Business continuity planning is a vital strategy that many smaller businesses fail to put in place. But each year, as we anticipate the usual colds and flu, more dangerous and unpredictable outbreaks of new or more severe viruses can happen. That can lead to disruption of normal business operations for your agency and your clients.
In 2014, we saw a widespread outbreak of Ebola across Africa, and a few cases ultimately reached the USA, despite quarantines and travel restrictions. Experts project an Avian influenza (H5N1) outbreak will likely have higher mortality rates and could carry higher risks of related infections, such as MRSA. Even H1N1 influenza can cause high mortality rates and pandemic illness. The 1918 influenza pandemic was an H1N1 virus; over the two years of the pandemic, it infected one-fifth of the world’s population, and killed roughly 2.5% of those infected—20 to 40 million people. The mortality rate for a typical flu outbreak is about 0.1%. The 2020 Coronavirus outbreak is just the latest global health threat to stir up concerns about trade disruptions, stock market fluctuations, and, of course, the potential for the sickness to spread because of the ease of modern travel, changing incubation and infection rates, and a too-slow response by global health organizations. Already, businesses are feeling the impacts of one of the world's largest markets virtually closing its borders in an effort to prevent the spread of a dangerous illness.
Should a pandemic occur, not only would our public health systems be quickly overwhelmed, but so could operations of daily infrastructure, including transportation, public utilities and everyday commerce. Not only are most businesses completely unprepared, but government organizations tasked with responding may also be underfunded and ill-equipped for a sudden, widespread outbreak of a communicable disease.
If you’ve seen pictures from the 1918 influenza epidemic, you may picture mask-wearing citizens going about business as usual. Be advised that most surgical masks won’t block the spread of microscopic viruses. (And sudden high demand for masks may make masks unavailable in a large infectious outbreak.) But using a little common sense can help prevent the spread of illness in your workplace, and keep your business ticking along like the Atomic Clock.
With flu season in full swing, take the advice of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and business continuity experts:
If a severe outbreak is predicted, encourage all employees to get the annual flu vaccine, not just older employees who would normally get an annual flu shot. Severe influenza outbreaks typically infect a broader range of people than the more typical influenza viruses we are accustomed to experiencing. (This year's Influenza B is particularly hard on children.) Also, the flu vaccine is believed to provide at least some immunity even to unanticipated flu outbreaks.
Stock up on disinfectant spray and wipes, and ask employees to wipe down their personal work areas. Regularly disinfect public areas, especially doorknobs, light switches, computer keyboards and tablets, cellphones and telephone equipment. Also, use hand sanitizer before and after shaking hands—just don’t make such a display of it that you insult your guest. Share sanitizer with your guests; they are probably as paranoid about the flu as you. Coughers should cough into the bend of their elbow or the back of their hand and then promptly wash their hands with hot water and soap, or at least use hand sanitizers.
Send ill employees home.
Encourage employees to see a doctor when they fall ill. Most people may do fine with currently available flu remedies and medications, plus the usual rest and fluids, but influenza can often lead to pneumonia. That’s why seeing a doctor if symptoms worsen is so important. A doctor visit also ensures infectious cases are quickly identified and treated—and reported. Tracking infectious diseases helps public health organizations better predict the spread of disease and warn communities to make necessary preparations.
Encourage ill employees to self-isolate by voluntarily staying home. This includes not going out into the community for the duration of their illness as well as staying home from the office. In cases of severe outbreaks, employees should also be encouraged to self-isolate if a family member falls ill. Much of today’s white-collar workforce has the ability to work “in the cloud”; a well prepared agency could continue serving clients and developing creative ideas with little disruption.
Create a phone tree, so employees and agency management can reach each other and stay informed. Distribute primary contact numbers to clients and vendors as needed, so your temporarily remote workforce can coordinate on projects and deadlines. Check on ill employees to make sure they are okay.
Try to give parents schedule flexibility. Schools, universities and daycare providers may need to close for short periods should illness reach epidemic levels. School activities and events may also be cancelled. Parents should keep ill children home and inform school administrators if their children are diagnosed with infectious diseases, so the authorities can take the necessary actions to protect other students and school personnel. Also, people with elderly parents or ailing family members may also need flexibility to adapt to reduced support services or schedule changes.
Use your agency blog and social pages to share updates about affected community services, public gatherings, school closings; etc. Don’t spread rumors! Be a reliable information resource your business connections, employees and the public will appreciate.
Network with vendors and support people to coordinate emergency planning. You may be able to keep operating in a pandemic, but service providers, vendors and clients may not. Form good connections ahead of a crisis and you’ll all get through it more safely and with minimal disruptions to schedules, projects and daily operations.
Talk to clients about developing emergency operating plans in case an epidemic impacts on their business, vendors and partners. The CDC shares a podcast for a Flu Toolkit for business and employers. Here are some issues to consider when developing a response plan:
- Discuss emergency operations plan options now. What will you need to continue operation of critical business functions?
- Who will fill in for absent/ill employees? What functions can be covered by different departments or alternative procedures? Will some employees need cross-training so they can cover critical functions for absent co-workers? What tasks might be performed from home by recovering employees?
- Who will be in charge if the owners/principals are taken ill?
- What happens if illness spreads throughout your staff? Can you continue operating from remote locations?
- Develop client communication strategies to reassure them that their businesses won’t suffer and you can continue to serve them throughout the crisis.
- Ask key vendors and partners to keep you informed if illness among their staff could affect production or service delivery. Collaborate to find ways to complete projects as required.
Sooner or later, a contagious disease will break through our defenses and spread rapidly, thanks to modern transportation, a mobile population and open borders. Together, we can weather the next epidemic, and even look smart and responsible while we do it.
For guidance specific to the coronavirus/COVID-19, visit the CDC's business preparation page.