Published on: 14-Feb-2020
Hannah Ryder’s international development consultancy is based in a co-working office in Beijing. As a result of the coronavirus, the office closed. “We were allowed in to get a few things that we needed . . . but that was it.”
Speaking from Bangkok — where she and her family are staying with friends — she says that in the Chinese capital she was working at home with no childcare provision as nurseries and schools are closed.
Ms Ryder and her team are used to working remotely but maintaining other aspects of business continuity is tough. “We are quite used to having to work with a flexible team . . . we often have team meetings online,” she says. “The biggest issue is that we have several projects we’re meant to be delivering in China and they are now on hold.”
In Beijing, people are used to shutdowns for the Chinese new year holiday but Ms Ryder says that “the prolonged nature of it [this time] and the uncertainty is difficult to manage”.
The co-working office has just reopened, as China officially returned to work on Monday. Ms Ryder has told her staff they can return if they wish but that they should make the decision based on what is best for their health and safety.
The impact of the coronavirus has highlighted the importance of business continuity planning, the process of equipping organisations and their employees to meet the challenges of unexpected crises: epidemics and pandemics, plus significant power outages, terror attacks or any other large-scale catastrophes.
Peter Groucutt, managing director of Databarracks, a business continuity specialist, says a growing number of companies understand that crisis planning is vital. But small companies in particular can find it difficult to draw up plans as they are often focused only on day-to-day operations. These smaller employers “will have things up to date for audits, but once the audit passes, their focus will turn away,” Mr Groucutt says. Big businesses are often better prepared, with in-house teams who focus on resilience and risk planning.
An effective continuity plan will make sure employees have the necessary resources to continue working if movement becomes heavily restricted and they cannot get to the office, as well as giving companies the tools to get themselves up and running again as quickly as possible after a crisis, or to turn to other markets to make up for a production shortfall in an affected area.
Ms Ryder’s team is diverse and nimble, but the virus also reinforces the need to have a variety of clients. She will now look at reorienting her business. Last year was “China-heavy”, she says, but 2018 less so, “so it would be moving back to a mixed business model . . . and definitely looking at clients in new markets.”
When it comes to the company’s China projects: “Are they delayed or are they cancelled?” she says. It is not entirely clear when business will be back to normal. “We can continue working remotely, but how do we ensure we have got income and projects?”
Eleanor Murray, a senior fellow in management practice at Oxford university’s Saïd Business School, says that most companies have some form of crisis plan but “these may not be sufficient for the potential scale and duration of this [coronavirus] crisis”.
According to Sandra Bell, head of resilience consulting in Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Sungard AS, which provides IT recovery services, businesses fall into two categories. Regulated sectors such as financial services and critical national infrastructure must have continuity plans. Other businesses are encouraged to have plans in place, but it is not compulsory. Ms Bell says: “It is easy to say those that are regulated are better than those that are not. But this is not true, because you often find they’re doing it because they need to, it tends to be a tick-box exercise.”
The UK government’s London Risk register, which provides a summary of the main risks affecting Greater London, rates the likelihood of an influenza pandemic and a national or regional power outage as “medium”, but if something like this were to happen, the impact of such events would be extreme. And it is this most serious type of impact that businesses need to be ready for, Mr Groucutt says. It is not enough just to have a plan — it has to be stress tested in simulated crises.
Prof Murray says that companies with readily adaptable strategies in place “are more likely to maintain their competitive edge in this rapidly evolving crisis”.
Beyond ensuring day-to-day operations can continue, Prof Murray says companies need to consider the nature of the impact on their employees, especially if the business operates globally. This means taking note of country-specific guidance and how it is being applied — school closures, for example.
Childcare has proved especially hard for many parents in China and Hong Kong. Ms Ryder and her husband work full time and her son’s school was quickly closed. “We don’t know when it will open.”
The flexibility of Ms Ryder’s team means they have been able to adapt alongside changing circumstances.
She adds that Beijing authorities have said businesses should be doing as much flexible working as possible and that for two-parent households, one parent should be able to stay at home and take care of children.
But she adds that she knows some people in China who have had very poor communication from their employers — another key aspect of effective continuity management. “There are definitely companies not telling their employees what they are entitled to.”
In a crisis, communications to employees need to be factual, come from the top and demonstrate that the company has control of the situation, says Ms Bell. “Panic spreads much faster than any pandemic. [Communication with staff] has got to demonstrate empathy: this is the information, this is what’s happening and this is how it will affect you.”
El’fred Boo, associate professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Business School, says that to foster a culture of resilience, companies need to refresh their plans regularly.
“[It] involves everyone, not just the top and middle management. It is transformational in that attitudes are changed and key values — such as integrity, safety — are internalised,” he says.
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