News & Views

How business can be certain in times of uncertainty | COVID-19

by Julianna Richter
10th March 2020
How business can be certain in times of uncertainty | COVID-19, post image

Communications, Operations and Contingency Planning for COVID-19 (coronavirus).

The spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus and its impact continues to dominate news headlines, workplace discussions and personal conversations. Add to this the barrage of inconsistent information being shared by health experts and government officials, stock market swings, school closings and panic shopping, and it’s no wonder why people are overwhelmed by a feeling of uncertainty. There is still much we don’t know about the new virus including the societal, health and economic impact it will have across the world. Having been deeply involved in helping companies communicate and operate during other global events such as 9-11, SARS, Ebola and Zika, I have learned that there are some things we do know, and which companies must be certain about when it comes to communications, operations and contingency planning.

1) Communications – The People

In times of uncertainty, people become anxious and concerned, and this is exacerbated when the situation has the potential to impact their (or loved ones) health, mobility and livelihood. Many people will look to their employers to communicate factual information and timely updates on what is happening, and to share how their company is preparing to address it. This begins with providing information on health insurance plans, paid sick leave policies and patient assistance programs, as well as any other health resources (physical and mental) that they can access through the company or other channels. In this instance, it also includes communicating certain information on the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and what employees should do in the event they or someone they know has been exposed to the virus. Those facts are all readily available and should be communicated early and updated frequently as the situation or policies change.

In addition to basic facts, company communications should include updates on local community efforts including changes in transportation schedules or any school or civic closings particularly if your business is located in a ‘hot spot’ where there are reports of cases or increases in outbreak numbers. This will not only help provide much needed context on what is happening day-to-day but will also offer guidance and any actions employees should take in their communities.

It’s equally important that company communications consider how employees access information. Many firms are purposefully communicating similar updates across multiple internal channels—such as virtual town halls, weekly all-hands, company-wide emails and internal networking channels. Some are setting up dedicated slack channels or creating microsites as a destination for ongoing updates and relevant information (and so people aren’t constantly interrupted by related news every minute of their day). The communications channel or approach used should take into account the culture of your company, be easily accessible for your employees and able to be set-up and managed remotely if needed.

Most importantly, company communications certainly need to demonstrate that leadership cares about its people — employees and their families; clients and customers; contractors and other partners. Showing care and empathy should be considered in the language and tone of the communications, as well as who is doing the communicating. Given its wide-spread importance, initial COVID-19 communications or updates should come from the top (CEO or President) focusing on the health and safety of the employees first and foremost. Depending on the content, subsequent updates can come from other senior member of the executive team but should also ensure the right caring tone. Companies must also be certain that what is being communicated is aligned with the company’s values–whether they are safety, transparency, family, community–and that the company’s actions certainly speak as loud–if not louder–than their words.

2) Operations – The Business

Even in times of uncertainty, many businesses must continue to operate to “keep the lights on” requiring certain planning and policies be put in place with clear decision making and approvals. This starts with a designated Response Team that will be responsible for identifying and tracking specific issues and needs, sharing information across the organization, creating response plans and activating them as needed. The Response Team should include empowered senior leaders from relevant parts of the business such as HR, communications, operations, business safety/building services, product and manufacturing. As part of this, there should also be a certain operating rhythm (e.g. morning check-ins) and communications cadence (e.g. sending comms out within 2 hours post event) as well as centralized resources, document sharing and contact lists for all-staff plus emergency contacts.  Depending on the size and complexity of your business, the Response Team should have certain ‘day-job’ responsibilities re-allocated so they can focus on managing the evolving needs of the business and be able to respond swiftly.

For most companies one of the biggest operational priorities will be establishing workplace policies including travel restrictions, in-office work and gatherings, sick time and extended illness. In the last two weeks, many larger companies quickly moved to restrict non-essential business travel (both international and domestic) and to require executive-level sign off for any exceptions. Some companies have also begun to institute certain policies related to “social distancing” such as limiting onsite meetings to a certain number of people in one location, staggering work schedules and replacing video conferences for meetings altogether. If diagnosed, some companies and the U.S. government are considering paid sick time for extended illness. These decisions are not always clear and will depend on many different factors including geographic location and if there have been any reported cases in the company or community; the type and size of business and if certain groups can be siloed from others; and the ability of the workforce to be able to work remotely.

If the virus outbreak expands to new cities and communities in the coming weeks, companies must be certain about their work from home policy, and clear on the timing of when it will be put into place. Unless there is a quarantine mandate made by local health or government officials (as in the case of parts of Asia and Italy) many businesses will need to determine when they will implement a work from home option, and when they will close their offices and shift completely to remote working.  In addition to monitoring the news carefully, companies are actively benchmarking what other companies in their industry or business community are doing as a way to help inform decisions and timing. Many experts believe it’s not “if” but “when” the need for quarantines will go into effect more broadly across the U.S., so putting certain plans in place in advance will help employees prepare as needed and  limit disruption to your business.

3) Contingency Planning – The Work

During times of uncertainty, it’s important for businesses to consider the various scenarios and contingency plans that can be put in place to minimize risk and disruption as much as possible. In the professional services industry, many companies are proactively negotiating kill fees or offering reduced rates for scheduling changes for upcoming events. Others are finding creative ways to delay programming or change course without incurring costs or losing investment altogether. While this is not always feasible, there may be new ways to accomplish the goal virtually or digitally. Two clients I work with are using the shift to working from home to look for new ways to engage their consumers and clients while they are home for more extended periods. Regardless of how, it’s important that all companies proactively plan for potential business risk, and adapt quickly to the changing landscape.

From a financial standpoint, companies certainly need to evaluate their business health and implement precautions and solutions. This includes assessing any vulnerability such as low cash flow or concerns with P&L and balance sheet (A/P and A/R); changes or risks involving client fees caused by program cancellations, payment delays or staffing reductions; and anticipated impact on new business pipeline including delays in signing new clients or increase in time to close. Businesses should also be certain to identify and monitor potential triggers that could drive significant events for the industry or company.

Another ‘must’ is to ensure certain management expectations are made clearwhile they are working remotely in the event of a sustained outbreak or large-scale quarantine. This includes thinking through and relaying preferred use and frequency of communications channels; proactive reporting and team cohesion; flagging of talent or resource needs; and proactive client engagement and problem solving. There will likely be certain projects that require cross-functional planning and management input so it’s also helpful to create a master calendar of key events/dates, workstream updates and any action plans with decisions needed.

It’s impossible to predict the course that COVID-19 will take in the coming weeks, the impact it will have and when this will be over. But it is possible to plan in advance and determine your communications strategy, workplace policies, business risk and operational priorities. Depending on your level of experience, you may want to enlist the help of external experts who can help with communications, business planning and implementation given the importance. Being deliberate and certain about these actions will help support your business during times of uncertainty and protect that which is most critical to long-term success.

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