The 4 Cs of Business Continuity in the Time of COVID-19
Why should I read this?
Even before COVID-19, I had experience dealing with the rug being pulled out from under my feet. I’ve been laid off unexpectedly and owned two successful businesses. I worked in IT for law firms in the midst of several different large-scale crises, some similar to the current COVID-19 crisis. Additionally, I was part of the team at an AmLaw 200 firm that put together and implemented emergency response and information governance programs with the aid of some of the best consultants in the business. In addition to personally helping with the planning and implementation, my team was responsible for training and helping communicate those plans to the firm’s 900+ employees.
As the last several weeks have unfolded, I’ve closely watched the responses of people and businesses to the COVID-19 crisis. Some have handled it well and were clearly prepared. Others have stumbled. Nothing is perfect, but for those still stumbling, I’d like to share my four Cs of business continuity in the time of COVID-19. Even if you don’t use them now, build out your emergency response plan (ERP) for the future by making notes and collecting resources now while things are top of mind.
Communication is the First C
The very first thing is communication. As a leader, it is your duty to communicate with your executive team (if you have one), your employees, and your customers. You carry that additional burden as an owner and employer. If you are lucky enough to have an executive team, they should be part of your response team using a communication plan to help get the word out and plans implemented as quickly as possible. Workflow diagrams detailing the communication plan will aid this process tremendously.
Speaking of those communications, contact lists must be up to date and easily accessible. If you haven’t created electronic customer and employee lists that are updated on a monthly basis, this will be step one. Step two will be ensuring that these lists are accessible by all who need them.
It is vital that people know you are aware of their positions as stakeholders in your business and understand your plan for getting through the crisis. Now is not the time for ambiguity; it’s a time for transparency, giving your team the information they need to feel at ease and get on board to work towards the same objective. Be proactive and reassure those who are depending on you. For your business to survive, you will need customers and employees who are vested in your success. Let them know that you appreciate their previous contributions and how you will rise up to meet their needs through the crisis.
We can’t just be thinking about ourselves. We must try to empathize with the rest of our team, customers, and partners to understand how they are feeling and what is happening in their worlds. Not sure? Ask.
When the Covid-19 crisis began, people were scrambling trying to figure out how to work remotely, get groceries, and home school their children. Some companies rushed to offer numerous webinars. I wonder if those helped, increased the pressure and stress, or simply went unseen. From the numerous posts mentioning how hard it was to manage work, family, and homeschooling at the same time, it seems no one took the time to ask the target audiences if they wanted or needed webinars. I still continue to see numerous posts along these same lines. Are they really helpful or just additional noise at a time of information overload?
Short, quick communications targeted at specific groups and their needs is the way to go. Bulleted lists with specific action steps are a good format for those initial communications. For key people and customers, follow up with phone calls, so that they have an opportunity to get their questions answered. This will help formulate additional communications and actions that may need to be taken internally.
For the future, you should have a communication plan before the emergency hits. With whom will you communicate, when, and how? Who are the key people with whom you will need to communicate? What are their different contact methods and which of those might be impacted by different types of emergencies? Where will you store your communication plan to ensure you have access when you need it?
Continuity is the Second C
The second thing to attend to is how your business will continue in the face of the crisis or emergency. As quickly as possible, address what your business will look like in the face of the current situation and how work will continue to flow. This is going to require good communication with your team about what their capabilities are and what they will be if the situation continues for more than a few days. Even with the best ERP in the world, each situation will have some differences that will require adjustments, so being able to communicate clearly and concisely about what those capabilities and accommodations are is a must.
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis requiring many to work from home, it would be stating the obvious to say that your business needs to be able to work completely remotely to the greatest extent possible, at least for a short time period with contingencies for longer time frames. Almost all emergencies impact our ability to work in our usual spaces and/or in our usual ways, so your ability to quickly adapt and keep your business going from anywhere can mean the difference between survival and internal disaster. As soon as possible, do whatever is necessary to make remote work capabilities available for future needs.
Look no further than the local grocery store or restaurant to see adaptability in action. Those who have adapted and acted quickly are the ones surviving and potentially thriving. Wait staff have become delivery drivers and curbside delivery people. Grocery workers have become personal shoppers and packers. Explore how workflows and people’s roles can change to meet the current demands and the needs of business. For example, eDiscovery service providers might consider hosting data for clients who suddenly need to move to the cloud for remote access and are not sure how to do so. Leverage your areas of expertise!
