June 16, 2020

Small business continuity planning: Lessons learned from COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of having an up-to-date business continuity plan to help companies better prepare for a crisis, manage the workforce amid the changing landscape, and support the resumption of regular business activities after the crisis has subsided. From lessons learned during COVID-19, here is a checklist of items small businesses can consider when updating their continuity plans or developing one for the first time.

As COVID-19 spread across the globe, businesses mobilized as quickly as possible to alter their work arrangements to support physical distancing and transition their workforces to a virtual working environment. Many businesses also experienced new workforce and operational challenges such as increases or decreases in demand, or supply chain disruption. Small businesses reported that their revenues from Q1 2020 were down by 20% or more from just one year ago.

Developing a business continuity plan can be challenging for small business owners that are already juggling countless other tasks and responsibilities. Today, businesses understand how impactful and disruptive a crisis can be on operations and the economy, and have experienced firsthand the consequences of not having a continuity plan. Businesses would be well-served to document the steps they’ve taken as part of their COVID-19 response in order to assess their effectiveness and refine their business continuity plans going forward.

Limiting risk with an effective business continuity plan

An effective continuity plan can help businesses reassign resources, communicate effectively both internally and externally, and ensure minimal impact on continued operations. Maintaining and updating continuity plans will lessen the impact of a crisis, support continued operations, and help the resumption of business activities after the crisis has subsided. Businesses that keep their plans up to date and implement lessons learned are four times more likely to come out on top. Further, a properly communicated business continuity plan signals to the workforce that you’re prioritizing their needs and protecting their health and safety.

Creating or updating your business continuity plan

Before small businesses update or develop their continuity strategies, they must perform an in-depth analysis on their current state of preparedness. What are the operational risks? What impact will this risk have on the business in the short and long-term? This analysis will help businesses understand what the possible implications of a crisis will be and how long it may take to recover and return to business as usual.

Though business continuity plans vary from business to business, we’ve put together a checklist of items to consider as you prepare for either a possible resurgence of COVID-19 or other potential threats to continuity in the years to come. The Canadian Business Resilience Network’s continuity planning resource page can help you access tools and information specifically relevant to your small business.

Protect the health and safety of the workforce

Protecting the health and safety of the workforce during a crisis should be at the top of every business’s priority list. In certain situations, such as a pandemic, businesses will need to mobilize the workforce to protect their people against the spread of the disease. They will also need to think about the return to work and plan this critical return intelligently as part of their larger responsibility – not only to employees, and customers, but also to the broader society.

Here are several considerations to keep top of mind to protect the health and safety of employees. For COVID-19, this means limiting the spread of the disease and supporting physical distancing measures for employees who remain on-site, as well as considering the transitional period when employees working from home return to the workplace: 

  • Update company policies. For a pandemic, this should involve policies around physical distancing and limiting the spread of the disease:
    • Create space between working stations.
    • Set up a policy around in-person meetings, for example, limiting the meetings to three people or fewer and only holding an in-person meeting when necessary.
    • Consider closing common areas, including lounge rooms and kitchens.
    • Consider new scheduling practices, such as allowing a portion of the workforce to re-enter at a time if they feel comfortable to do so.
  • Implement travel restrictions during a crisis and update travel policies on an ongoing basis to include regions the Canadian government deems safe to travel. Employees who travel will need to follow government health guidelines regarding isolation upon returning.
  • For essential workers who may need to continue to work on-site or in the office, employers should provide, at minimum, hygiene items such as hand sanitizer, sanitary wipes, masks, and gloves. Depending on the individual’s role and risk of exposure, more specialized personal protective equipment (PPE) such as respirators, face shields, and goggles may be required. Businesses must also consider appropriate safety equipment for the rest of the workforce as they re-enter the workplace.
  • Inform and encourage employees to self-monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 if they suspect possible exposure.
  • Businesses will need to have a plan in place to identify and support employees impacted by disruption. In the case of COVID-19, this would include identifying employees who show symptoms of COVID-19. Employers can track when employees are experiencing symptoms and with whom they have been in contact.
    • Develop a company policy to immediately isolate people who show symptoms. For example, move potentially infectious people away from other employees, customers, and visitors.
      • Tell employees to notify their manager and leave the workplace immediately to self-isolate.
      • Set a policy around when sick employees can return to work once they have recovered.
      • Put a leave policy in place around caring for sick family members.

