As national governments continue to halt mass events and impose limits on international travel, it seems that COVID-19 continues to pose the threat of causing a global pandemic. Neil McDonnell, Chief Executive of the Irish SME Association (LSME), warned Irish businesses to prepare themselves for the potential disruption the virus may bring to Ireland’s economic landscape. Mr McDonnell advised businesses to consider not only the short-term impact of the virus, such as the unavailability of staff due to sick leave, changes in customer behaviour and restrictions on international travel, but also the longer-term impact on global supply chains. Ireland has increasingly become reliant on Chinese manufacturers with some Irish SMEs sourcing up to 40 per cent of stock from China. He offered a stark warning, commenting that “[if] you don’t have the working capital to hit pause, you’re in trouble,”
Coronavirus has already caused massive disruption across the globe, a prominent example being the GSMA’s decision to cancel Mobile World Congress 2020, one of the largest international trade conferences in the world.
Some SMEs may have already decided that employees must work from home to reduce risk of infection, believing current business continuity plans will be adequate to continue operations as normal. But a wide-scale outbreak like coronavirus requires more than a business continuity plan or an on-the-fly decision to have everyone work remotely; after all that doesn’t work for all roles in all businesses.
How coronavirus will affect organisations
From a business continuity perspective, breaking news, government advisories and actions, and changing economic impacts make viral outbreaks a moving target. In order to protect the availability of mission-critical processes and operations throughout the uncertain times, Irish SMEs must be prepared for a variety of disruption scenarios on a rolling scale of severity and impact.
The first priority must be to protect the people within an organisation. During an outbreak, businesses must provide a safe working environment for personnel and visitors. According to Mr McDonnell, P2P, or person-to-person, organisations such as retail, hospitality, healthcare or delivery must be especially cautious: “Where [P2P] contact is unavoidable, you are going to have to make contingency plans for backfilling, such as talking to agencies about where you’ll get similar labour and that sort of thing.” This may result in businesses needing to temporarily close, especially for SMEs for whom staff shortages can cause the biggest impact.
Upon learning that someone in the facility has been taken ill, organisations should take precautions to limit active virus exposure, which might mean restricting access to certain locations and possibly disinfecting all work and rest areas where the person taken ill may have visited. Depending on the both size of the workplace facility and the ability for staff to work remotely, companies should consider establishing work area recovery spaces to bridge any gap in operations caused by workplace unavailability.
How coronavirus will affect customer bases
Businesses should be aware of how viral outbreaks can lead to changes in customer behaviour and demand for certain products and services. Some companies, like the makers of surgical masks, might see product demand surge, while others, like retailers, might see store traffic dry up. Banking customers might switch to using drive-up windows or online transactions to reduce P2P interaction. Increased online transactions in particular can lead to a dramatic escalation of calls to customer services in lieu of people seeking in-store interactions.
Anticipating these disruptions, businesses should consider what can be done in the present to continue meeting customer commitments in the future. Service disruptions can be very damaging to the experience of both consumers and businesses alike, therefore potential gaps in services need to be planned for. For example, manufacturing organisations may wish to accelerate production now to ensure the production meets demand when a pandemic causes disruption to critical supply chains.
How coronavirus will affect communication
Whether there’s an illness within the ranks, general concern over social interaction, school closures, or another event, businesses must assess the impact of employee absence or staff working from home. How will customer demand be met? How will surges in IT help desk call-ins from remote workers be handled? Are employees adequately trained on remote working or set policies temporarily authorising overtime or accelerated schedules? Having the answers to these questions ahead of disruption will pay dividends when an actual crisis arises.
Businesses must also communicate clearly. Communications protocols should be set with personnel to make clear how an organisation will share advisories and actions, i.e. when and how employees will be kept in the loop about facility closings and other changes. Organisations also need to be clear about what time-recurring updates will be available and how employees can access them, whether it’s through a website, a hotline number or a preferred channel. And should the unfolding situation call for immediate notification, a means to communicate time-sensitive urgent messages is essential.
While it’s important to spread awareness of the strategies in place to ensure business continuity, assigning an individual with the role of communicating critical messages during a viral outbreak can help lead others quickly to safety and resolution. Look to the head of human resources for the workforce and workplace elements. The operational aspect to pandemic preparation and response should fall under the COO.
Start or refresh your pandemic plan now
The potential local and global economic impact of coronavirus cannot and should not be underestimated, with the Irish stock exchange recently plunging by more than 4.3 per cent, its biggest drop since the Brexit referendum result in 2016. Ultimately, a pandemic plan addresses workforce, workplace, vendors, and customers. Crafting or updating one will make employees feel more comfortable, and ensures companies are better equipped to handle customer needs despite an outbreak that impacts business.
Irish SMEs should conduct a comprehensive risk assessment at regular intervals to gain access to the information they need to avoid the potential economic, operational and psychological disruption that coronavirus can create. Assessments help protect staff, workplaces, third parties and anyone else who comes into contact with an organisation. At the end of the day, having protections put in place ahead of the fact is a far more effective approach to ad-hoc recovery efforts, the consequences of which can be devastating.