Determining new areas or service offerings to meet customers’ needs during the emergency may be necessary. There are many lawyers and law firms currently reviewing government stimulus options for their clients, communicating the labor law implications of furloughs and terminations, or discussing bankruptcy options. Adequate communication with your customers and a deep understanding of their businesses will help you pivot to meet their needs in times of crisis. As you’re trying to keep your business running, you also have to be thinking about doing the same for your clients. It’s a tall order, but one you will be better prepared for if you have good lines of communication with both your employees and clients.
If adequate advance planning has been done, then everyone is aware of what their role will be and empowered to take action. It is key that people are empowered to take action and know what action to take. This reduces the amount of communication needed and requires less of your time, so your business will be able to flow more quickly. When we get through this crisis, be sure to look at what could have been done to better prepare and what can be set up going forward to make you and your team more prepared next time.
Keeping a journal during this crisis is crucial to planning for the future. Make note of the specific struggles you and your team have, what things worked and what didn’t, and what tools could assist everyone going forward. Have some after action conferences with different stakeholder groups and ensure that no voice goes unheard, so all of your bases are covered.
Cash Flow is the Third C
With no cash flow, you don’t have a business, but you can’t maintain cash flow without the first two Cs. That’s why cash flow is third. This is the part of business that is usually only discussed amongst senior management, but during times of emergency, you may need to be more transparent.
As an employer, you have taken on the responsibility of being someone’s livelihood. As someone who has been both a business owner and laid off, this is something I can’t stress enough. The first thing that happens in a crisis after people are safe is that they begin worrying about their financial situation. They may need money for supplies and safety or stability for themselves and their family. You may be in the same situation. Anything you can communicate to plan for this and alleviate their concerns will help.
A crisis may require extra cash for supplies, lack of business, new space or technology, or additional employees. The best way to plan for this is to have available sources of cash in reserve. This can be actual cash in accounts, but more likely will be credit cards or lines of credit. In a perfect world, your business should have the same 3-6 months of operating costs available as individuals. Not many people thought about this prior to the current crisis, but if they survive this COVID-19 crisis, I’m sure it will be more of a priority in the future.
The actual processes and people involved in keeping cash flowing into the business are the parts of cash flow that may not be top of mind, but they should. There is the physical access to the sources of cash, but also the people in your organization that are involved in keeping cash coming into the business on a day-to-day basis.
During my consulting with law firms, I was amazed at how many did not have basic operations manuals detailing the exact steps for producing invoices and getting incoming cash into the bank. Frequently, this knowledge was possessed by one or two people. At a minimum, this should be the beginning of your operations manual. While you may not wish to share this information with a lot of people, you should have emergency plans that include back-ups for your key people who know the processes and a manual that is kept up to date and stored securely, but also accessible in the event you need to work remotely.
To assist with cash flow needs, have contact lists and detailed plans for communicating with banks, accountants, insurance providers, attorneys, and key vendors about your needs during the crisis and assistance they may be able to provide outside of the usual norms. When I was part of an emergency response team (ERT), we each had physical binders kept at home and at the office that contained key information needed to respond. These binders were updated both on a regular basis and also any time personnel, location, banking, or key vendor changes were made.
Conclusion and Continuity
A big part of emergency response and recovery planning is running through scenarios with your ERT to help you plan for different types of crises in your specific business and develop your ERP. This should be the first order of business as soon as you are no longer working in crisis mode. Do at least one tabletop exercise where you run through a scenario where something happens to your physical workspace with no advance notice like a fire or tornado.
Involve people from every department or functional area of the organization to make sure you think of absolutely everything. Ensure that people are given time to go back to their jobs and think about how their workflows would be affected, document their thoughts, and then come back to share with the group for additional insights or input. No thought or idea is a bad one. The time for refinement comes after the discovery process.
Second, run through a scenario where you and/or your employees are physically unable to get to your work space like a wide-scale flood or a pandemic, a situation where you would likely have a short period of time to enact your ERP. Finally, run through scenarios where your leadership team or a key employee is suddenly physically unable to work or there is an injury or illness that occurs in the office. It’s horrible to think of, but what if a leader or the person who handles your finances was suddenly taken by this virus? It’s a real possibility, more real now than ever.
Each of those scenarios will help refine your ERP. Focus on the first three Cs and any other mission critical information. It can’t be said too many times that your ERP should be a living document that is revisited and updated any time you make major changes. A detailed review should be scheduled on at least an annual basis.
Now that you’ve been through this current COVID-19 crisis, what would you do differently? Run through that and some of the scenarios suggested above. Put that into a plan before the next crisis hits!