Determine how the business will continue to operate during and after a crisis

In response to COVID-19, some businesses in industries such as healthcare and food services are experiencing a spike in demand, while others such as travel and tourism have shut down or pivoted their operations.

In their Confronting the crisis survey, Deloitte points to the fact that the crisis is forcing many business owners and leaders to reimagine what work gets done and where it’s done. Companies should conduct a Business Impact Analysis (BIA) to identify critical and non-critical functions and roles and understand what will be needed to keep critical roles operational. The Business Development Bank of Canada recommends completing an Essential Services Ranking Template, and then prioritizing and categorizing based on the template. By doing this, businesses can identify which actions should be taken immediately based on the exposure to risk. Here are some key questions to ask in that process:

  • What are the business critical roles and activities? This might include revenue-generating activities and customer support. Identify whether there are any special requirements necessary to perform those roles, e.g. a license.
  • What are the potential threats to the continued operations of these roles?
  • How will the business support these roles and mitigate risk?

As the rest of the workforce re-enters the workplace, essential employees who are working on-site will be at further risk of contracting COVID-19. What extra steps are being taken to ensure essential employees are safe? As well, businesses must train back-ups in case essential employees fall ill during the first wave of the pandemic, or during a possible resurgence or second wave. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a greater need for businesses to adopt new practices to build contingency skill matrices, succession plans, fast employee onboarding, and training.

Ensure internal technology readiness to support employees

Technology readiness will help reduce friction points in the event that regular work arrangements are disrupted. With the health pandemic, we saw a shift to remote work, and now we’re seeing many companies extending remote work policies going forward. In their business continuity plans, companies should understand the infrastructure required to limit technical risk during transitional periods.

  • Identify technology that will be used by employees, such as video conferencing software, and ensure all employees are trained and have a level of proficiency that can ensure they can be productive as they adjust to a potentially permanent remote environment. Training can also include using Single Sign-On, setting up a VPN, and understanding how to contact technical support when needed.
  • Ensure you have IT support that can help employees with home network troubleshooting and diagnostics. This may involve identifying where you can draw on your network of support partners. Some challenges employees may experience in a remote setting include trouble connecting to Wi-Fi, setting up a printer, connecting to the VPN, etc.
  • Set up a policy around technology lending. Prepare laptops and other equipment to be shipped as required. Also, if possible, allow employees to obtain or request other equipment such as keyboards and monitors.
  • Ensure employees have access to the learning resources and training they need to do job-critical tasks such as setting up VPNs or maintaining remote work productivity.
  • Consider extending company technology for personal use, such as allowing employees to use video conferencing software for personal calls.

Related: COVID-19: IT is the key to business continuity

Develop a business continuity program

Having a business continuity program in place will help mitigate risk and lower the impact of disruption to business continuity of emerging risks more seamlessly and effectively. 

  • Identify an emergency response team and assign the responsibility of emergency preparedness to the dedicated team.
  • Determine objectives for the business continuity program. Here are a few objectives to consider:
    1. Ensuring the continuity of business operations
    2. Monitoring and protecting employee health and safety
    3. Facilitating physical site management
    4. Supporting technology readiness
  • Consider setting up a dedicated email address and telephone number for employees to contact a crisis representative for assistance 24/7.

Establish an internal communications plan

Even when the news itself is negative, candor when communicating company updates will help employees feel well-informed which can build trust. The Canadian Business Resilience Network stresses that establishing clear communication with employees is critical when returning to the workplace, and can help build trust and manage expectations.

An effective business continuity plan takes into account the process in which information such as company updates will be disseminated across the workforce.

