It’s all over the news, and this is Yet Another Hot Take. Don’t completely despair: I’m not going to tell you what the virus is, or cover why you should (or shouldn’t) be worried. What I am going to tell you is that your business should be prepared. Even if you have a decent business continuity plan in place, there are reasons to review it now.
Is it time for action right now? Probably not. You likely don’t even need a detailed plan right now. But I do strongly recommend you have a plan for a plan, and that you think about what stage you need to put the plan into action.
Are you prepared?
Many businesses are already taking the small crucial steps that are most important right now. You should be:
- reminding staff to thoroughly wash hands.
- reviewing the WHO Guidelines on Workplace Preparedness and UK Government advice.
- refer staff to the NHS COVID-19 information, especially as it relates to potential sickness
What should I do?
I recommend a risk-based approach for all businesses. I’m going to explain the risks shortly, but in short these are the actions I’m recommending to those I work with:
- distribute information (as above) to all staff to promote awareness,
- consider deploying additional hand-washing facilities / gels in the workplace,
- review your business continuity plans for two specific scenarios:
- inability of staff to access office / workplace due to travel restrictions;
- closure of office / workplace for a period of two or more weeks,
- review your supply chain to identify key suppliers who may be particularly at risk; this could be supply of goods, but also service interruption. Know the main locations they work from, and keep up-to-date on the spread of virus there,
- follow FCO travel guidance, and consider whether international travel is required,
- increased remote/home working will lead to additional cybercrime opportunities. Remind staff to seek verbal authorisation (especially for financial transactions) and not to rely on email; this also applies to health-related e-mails.
I recommend these actions if the outbreak in the UK becomes significant. At the time of writing there are 23 cases; evidence from other countries shows that initial detection can be quite slow. At the point of 200 or more active cases:
- consider whether national travel is required (e.g. for field sales staff)
- ensure the business continuity plan is updated and personnel know how to trigger it. Ensure your business can continue to operate if the commute for staff becomes difficult/impossible.
- update your sickness policy, and remind staff of the details. I recommend a preventative “zero tolerance” approach at this point: have staff work at home if unwell.
- if your office uses cleaning staff, review waste handling. Ensure they are aware of the guidelines with respect to sanitary waste (e.g. tissues) from sick individuals to reduce the likelihood of them becoming a transmission vector into your workplace. You may also want to request additional cleaning of high-contact areas (toilets, door handles, kitchen equipment).
Ensure that staff are not incentivised in some way to continue working while sick. This will apply particularly to any non-salaried staff.
If the virus is found in your local communities (and this includes the communities your staff live in, not just the communities the business is based in), you may want to think about additional controls, as it becomes much more likely you will be directly affected:
- consider whether staff can be separated into groups (for example, by not rotating shift personnel, or by reducing inter-office mixing), to reduce the “blast radius” of any potential infection.
- consider whether key staff should be asked to work from home.
What are the real risks?
Most of us are focussed on people getting sick, quite rightly. The global policy goal remains containment, though, to prevent this new virus becoming endemic. The actions taken in pursuit of this goal are more likely to have an affect on your business than the disease itself. These include:
- curfew in China has already had a material impact on manufacturing. Stocks of components and products are already running low, and the mislocation of shipping (both ships and the containers they carry) is causing delays.
- international travel restrictions are beginning to be brought in, which will interfere with planned business activities such as conferences and planned meetings. For some businesses, this will substantially impact sales, depending on their customer base.
- virus outbreaks are particularly happening in holiday destinations. This may either prevent staff going on planned breaks, or (worse) staff may get caught in restrictions while away.
- in those communities where the virus is found, national travel restrictions are being put in place. This will interfere with both sales but also the ability of staff to get to work.
- finance is beginning to be affected, particularly in the stock market. Annual growth expectations are being downgraded in specific markets, and this ongoing pressure may lead to challenges when raising finance/capital/investment later on in the year.
Then we also have the risk to a business that operates directly in a community in which the virus is found. Most business continuity plans are not designed to directly address the challenge of coronavirus, for the following reasons:
- there is still a possibility that the new virus has the ability to spread from people who are not showing symptoms. This means that defensive measures need to be pro-active in order to stand a chance of working.
- the virus being novel means there is no natural immunity. We are all used to a winter cold running through an office and multiple staff being off sick: however, there is natural immunity to endemic diseases like the ‘flu. With the novel coronavirus this is not true; an infection could potentially spread to all staff.
- the novelty also means it’s unclear whether existing treatments may have any effect.
The requirement for people to self-isolate when they become symptomatic means that staff could face two weeks (or more) away from the workplace. If the virus is found within the workplace, it’s likely the office will need to close while it is cleaned and all staff asked to isolate.
In short, there is a small risk for an unlucky business that they may be required to effectively close their office space for a period of two weeks or more. If you operate from a shared workspace, there is a consequently greater (but still very small) risk.
Remember also that while your business and staff may not be directly infected, it’s possible that friends and family may be. Some staff will have caring responsibilities for others, and isolated COVID-19 suffers with severe symptoms will still need a lot of direct care. This will inevitably draw in the time and attention of those who are well.
The supply chain and potential finance problems will be a greater risk for many businesses. This will be obvious in many cases - for example, a car parts factory in China being shut down is going to cause problems for a car manufacturer - but some delays may be a number of layers deep. Later in the year, we may find supply problems with computer components, for example. If your business currently relies on just-in-time ordering (for example, laptops for new starters) I recommend placing orders as early as possible - however, it’s not yet worth attempting to build stock of these parts.