Think Your Company Has Survived a Pandemic? Think Again

Richard Long

A look at how COVID-19 has impacted the workforce, and how the loss of human resources and pandemic planning is something we should all still be working on.

Looked at from the perspective of business continuity, the COVID-19 pandemic has not been a pandemic; it’s been a relocation event. In today’s post, we’ll look at the ramifications of this point as well as at the likely impact of the upcoming convergence of COVID and flu season.

A Case of Misplaced Confidence

Over the past couple of months, many of my clients have told me that one good thing has come out of the COVID-19 pandemic: Based on their success in keeping their operations going over the past six months, they are now confident that they are ready for any future pandemics.

Unfortunately, I have had to point out that in most cases their confidence is misplaced.

In terms of public health, COVID-19 has definitely been a pandemic. News reports said this week that the U.S. has reached the somber milestone of 200,000 deaths caused by the disease.

But in business continuity terms, COVID-19 has not had the impact of a classic pandemic. It has not caused large numbers of employees at many companies to be too sick to work. It has not put organizations’ pandemic plans to the test.

COVID-19 Has Mostly Been a Relocation Event

In business continuity we classify disasters by the type of impact they have. There are four main types: loss of facility, loss of technology, loss of vendors, and loss of human resources.

Looked at from the BC perspective, the classic danger of a pandemic is that it causes a significant loss of human resources by rendering a large number of employees too sick to work. COVID-19 has not had this effect. It has mostly been felt as a loss of facility / relocation event.

Companies were impacted by COVID-19 not because large numbers of staff fell ill but because, in order to keep people from getting sick, social distancing was implemented and offices closed.

As a result, the problems of adapting to the current pandemic had more in common with dealing with a loss of facility (such as by a hurricane or fire) than it did with a classic, pandemic-related employee shortage.

The problems that had to be solved had to do with making it so people could work from home (issues with network connectivity and meeting apps) or modifying workspaces for those who were required to be in the facility, not those arising from a lack of employees (loss of knowledge and skills, insufficient time).

A Couple of Caveats

There are two caveats to the above.

First, there were a few cases where individual companies were impacted by high rates of illness; however, this has been the exception rather than the rule.

Second, there have been cases where social distancing in a facility reduced the number of people available to do the work (for example, furloughs or reductions due to reduced demand or revenue). However, these situations have been planned rather than imposed unexpectedly by a lack of healthy staff as would be the case in a classic BC pandemic event.

These inconveniences or small disruptions may give a sense of what could happen if a significant percentage of your staff were out concurrently. For the vast majority of companies, the COVID-19 pandemic has had the impact of a relocation event rather than a loss of human resources.

The Upshot of Properly Understanding COVID’s Impact

The upshot of recognizing that COVID-19 has had the impact of a loss of facility event rather than a pandemic is that it lets organizations see clearly where they stand in terms of their disaster preparedness and pandemic planning.

It’s great if your company has landed on its feet in terms of keeping its operations going over the past six months.

However, performance in the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t say anything about how well the organization would do in a situation where large numbers of staff became unavailable to work due to illness.

The potential still exists for a disease to come along that really does make large numbers of staff too ill to work. It’s important that organizations prepare for that type of situation.

This involves steps such as prioritizing work efforts, moving people into secondary roles, identifying single points of failure, and identifying work that can be delayed.

For details on these and other ways of planning for a loss of human resources event, check out my post “Not If But When: Is Your Company Ready for the Next Global Pandemic?,” published before COVID-19 emerged, and “Vaccinate Your Business: Devise a Pandemic Plan,” by MHA CEO Michael Herrera, which was published recently on the BCMMETRICS blog.

COVID-19 Meets the Flu

As flu season approaches, society faces the unprecedented situation of influenza outbreaks overlapping with the COVID-19 pandemic. No one knows for sure how this is going to play out.

In terms of how the convergence of COVID and the flu might impact organizations’ ability to keep their operations going, I had a few thoughts that might be worth sharing:

  • It’s definitely recommended that you get a flu shot and that companies encourage their employees to do so. (According to the New York Times, this year “Your Flu Shot Has Never Been More Important.”)
  • Many people who get the flu and develop flu symptoms are likely to be fearful that they have contracted COVID-19.
    • Many of those people will likely seek COVID tests, raising the demand for them.
    • They may feel the need to self-quarantine or may be required to do so.
  • Social distancing and work from home will probably act as a brake on flu outbreaks.
  • Facilities’ entry restrictions on people showing symptoms of illness will probably also slow down transmission of the flu.
  • Despite the above, flu outbreaks combined with the continuing spread of COVID-19 could cause staff shortages to an extent we have not seen previously.

The message for business continuity professionals is: Don’t be complacent. COVID-19 is bad. The flu has the potential to make things worse. Your job as a BC professional is to make sure your company can ride out these events with minimal impacts. To do that you should make sure the organization is not only capable of having staff work from home but of carrying on if key personnel or large numbers of personnel are unavailable to work due to illness.

The Importance of Planning for Loss of Staff

Despite its high human toll, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted business primarily as a loss of facility event, rather than as a loss of human resources event. Just because a business has done well in adapting to the challenges of work from home, it doesn’t mean they are ready to handle the loss of a large number of staff.

The potential still exists for a pandemic to come along that really does make large numbers of employees too sick to work. Organizations should make plans to deal with such an event. The approach of flu season, on top of the ongoing COVID pandemic, adds to the need for BC staff to make plans for how the organization would deal with a loss of key personnel or large numbers of personnel.

Further Reading

For more information pandemic planning and other hot topics in business continuity and IT/disaster recovery, check out the following recent posts from MHA Consulting and BCMMETRICS:

About
Richard Long is one of MHA’s practice team leaders for Technology and Disaster Recovery related engagements. He has been responsible for the successful execution of MHA business continuity and disaster recovery engagements in industries such as Energy & Utilities, Government Services, Healthcare, Insurance, Risk Management, Travel & Entertainment, Consumer Products, and Education. Prior to joining MHA, Richard held Senior IT Director positions at PetSmart (NASDAQ: PETM) and Avnet, Inc. (NYSE: AVT) and has been a senior leader across all disciplines of IT. He has successfully led international and domestic disaster recovery, technology assessment, crisis management and risk mitigation engagements.
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