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Business Unusual: Limiting Disruption Through the Outbreak

2/13/2020
— Simon Pangrazio, WATATAWA 

In the face of the very serious Novel Coronavirus (now officially called COVID-19) that has tragically taken many lives, caused major health concerns, and disrupted businesses and daily life, organizations are being closely watched for how quickly and decisively they have acted to mitigate its possible impact. Having a clear and effective business continuity plan (BCP) and communicating frequently, transparently and clearly are playing a central role.

WE and WATATAWA have been working with multiple clients around the world as they deal with the current health crisis, and we thought it would be useful to share some key learnings that have emerged so far.

 

BEING PREPARED IS KEY TO DECISIVE ACTION

Many countries have pandemic and other crisis response readiness plans at a national level. Companies should also have contingency plans for business continuity and to protect the health and well-being of their employees and other stakeholders.

It’s common sense, but already knowing what to do is critical to being able to act fast when needed — and that is fundamental to whether an organization will be seen as having acted responsibly.

The base for the BCP should be the mapping of scenarios with the potential to disrupt business as usual and pose risks to an organization’s assets, operations and people.

It is important within these scenarios to have a gradient of risk — including thinking worst case — and proportionate actions that can be taken. It should be clear who is responsible for activating the plan and for implementing its recommended actions.

In the case of COVID-19, typical important steps have included:

  • Ensuring employees are aware of the risks and measures being taken in real time
  • Relaying on a regular basis advice from the authorities guiding the national and international response to the crisis and ensuring the company and employees comply
  • Implementing health-check measures that employees can take (at work and home) to determine if their health is at risk
  • Having clear guidelines on the circumstances under which people should stay home and/or seek medical advice
  • A clear policy on attending gatherings or major events and precautions or waivers that may be necessary
  • A stepped travel restriction policy for domestic and international travel
  • Clear communication around support the company can and is willing to provide to employees to help alleviate difficult and extraordinary personal circumstances
  • Ensuring that the company and its employees can continue to conduct business remotely if businesses and offices must be closed — including the technology and the protocols to communicate frequently with employees and other stakeholders, access to company files, and ability to execute business activities
  • Reviewing the company’s insurance and other policies and helping employees understand exactly what is covered by such policies
  • Creation of workforce contingency plans, split teams and other ways of working that may be appropriate in the case of prolonged risk

 

KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the city-state this past weekend, following the country raising its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level to Orange for the first time since 2009, saying “… fear can do more harm than the virus itself.” As communicators, our counsel to our leaders and communication from them to employees should focus on encouraging appropriate behavior without creating undue fear.

Although businesses need to keep moving and do all they can to deliver for their customers and shareholders, communications need to be swift, diligent, compassionate and human.

Making sure this information is received by employees clearly and frequently is critical. Multiple channels should be used. This may be email updates, internal communications platforms like Slack, Teams, Workplace or Yammer, or chat applications like Telegram, WeChat or WhatsApp. The Singapore government, for example, has been quick to use WhatsApp as well as more traditional channels to keep its citizens informed and where necessary to debunk false information or rumors.

During times of crisis, communicators have a responsibility to protect the legitimacy of our discipline and limit the spread of false or misleading information, correcting it where we can do so. We should encourage others to seek out updates from verified, official sources and follow a simple rule of thumb: not sure, don’t share.

To prevent panic, communicators should keep the organization calmly but decisively informed of the steps being taken, explaining why they are being taken and demonstrating how they align to advice from experts and appropriate authorities. Looking outside the organization, if companies’ precautionary actions affect other stakeholders and operations beyond employees, proactively communicate how the evolving situation impacts business activities.

 

TAKE PURPOSEFUL ACTION

In challenging times, responsible businesses can stand up and provide stability in an uncertain world. Behaviors supported by authentic communication aligned to an organization’s purpose are critical to achieve this. Getting that wrong can create perceptions of opportunistic behavior or that your business might be “purpose washing” and inappropriately attempting to gain business advantage at another’s expense.

Such challenging times are a true test of an organization’s resilience. By serving as strong partners to an organization’s leadership, communicators can show, not just tell, an organization’s commitment to its people and communities.

 

Learn more about Simon Pangrazio, Managing Partner of WATATAWA, a WE company.