The coronavirus outbreak continues to reach new milestones, the New York Times reports, disrupting businesses across the globe.
Apple, Starbucks and Ikea have closed their stores in China. Other brands have kept stores open, but are seeing “deserted” shopping malls as people stay home to prevent further spread of the virus. Brands that rely on Chinese manufacturing for their products could see delays or other disruptions in the coming months if factories remain offline.
If your organization is like most, you’ve discussed the escalating coronavirus outbreak and what it might mean for your organization. Some of you may have already decided that employees will simply work from home, or that your business continuity plans will cover you.
These strategies aren’t uncommon. I see them all the time when I visit customers to assess their pandemic readiness. But a wide-scale infectious disease outbreak like coronavirus requires more than a business continuity plan or an on-the-fly decision to have everyone work from home.
It’s time to dust off your Pandemic Readiness Plan. Let’s run through the key ways a pandemic can disrupt your business and how you can respond.
How coronavirus will affect businesses
Infectious disease outbreaks are a moving target with breaking news, government advisories and actions, and potential business and economic impacts changing quickly.
Coronavirus might disrupt your business any number of ways, but be prepared for the following disruption scenarios:
- Workforce unavailability or desire to work remotely. Whether there’s an illness within your ranks, general concern over social interaction, school closures, or another event, understand how employee absences or everyone working from home would impact your business and customers.
- Workplace limitations or restrictions. You have to provide a safe working environment for your personnel and visitors. If you learn that someone in your facility has taken ill, you should take precautions to limit active virus exposure, which might mean restricting access to certain locations and possibly disinfecting all work and rest areas where the person taken ill may have visited.
- Changing product and service demand. If the public scope of illness and reduced social interaction escalate, it might affect demand for your products or services. Some businesses, like the makers of surgical masks, might see product demand surge, while others, like retailers, might see store traffic dry up.
- Changing customer behavior. For example, banking customers might switch to using drive-up windows or online transactions to reduce person-to-person interaction. Increased online transactions in particular can lead to a dramatic escalation of calls to the bank’s help desk, so plan accordingly.
- Changing third-party behavior. If a key vendor has been impacted, they might be unable to meet their contractual commitments to you.
- Meeting customer commitments. Anticipating the above disruptions, what can you do now to ensure there’s no gap in service to your customers? For example, it may be wise to accelerate production now so you have plenty of product on hand if a pandemic does materialize.
Is your organization prepared itself for these situations? Let’s look at some guidelines for pandemic preparedness.
5 keys to pandemic preparedness and action
There are five key things you need to consider as you prepare for a pandemic:
- Who owns a pandemic response. Who should run point for pandemic preparedness and response? Look to your head of human resources for the workforce and workplace elements, but there’s an operational aspect to pandemic preparation and response that should fall under the COO.
- How you’ll communicate. Set communications protocols with personnel so it’s clear how the company will share advisories and actions. Decide when and how you’ll keep employees in the loop about facility closings and other changes. Be clear about what time recurring updates will be available, and how employees can access them, whether it’s through a website, a hotline number or some other means. And, establish and convey how urgent messaging will be issued; typically by multiple means including phone, text and email.
- How you’ll manage exposure. You’re responsible for protecting personnel and visitors in your workplace. Know which employees can work from home and which ones can’t. Create visitor policies that limit the spread of infectious disease.
For example, I recently worked with the chief medical officer of a news organization on how it could keep the news on the air in case of an infectious disease outbreak. Part of the plan was reprogramming the elevators so that news anchors and engineers would have a private elevator that would limit their exposure to others within the office building who might be carrying a virus.
- How you’ll handle workforce readiness and availability. First of all, ensure your sick leave policy is consistent with public health messages urging people to stay home if they’re sick. But also understand the impact that a high percentage of absenteeism or remote working could have on your business.
What will you do to continue meeting customer demand? How will you handle surges in IT help desk call-ins from remote workers? Have you trained employees on remote working or set policies temporarily authorizing overtime or accelerated schedules? Now is the time to make sure these policies are in place and understood.
- What to expect in business and sales impact. Be prepared for changes in demand for products or services, and changes in customer behavior due to a local or widespread outbreak.
One pharmaceutical company we’ve worked with has plans to accelerate production on all medicines and vaccines when there’s reasonable concern that a virus may reach pandemic levels. This ensures supplies can meet demand even if one of their manufacturing plants needs to shut down.
Start or refresh your pandemic plan now
Ultimately, a pandemic plan addresses workforce, workplace, vendors, and customers. Crafting or updating one will make your employees feel more comfortable, and ensures you’re better equipped to handle customer needs despite an outbreak that impacts your business.