  • Increase frequency of communications. Consider setting up a daily and weekly communication cadence in which leadership shares information about what is happening within the business, how many employees (if any) have been infected, how company policies are changing, travel restrictions that have been implemented or updated, etc. Here is an example of a communication cadence companies can rollout:
    • Daily calls or email communications with leadership team
      • Business continuity core team maintains a touch-base to develop an action plan for the day, review changes in the situation, and discuss recent decisions.
      • Update leadership on recent business continuity management activities and decisions regarding health and safety of employees, technology support, facilities, customer operations, government announcements, and communications from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Public Health Agency of Canada and/or local public health authorities.
      • Send an email to all employees from the leadership team that includes reinforcement of messaging to employees, changes to business operations, as well as messages about available resources for employees.
  • Weekly all-staff calls
    • Weekly all-staff calls. Provide an update and answer any questions employees may have. Make sure employees understand you are prioritizing their health and safety.
  • Businesses should identify the person on the leadership team who will share accurate information.
  • Identify a key contact and assign the responsibility of ensuring all information that is shared with the workforce is accurate and gathered from credible sources. Timely and accurate information is a key component of engaging and protecting the workforce. The spread of inaccurate information can put employees in harm’s way and contribute to distrust of the employer. 
  • Establish a plan to respond to the spread of misinformation.
  • As the crisis evolves, communicate how it is impacting the workforce and may affect employees such as compensation and merit decisions, scheduling, timing of performance reviews, updates to travel restrictions, as well as information on what the return to work will look like.
  • Determine how information will be disseminated to employees who may not have access to email, for example, employees that are working on the floor. 

Protect the workforce and meet demand with updated workforce scheduling 

  • Where possible, ensure flexibility around work schedules. As employees are working from home, some may be managing kids who are also at home or caring for a sick family member. This plan may include allowing for flexible working hours such as taking two hours to help a child with homework.
  • Set up a system to allow for extended leave of absences. This is critical during a pandemic as employees may contract the disease or have to stay home to take care of sick family members.
  • Make scheduling accessible. For industries that are experiencing a spike in demand, consider providing self-service scheduling capabilities so employees can make changes to their shifts on the go.
  • Build out a return-to-the-workplace plan by implementing a phased return approach to help minimize risk to health and safety of the workforce and protect business operations. All reopening decisions should be made on a location-by-location basis. For COVID-19, businesses will need to consider local governmental orders and continuous decreases in new cases. 

Many employees may not be comfortable returning to the workplace, in which case businesses will need a plan in place to allow for extended remote working arrangements until employees feel safe returning.

Provide consistently accessible mental health resources for the workforce

During a crisis, employee mental health can suffer as the workforce may experience increased stress from economic uncertainty, caring for sick family members, fear of contagion, and more. Here are a few ways employers can support the mental well-being of employees as a key part of their business continuity plans.

Related: How to help employees cope throughout the five stages of COVID-19

Related: Resources for employers to support the mental health of their workforce

Related: Ways to support employees who may be overloaded or under stress

Building an agile workforce to support business resiliency in the future

The impact the pandemic has had on businesses and their workforce will be long-lasting. Even after small businesses get back to speed, we will not return to a pre-pandemic state. Employees will have varying needs and expectations, customers will have different purchasing behaviours, and suppliers will be playing catch-up. COVID-19 has set a new preparedness benchmark in that small businesses will need to continuously adapt and evolve their strategies to better prepare for future risks. Without the right technology and processes in place to centralize critical workforce information, keep on top of changing employment laws, schedule and pay employees, and monitor workforce health and saftey, businesses will find it harder to recover after a crisis has passed.

Learn how Ceridian Powerpay can help you streamline processes so you can focus on maintaining business continuity and preparing for the world of work that lies ahead.

Team Ceridian

Our experts provide timely, essential insights and analysis for HCM leaders. We share fresh strategies and practical tips for businesses of all sizes, thoughts on hot topics and industry trends, and the latest legislative updates.

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