affected by overseas dynamics.

To safeguard against disruption, all the moving parts of a business need to be traced back to their sources, whether that’s the revenue streams of a key client or the paper that goes in the office printer (perhaps we can leave this second one alone).

7. Covid 2.0

Lastly, it needs to be considered a genuine possibility that we have to go through the rigmarole of the last two years all over again. This might be brought about by the spreading of a variant that renders current vaccines obsolete or by a different virus entirely. 

Indeed, we could go through similar circumstances again for an issue entirely unrelated to viruses and medicine. Think, for example, of major failings in global IT security. 

No need to spout Doomsday theories or stoke the dead embers of Y2K—it suffices to say that we need to expect the unexpected. 

Therefore, it’s time to do a full inventory of resources and capacities, carrying out a thorough risk assessment across the board. 

This Is an Opportunity, Not a Burden

We can’t say it enough: this is no time for complacency. Hopefully, we’re past the worst of things and it’s going to be clean sailing from here on out. But if we trusted this to be the case, then we probably haven’t learned a lot from the past two years.

We have to be prepared for absolutely anything. 

But it’s also worth pointing out that laying out a business continuity plan doesn’t necessarily mean losing time and money strategising for disruptions that may very well never eventuate. 

Business continuity planning is also an opportunity to take stock of how business is being done in general. Assessing risks can, in practice, be inseparable from assessing opportunities for optimisation. 

With this in mind, the process of developing a business continuity plan can seem a far more inviting prospect, not just a chore that you can’t afford to put off for any longer. Not only that, but it’s a process that you should be involved in regularly, always looking to develop and improve.

Plan Early. Plan Well. Plan again. 

Return to Work, Business, COVID-19
11 December 2021

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