Prepare for the worst, hope for the best

26 July 2021

On 19 July 2021, Boris Johnson finally lifted most of the legal restrictions around COVID-19 and went ahead with ‘Freedom Day’.

Staff putting up open sign in shop window

It should have been an amazing moment – and for many young people, in particular, it was.

Clubs in towns and cities across the country opened on the stroke of midnight, and thousands partied1 away months of pent-up emotion.

But it was telling that even as the Prime Minister gave the green light he did so from isolation – despite himself having had COVID-19, and both vaccines – because he had been in contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid.

From a business continuity standpoint, the obvious takeaway from that – and from the ominous forecasts of a ‘pingdemic’ of millions isolating because of contacts from the NHS Test and Trace app – is that we are not remotely out of the woods yet.

The implications are both clear and obscure (and my conclusions will necessarily be broadly drawn, because of the sheer speed with which the situation is changing).

Difficult times ahead

What is clear is that all employers still have difficult times ahead.

What is unclear is how big the problem will be, and what the government plans to do – and will be able to do – about it.

The currently dominant variant is more infectious than the original virus2, and people will be mixing more freely now than in the early stages of the pandemic, so the high number of positive tests, more ‘pings’ and self-isolation, and – unfortunately – more illness, looks likely to continue.

This creates two issues which will affect businesses.

  1. For organisations whose staff can and have been working from home, mere self-isolation – while deeply frustrating for the individual – shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
  2. But for businesses which need staff physically ‘at work’, it’s a different story: the day after 19 July, the supermarket chain Iceland and the Greene King pub company were forced to shut dozens of premises3 for lack of workers, and a million schoolchildren had also been sent home4, making it harder for parents to come to the office (or work remotely).

All businesses will be affected

And where staff actually fall ill themselves, all businesses will be affected.

Obviously, in that situation, the first concern will be for our colleagues and friends who are suffering.

But a serious business continuity strategy also demands – for the good of all staff, as well as the broader organisation – that thoughtful consideration be given to how to navigate your way through those difficult waters.

How will you cope if 10% or 20% – or even 50% – of your workforce are off sick?

Clearly you are not going to be able to operate at full capacity – so have you agreed which services and support processes can be put on hold for a period of time in order that you can prioritise those which are absolutely core?

Can you upskill staff in less vital areas, in readiness to move across to those key roles as ‘flexperts’ if needed?

And have you got clear oversight of the resources you will need – ICT, equipment, use of third party suppliers (recognising your full value chain) – to keep those critical areas running as smoothly as possible?

Business Continuity – a permanent strategic issue

You’ll have identified the most critical staff in your organisation – but have you assigned knowledgeable and skilled deputies, and are you certain that they have the right skills and tools to take on those mantles?

Do you have a clear and robust comms plan to keep staff, customers and suppliers alike informed of any enforced changes?

And are your HR team prepped to deal with the people issues that might arise – to filter down policy changes, deal with issues of well-being, extended leave, counselling, and more?

Given that things are likely to change at pace, and to an unforeseeable degree, are you comfortable that you have the appropriate controls, checks and balances in place to monitor the situation and provide assurance that things are as close to being on track as possible?

Just as COVID-19 has wreaked more personal havoc on the families5 and finances6 of Britain since the second world war, it has illustrated, more than any event since then, the importance of business continuity as a permanent strategic issue and a vital part of any business’s ongoing conversation at the top table.

If you haven’t done so already, you should review your BCM plans as a matter of urgency, and ensure that you are providing that reassurance all the way from the shop floor to the Boardroom.

A proper and proportionate response to this crisis will pay major dividends in customer satisfaction – and may give you a competitive advantage by attracting new customers whose normal supplier has struggled to continue providing their usual service.

Coming through strongly

Reducing business disruption and loss through good planning is obviously a benefit in its own right, as is the stronger organisational resilience that will develop out of the experience of coming through this crisis strongly.

All of these things will protect and enhance your reputation, so that when the world finally returns to normal – as it must – you’ll be taking off for sunnier skies, while your slower rivals are still packing their cases.

One final thought

It’s important to remain upbeat and optimistic, but it’s just as important to remain realistic.

We’d all like to toast Boris Johnson’s Freedom Day with a bottle of bubbly and a boogie, but now is emphatically not the time for businesses to relax.

As another British Prime Minister – the nineteenth century’s Benjamin Disraeli – put it, in his novel The Wondrous Tale of Alroy, ‘I am prepared for the worst… but I hope for the best.’

Sarah Pearson, is head of Enterprise Risk Management, at Ecclesiastical