Reinventing crisis management in a post-pandemic world

It is an understatement to say “everything has changed” for businesses.

While most companies had some kind of crisis management plan in place, the global scale and uniquely disruptive nature of the coronavirus pandemic has prompted a reexamination of what works, what doesn’t, and what changes will have to be made for businesses looking to reopen and companies looking to not just survive, but thrive in a post-pandemic world.

It’s not just new policies, procedures, and practices that have to be conceived, codified, implemented and maintained, but also new philosophies, perspectives and personnel considerations.

What follows is an overview of some of the new ways that companies need to be thinking about risk assessment and crisis planning, and some of the key considerations and best practices that companies can and should be taking right now to prepare for reentry and reengagement in a post-COVID environment.

Thinking locally and globally

Understanding the risk landscape going forward requires an appreciation for the impact of the pandemic both locally on your community, and globally—especially in ways that impact your supply chain, your partners, your competitors, and your customers. Navigating and accommodating what is already turning out to be a range of different local, state and national interpretations and recommendations/mandates will be tricky. Guidelines can vary by industry and by the nature of the business within each industry.

As always, that process begins with understanding the data, and bringing in subject matter expertise to interpret that data, benchmark it for your industry and your area, and establish trigger points and parameters.

Tactical and practical steps

Once you have a better understanding of the new contours of the COVID-altered risk landscape, the next step is to think about what tactical and practical controls you can implement to mitigate risk going forward. That includes basics like how to embrace and enforce social distancing, ensure facility sanitation and cleanliness, and implement access controls, not just employees, but suppliers, customers, contract workers and others. It also includes the ability to secure and manage PPE, hand sanitizer and other basics.

In addition to ensuring that equipment and tech infrastructure is available to support what is likely to be a more robust work-from-home environment, addressing complex IT and information security risks is also going to be a challenge. Consider the complexities involved in a common precautionary step that some have proposed: taking the temperature of anyone entering a facility or workplace. What qualified individual is going to take those temperatures? What equipment will they use? How will they keep people separated while waiting to enter? What legal or liability issues will this raise? How much will it cost? Will that person be supplied with critical Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and who is responsible for managing that process? Simple questions of access, practical viability add expense add complexity to day to day operations.

A multidisciplinary approach

There is no doubt that the way most companies think about risk mitigation and crisis management has evolved—and will need to continue to evolve. Environmental health and remain absolutely essential. If that isn’t already a significant component of your corporate security and safety programming, that needs to change. Ensuring workplace sanitation and hygiene is going to be critical to resuming operations.

Supporting the practical necessities of this new crisis management landscape will require a whole host of new policies and protocols that will need to be documented and clearly communicated. A company’s policies for what steps will be taken if an employee is exposed or falls ill need to be stipulated, and those guidelines must be fully compliant with any relevant local employment laws and HIPPA rules. Will businesses implement travel restrictions for business and personal travel? To what extent can/will they monitor individual employee behavior to protect the rest of the team? Also, how do employers address “bleisure” (combining business travel with personal leisure travel) a growing practice with travelers?

Figuring out what those policies entail is a process that can and should start today, and will require multidisciplinary coordination between executive decision-makers, HR and facilities professionals, legal counsel, marketing and communications and corporate security. Decisions have to be made with guidance from those with specialized expertise in this space, but also with an organized, team approach. As companies build their “back to work task force”, they should strongly consider utilizing those members of their team who have already served as ad hoc crisis managers in the early stages of the pandemic. Leverage the experience of people that have had to go through this in real time—and learn lessons along the way.

Not just policies, but people

The current crisis has demonstrated more clearly than ever before that people are a company’s most essential asset. Going forward, thoughtful and prepared organizations need to invest in protecting that asset, especially with respect to the mental health and wellbeing of their team members. Make certain that HR, health and safety teams, and security professionals have a plan in place to assess both employee health—mental and physical. Those issues become even more urgent if there has been a tragedy on the team or if employees have lost friends or loved ones during the pandemic. Furthermore, many families are attempting to adapt to the economic consequences of COVID-19 to the workforce.

Clear communication to employees, professional partners and other stakeholders about return-to-work plans and new health and safety measures going forward will be essential. People want the peace of mind of knowing their employer is providing a safe and clean workplace, and regular updates on what steps companies are taking to keep the virus from spreading within their facilities go a long way.

Finally, companies will have to be vigilant about a potential spike in incidents of workplace violence. Unique stressors and a period of high turnover will inevitably create more disgruntled and desperate individuals. Operating with appropriate respect, dignity and professionalism at all times can go a long way to mitigating the inflammatory impact of the current environment.

Recognize the unknowns—and prepare for what’s next

The wholly unprecedented and largely unforeseen scope of the crisis has been a harsh wake-up-call for many businesses. In many cases, even those companies that thought ahead and had a crisis management process in place have found out the hard way that their business continuity plans are falling short. While the best prepared organizations have responded effectively and generally been well prepared for a shift to remote workplaces and work-from-home operations, we are still in a dynamic environment. So much remains unknown—about the virus itself, and about the best way to safeguard against it. Data is changing not just from one week to the next, but sometimes from one day to the next.

Assumptions have changed. Priorities have changed. Companies need to reevaluate the way they look at risk. If you didn’t have a mature enterprise risk management practice in place, now is the time to remedy that. Because companies that truly understand the risk landscape in their market–how it is connected globally–will get a leg up on the competition. And if a company can recover and get up and operating quickly, it can establish a distinct competitive advantage. Those that are agile, open and proactive, and are getting the right people, the right information, and making the right moves to optimize safety, security, and speed-to-market are likely to win the day. Customers and clients are going to turn to those who are prepared—and that preparation starts now.

Published May 11, 2020