We All Need A New Planning Methodology To Respond To The Increasing Frequency Of Risk Events
We have all felt some measure of change brought about by COVID-19. For the luckiest among us, the virus has only meant small changes like having to remember to grab a mask on the way out the door and engaging in video calls instead of holding in-person meetings. For others, the pandemic has led to life-altering experiences such as serious illness and loss of life.
A major change for businesses due to COVID has been the move to remote work and the countless contingent effects wrought by this shift. Many of these changes have been covered in an article on our blog here. This article seeks to answer the question of how the shift to remote work has impacted business continuity planning, a topic that will be increasingly important as weather crises become more common due to climate change.
For Starters, What is a Business Continuity Plan?
A business continuity plan is a tool to respond to disasters of all sorts. Lori Norman, Director of Organizational Resilience at WEX told us, “Prior to COVID-19, business continuity planning was focused on making the company’s primary work environment as resilient as possible so that business operations could continue even through an emergency situation. Part of this was equipping an office with a resilient infrastructure including back-up power, so that operations would not be interrupted by extreme weather or other unforeseen events that might disrupt public utilities.” Now that offices are no longer the “primary work environments” for many companies, business continuity plans will have to be adjusted and new priorities will have to be established and considered.
What Should Your Business Continuity Plan Include?
Your company’s business continuity plan should provide your employees, your board, and your customers with everything they need to know in the case of an emergency. From how to evacuate and where to go, to what to expect from technological solutions, this plan will be your key to ensuring that your employees stay safe, your data is secure, and your business can continue operating when a disaster hits.
Natural Disasters Are Increasing In Frequency And Destructiveness
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review noted that we have entered a new era when it comes to natural disasters, not just in the US but around the globe. The article found that “the annual inflation-adjusted global cost of natural disasters has increased sharply, with the average from 2011 to 2015 reaching four times the average from 1980 to 1985.” This monetary cost has a human effect as well, as “the number of people affected is rising too, often exceeding 300 million in recent years.”
These changes have been painfully felt in the United States in recent years. In the late summer and early fall of 2020, California’s fire season has led to loss of life and destruction of wild and developed land at an unprecedented and historic level, while the Gulf states on the southern coastline have been hit with an unusually calamitous hurricane season. Fires this year spread into Oregon and Washington State and smoke crept across the country all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, blanketing states all down the East Coast with a bleary haze. The 2020 fire season has already been declared the worst fire season in history and the “August Complex” is considered the largest single fire in U.S. history. The Washington Post reports that mayors across the Gulf Coast have noted the intensified hurricane season and that scientists have confirmed what many have speculated: these more frequent and forceful hurricanes are caused by human-induced climate change.
The frequency and severity of disasters have accelerated and will only continue to do so, which makes disaster planning an imperative for companies across industries and nationalities. What plans will be most effective in securing the safety of our workers and our businesses? How might we prepare for the worst costs of a changing climate and for other unpredictable crises? These are the pressing questions raised by business continuity planners at WEX and all over the world.
How to Mitigate a Natural Disaster With a Remote Workforce
WEX responded quickly when the pandemic began. In just a few short weeks we had all of our 5,000+ employees working from home, fully equipped to do their jobs. However, many WEX employees live and work in areas impacted by wildfires and other extreme weather events. Their experiences of COVID have been filtered through other stresses and fears about the impacts of these disasters on their communities and their own lives. Where in the past, WEX would be caring for its employees in the context of the office, now the dynamic has shifted, employees are at home, and we had to become more innovative with our approach to business continuity planning.
The risks associated with weather events and natural catastrophes are not new, but their effects are entirely different when people are no longer coming into their offices. Norman shares that “When COVID hit, WEX put the technical infrastructure and collaboration tools in place to provide employees with what they needed. We will be sustaining this infrastructure long-term. When we look at natural disasters like the wildfires on the West Coast and the hurricanes impacting the Gulf states, we would have dealt with those crises in an entirely different way if people weren’t working from home. COVID-19 has changed the calculus around natural disaster planning.”
One thing has become clear amidst the multitude of crises that have overtaken our lives this year: businesses must develop new business continuity plans which account for the shift to a remote workforce.
We’ve developed a checklist for how to adapt your business continuity plan to the new work-from-home model:
#1: Invest in Tools for Tracking Disasters
Invest in tools that will alert you to crises, monitor localized risk, and aggregate State and local government restrictions and recommendations from health agencies. WEX uses several of these services to maintain all global situational awareness including Early Alert, World Aware, and NC4. They provide around the clock access to what is rapidly changing information. Norman and her staff receive real-time alerts and daily reports which enable proactive mitigation and quick response to areas of increased risk.
These tools alert Norman to power outages, terrorism, notable criminal activity, and important weather updates, and give her notice when there’s a change to governmental guidance. The quick dashboard shows impact globally around WEX locations and monitors those areas 24/7.
