Is the response to COVID-19 a business continuity issue?

Posted on 14 December

Is it time for Business Continuity Managers to step away from the COVID-19 response? I share by thoughts on how organisations should move forward in dealing with the virus.

I have been thinking about the response to COVID-19 for a while, especially as we have been conducting a number of debriefs on the incident for different organisations. The initial and obvious answer is yes, it is a business continuity issue and probably the largest incident most business continuity professionals will face in their lifetime. Beyond the initial response and the new normal of working from home, I would like to argue that the COVID-19 response no longer constitutes a business continuity incident. The business continuity manager’s time would be better spent preparing for the next incident and making sure that the routine elements of their response is managed, rather than spending all their time on the ongoing management of the pandemic response.

When the possibility of a pandemic was identified, organisations sprang into action and started to prepare. Those with operations in China and Asia were perhaps more attuned to the possible threat and the impact of lockdowns and were able to prepare their European, African and American operations for the likelihood that the pandemic would spread worldwide. I spoke to DHL who were preparing their worldwide operations for the pandemic from mid-January and they were even able to exercise their response. Other organisations who were transfixed by the ‘Grey Rhino’ charging towards them, didn’t carry out much preparation until they were forcibly sent home by the government as part of a national lockdown.

The initial reaction to the pandemic was a classic business continuity response. Organisations’ operations were being impacted and they had to respond. No organisation or person, I have spoken to so far said they were prepared for the pandemic, so the response had to be made up as they went along, rather than relying on a specific plan. Organisations may have had pandemic plans in place, but they were for a number of different percentages of staff being unavailable to work and it was envisaged that staff would continue to work from their office, adept with different procedures to prevent the infection spreading. The reality was very different, most people were sent to work from home if they could, whole sectors of the economy closed down, and even if they had business continuity plans in place, they couldn’t launch these, as the government ordered them to close. Certain sectors such as supermarkets, internet shopping and logistic companies then had a huge surge in demand.

Business continuity plans should be adaptable, so organisations got together their incident management teams and rapidly reconfigured their operations to work from home. This was a classic response with some incident teams working 24/7, external and internal communications being coordinated, operations rapidly reconfigured, additional IT equipment purchased for working from home and a host of challenges identified, solutions found and then implemented. All business continuity managers in their heart of hearts I believe want to have been part of the response to a major incident and hope that all their plans, work and badgering of people to attend exercises and business continuity events will now be recognised. After the first few months of lockdown there was still work to be done, with the incident management team meeting 2-3 times a week to manage the response, ongoing communications taking place and operations reconfigured and optimised to work within the government restrictions and changes within the market place.

I think at this stage COVID-19 has ceased being a business continuity incident and more ‘business as usual’ but working under different conditions. Working from home provides a number of risks, such as information security, staff fatigue and mental health issues, lack of an appropriate place to work and possibility of power cuts or broadband downtime which could prevent staff working. Since staff working from home are resilient in that you are unlikely to have an incident when prevents them all from working, I think there is limited amount of planning for business continuity to do. Changes in the marketplace and to delivery are operational issues rather than business continuity issues. The business continuity manager could get involved in making sure that changes have appropriate resilience in place, but this is no different to operational changes which are made outside a pandemic. Where there are staff working or customers commuting to your site, shop or venue and there are a raft of rules and regulations for this to be conducted safely, then this is an issue to be managed by health and safety or facilities management, this is not a business continuity led issue. Even the ongoing communication both internally and externally has become routine and so there is no need for business continuity input in my opinion.

With the vaccine being rolled out in the Spring and as the country begins to return to normal and staff return to their offices, I also don’t feel this is an issue where business continuity need to be involved. It is similar to an office move and can be planned and managed by the facilities department and supported by internal communications staff.

While the business continuity team has been responding rather than doing their day job, there is now lots of administration tasks to be carried out, documents to be updated, training to take place and even exercises to be conducted. They should be horizon scanning and preparing the organisation for any other incidents which might occur. They should also be learning the lessons of the pandemic response and updating plans to reflect new ways of working. If all staff can work from home is there any need for work area recovery contracts and as there is a proven capability to work from home, the loss of premises becomes much less of a threat to prepare for.

Although most business continuity managers like to be in the ‘thick of the action’ and want to be at the heart of their organisation rather than marginalised and ignored as we often are, now is the time to break free of being involved in the COVID-19 response and get on with the day job. We need to make sure that whichever other incidents could occur we are prepared for, while operations staff continue to manage the effects of the virus!

I have seen that there was an explosion at Wessex Water last night and my thoughts are with the staff and families of those affected. Having worked in the water industry I know many of the companies, especially the small ones such as Wessex Water, are a tight knit family and so any incident like this is felt very strongly.