We are in the middle of what is arguably one of the biggest disruptions in human history – COVID-19. Its effects are being felt around the world with tolls that are counted in lives lost, job losses and businesses teetering on the brink of closure.
Truth be told, this is not the first critical event and realistically it won’t be the last. How we respond to it and what we learn from it will influence how we behave in future similar events.
Murphy’s Law lives
Anything that can go wrong will go wrong, so the saying goes. Many disaster recovery and business continuity plans are built on anticipated disruptions to the business. Afterall, if you expect something bad to happen, why not prepare for it?
Whether it’s an earthquake, a fire, a massive power outage, a typhoon, unforeseen flooding from an extended storm, there is a plan for everything. The goal is to keep the business running no matter what.
But what happens when the disruption is so massive that it encompasses a whole city or country or even the world? What happens when the event lasts several weeks, months or even years?
Every activity has a cost. Whether it is hosting a concert, a conference or a meeting, there is a cost tied to it. The same is true of critical events. The Everbridge Clarity Out of Chaos report shows a timeline of some of the major events globally. It provides an assessment of the cost of each event to an economy and a grim reminder that actions, or lack of it, have consequences.
The report identified five themes common to these events: employees are more disparate and diverse, employees expect more frequent information, employees trust their employers to protect them, a business can become a single point of truth for CEM management, and despite all preparations and good intention, businesses are still missing key channels of communication.
Challenges to managing a crisis
Mobilising into action. Tom Pressley, vice president of International Marketing at Everbridge noted that a growing proportion of the workforce is mobile, with the survey revealing that 60% of respondents working outside of the classic office environment.
“So how then do you mobilise your workforce during a critical event?” queried Graeme Orsborn, Everbridge’s vice president of international CEM (critical event management) business unit.
The survey also noted that 37.7% of the workforce that participated in the survey claimed to have some manner of disability that may prevent them from responding to any critical event management strategy their organisations might activate in times of crisis.
“This presents a challenge to companies trying to move staff from harm’s way or steer the organisation towards recovery – a condition that requires a mobile workforce,” Pressley added.
Communication is key. Orsborn is adamant that a distinction is made between having a plan and being able to effectively execute it. “Employees appreciate having a crisis management strategy. But having a plan is only one part of the strategy,” he added.
Pressley cited a clear failure to communicate planned steps in times of crisis with half of respondents to the survey saying they get their information from social media.
Having the right communication channel during an event needs to be matched with more frequent messaging were key points raised in the survey.
“During COVID-19, certainly in Europe, there was limited amount of information coming from governments. Employers, too, despite the capacity and the database to message out to people on a more frequent basis, weren’t as forthcoming. This has left people filling out the information gaps for themselves,” added Pressley.
Orchestrating CEM for competitive advantage
Orsborn believes that managing critical events is no different from what organisations are used to now with their business continuity strategies. He cautions, however, that it is the speed with which people behave or respond to situations that determines the outcome.
He cautioned that having a plan is just one aspect of being prepared for a disaster. Regularly exercising the plan can ensure that it is executed well when a real crisis happens.
Unfortunately, he observed that people panic in these situations because they are not sufficiently practiced for these events enough to make responses automatic. “Despite the availability of pre-defined action items based on anticipated conditions, people still take hours to respond instead of seconds or minutes,” commented Orsborn.
Managing operations during and post-COVID-19
Orsborn noted that when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and governments started enforcing work from home (WFH) conditions, many businesses struggled communicating the new operating model, and being able to monitor productivity.
According to Stephanie Balaouras, vice president and group director at Forrester, resilience — the ability to deliver on your mission and vision regardless of any kind of crisis or disruption, be it extreme weather, political upheaval, cyberattack, or the next disease outbreak — will become a competitive advantage for those that embrace it as a core principle.
Everbridge's Orsborn added warned organisational resilience has declined simply because companies are unable to determine which employee can be productive working from home.
“It's not just about the initial response, such as making sure employees are safe, but keeping the organisation running. This is where critical event management when linked to the business becomes a competitive advantage,” he added.
He added by being ahead of incidents, with pre-defined end-to-end response in place, it allows an organisation to negate revenue losses from a potential disruption to operations.
“For us critical event management is just not a point in time but it's throughout the lifecycle of an event,” said Orsborn.
As and when restrictions are relaxed, the reverse will happen with businesses trying to figure out how to manage the influx of employees returning to the office building or factory – while being cautious about the potential for a second or third wave of pandemic attack.
“COVID-19 aside, there will be other critical events coming. We need to be ahead of the game. Businesses have an obligation to ensure the safety of employees. It is in their best interest to do so because, down the road to recovery, employees are going to be needed to get companies and the economy moving again,” Pressley concluded.
Forrester's Balaouras cautioned that a pandemic recovery, just as with pandemic planning, requires its own unique response because disease outbreaks can subside and then flare up again. “Since this global pandemic is the first in 10 years, and only the second in 50 years, organizations need guidance on how to quickly close and reopen their operations if there is a new burst of infections or a second wave,” she concluded.