The past year has been an excellent reminder that even the best-laid plans can face unexpected and massive disruptions. For businesses, preparing for uncertainties has always been an important way to reduce the impact of the unforeseen. But as the COVID-19 pandemic taught us, even forward-thinking organizations may need to do more to shore up against unexpected crises.
Just because we can’t predict the future, doesn’t mean we can’t plan for it. Although the nature of the next crisis may yet be unknown, it’s safe to say that between natural disasters and other types of upheaval, most businesses are vulnerable to some type of disruption.
But whatever the cause and whatever the duration, ensuring that business operations can continue amid an emergency is critical for containing the fallout. Business continuity planning is the act of ensuring that employees have the knowledge, tools, and resources they need to ride out a crisis and maintain operations in the meantime.
Putting deliberate thought and planning into these what-if scenarios does more than just help organizations keep the lights on—sometimes literally!—when something goes wrong. Having a business continuity plan in place can also help to maintain customer confidence, contain losses, and reduce the impact of an emergency on employees.
But COVID-19 also showed us that traditional thinking about business continuity may not be enough to help companies weather future storms. For example, in a global survey conducted by PwC in 2019, 95% of business leaders said they expected to face some kind of crisis within the next two years. And yet as the global economic fallout will attest, when COVID hit, most organizations were unprepared.
As much as business continuity planning is an exercise in imagination—conjuring up all the potential worst-case scenarios in order to prepare contingencies—the global nature of the COVID crisis also highlights how old approaches can’t cut it.
In the years prior, many companies became more distributed and global than ever before. Operating on an international scale can provide tax advantages and other cost savings and allow organizations to tap into other markets. And until now, distributed operations could also be leveraged as a business continuity tactic because the thinking was if one location or market was affected by an emergency, some operations could be routed elsewhere.
The fact that COVID shut down almost the entire world shows the fallacy of this assumption. When COVID went global last spring, countries all around the world were forced into lockdown, and offices in countless regions had to close.
But the pandemic did not take an equal toll on all businesses. Among the qualities of businesses that experienced the greatest growth and success last year, the US Chamber of Commerce found that flexibility, good communication, and resourcefulness proved to be key differentiators. Often these traits can translate into an ability to work from anywhere in order to maintain corporate productivity during a crisis.
When we think about the flexibility of remote work, we typically think about the positive lifestyle impacts for employees. In an emergency, however, this flexibility can be a lifesaver for companies because it means that employees can still perform critical work regardless of what is going on in the world.
Being set up for remote work means that even away from the office, employees can maintain communication and perform critical aspects of their roles. But remote work requires careful planning to best support business continuity. Here are some important considerations:
As the early days of lockdown revealed, just because employees can work from home doesn’t mean they’re fully prepared to. While employees may be able to lean on their own resources in a pinch, if they don’t have the right tools, it can impede work and communication—including activities that are critical to maintaining operations and containing or resolving problems.
Valuable time can be lost simply by tracking down colleagues’ phone numbers so they can connect. As such, it’s important to deploy the tools and processes that can support workers on any device from any location.
According to an annual review, in 2020 the cost of experiencing a data breach increased in the US to $8.64 million on average, the highest in the world. And while there’s never a good time to experience a data breach, the loss of sensitive information can be even more damaging when a business is already trying to ride out a crisis.
At the same time, companies may be even more vulnerable to malicious and inadvertent breaches during an emergency because the usual security precautions may not be in place—especially if a business is scrambling to employ workarounds. In contingency planning, it’s important to consider how data will be protected during extraordinary times and to ensure that tools used for sharing and communicating information from offsite are just as secure as in the office.
Cloud-based solutions can help to enable from-anywhere access to tools and services that employees need when business-as-usual is disrupted. But as cloud providers may be subject to their own vulnerabilities and uncertainties, it’s important to ensure you can rely on them in an emergency. Your cloud provider should have their own business continuity plans in place and be able to spell out for you their emergency protections and backup procedures.
The COVID-19 pandemic has tested businesses’ resiliency in ways companies have never had to deal with before. And though the main fallout is hopefully behind us, it would be unwise to move on without heeding the lessons of 2020.
The proliferation of remote work has changed office life, likely for the long term, while the upheaval of the last year underscores the need for proactive thinking and planning to prepare for the next potential crisis. But remote work may be more than just a trend—it may be the key to weathering whatever the world brings our way next.