Prior to COVID, WEX’s geofencing focused on our office buildings. To address the shift to work-from-home, Norman’s team populated the tool with the individual addresses of our remote workforce. In the case of an event, the tool now drops a circle on the map creating a geofence including all those remote employees impacted. We are then informed about any given impacted group and can send them the necessary alerts and communications. When the fires began to spread across the West Coast, we were able to quickly notify WEX employees who were working remotely in fire zones of our recommendations and policies.
#2: Pinpoint those with critical functions and create resiliencies
Create a list of all critical functions within your organization and account for them in the continuity plans you have created. Examples of critical functions might be in finance and customer service, sections of the workforce that must continue to operate for the business to continue running. Ask questions like these:
- How many employees are required to support these critical functions? Where are they located?
- Where can we move them and can we move them proactively?
- For “short fuse” events is there an alternate location with cross-trained employees that can provide adequate support on short notice?
- Are the business processes documented to enable temporary support by other departments if required?
Cross Training to create resiliencies will be crucial for your business now that we’re living through a pandemic. As Norman describes it, “We communicate with the leaders of the teams that support critical functions, we make sure that their processes are documented, and that they’ve cross-trained workers in other locations to carry out the functions performed in each location. If cross-training hasn’t already happened, we put the wheels in motion to make sure it does. Our goal is to have every ‘essential’ or ‘critical function’ employee accounted for, to make sure that if someone has to stop working for days or weeks due to a crisis, a counterpart is prepared to take over for them and the work is not interrupted.” These activities increase the resiliency of our business by creating geographically diverse contingencies to mitigate the effect of a disaster in a particular community or region.
#3: Create Bespoke Disaster Management Solutions: Risk Assessment, Facilities Checklist, Emergency Access Plan
If you are planning to eventually have workers return to the office, whether only part-time or in full, you will need to plan for this change. First, you’ll want a plan for bringing in the people whose work is under the umbrella of “critical functions.” Then you can consider what needs to be done to bring back the bulk of the workforce. Norman has built tools specific to WEX to help manage this process, including a thorough reintegration risk assessment and a facilities checklist for every WEX location.
The risk assessment tool allows Norman’s team to review each potential danger of a labor force returning to the offices by way of a rating system. Once the risks are assessed, Norman can plan ways to mitigate these possible problems ahead of time. Norman’s team assesses the potential risks of sending people back into facilities at all of WEX’s locations and then makes recommendations to WEX’s executive leadership team about the potential problems associated with opening at various capacities. Norman’s team has made these recommendations across WEX’s entire enterprise.
Likewise, a facilities checklist provides management with a guide that spells out what must be done before re-opening a facility. A facilities checklist should include questions about cleaning and sanitation, HVAC systems, personal protective equipment, an assessment of the need for additional workplace protective measures, interior door access, how the mailroom should operate, and what social distancing measures need to be put in place. “There’s a lot that’s considered there. Cube wall height, capacity, shared restroom facilities, private access. If it’s multi-tenant, how many tenants are there? What protocols does the landlord have in place? Can we validate that they’re being upheld? Do we have a mechanism for contact tracing? We do a comprehensive business continuity risk assessment at each facility before we make a recommendation as to how to bring employees back into the facility.”
WEX has brought some critical function employees back to our facilities in different locations globally without incident thanks to the use of these tools and effective planning of the Pandemic Response Team led by Norman.
#4: Communication to the Board, Employees, and Customers Should be Part of Your Business Continuity Plan
For each step an organization takes when faced with a disaster, there’s a communications piece that should be laid out in advance. When COVID began to take hold, Jess Roy, Vice President of Corporate Marketing and Communications at WEX, was an integral part of the disaster preparedness planning and oversaw strategy for the messaging that was distributed to the board, WEX employees, and to our customers. “We coordinated efforts as a COVID Response group to ensure that every communication was well articulated and included all the necessary information we needed to impart. We wanted to convey to our employees that their safety was our number one priority while conveying to the Board and to our customers that we would be continuing to operate business as usual throughout the pandemic. We had all the right people in the room while conducting these planning sessions which allowed us to operate with the greatest efficiency and speed. I’m proud of our team for the work that was accomplished and for smoothly executing a cohesive plan to keep operating at a high level while ensuring the safety of WEX’s entire workforce. We continue to fine-tune our messaging as we learn more about how COVID is impacting the way we operate.”
By emphasizing communication and detailed planning, WEX has worked to lower risks and increase the stability of our workforce, making sure that our company continues to run and that we continue to protect and bolster the lives of our employees.
The Future of Work Requires a Realignment In Business Continuity Planning
We are in the middle of a monumental shift in how the world approaches work. By implementing a COVID-aware business continuity plan, we can all hope to face the challenges to come with dexterity, focus, and determination.
Disaster Preparedness Resources:
WEX has a dedicated web page for disaster information to help our customers easily access the most relevant and up-to-date data, tips, and advisory alerts:
Here are some additional resources for seasonal planning for 2020
Colorado Wildfire Updates
California Wildfire Updates
Get the latest fuel prices and closest service stations at your fingertips with WEX Connect, which helps drivers find fuel and service stations available in the local area. Download the mobile app through the App Store or Google Play (Android, iPhone, iPad).
New York Times
Harvard Business Review
Business News Daily
The Washington Post