During the past week, despite the significant efforts of the Chinese government (including the near lockdown of the city of Wuhan and a travel ban affecting more than 50 million people), the spread of the coronavirus continues. So far, there are over 4,440 infections and 106 deaths, with infections now emerging in several other countries. In fact, the virus is increasing in virulence, and officials suspect that it is contagious even before people show symptoms. According to The Washington Post, a scientific assessment, assuming current quarantines are 90% effective, “ . . . still predicted more than 59,000 infections and 1,500 deaths — twice the toll of the 2002–2003 SARS outbreak.”

The H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic of 2009 forced many organizations to develop their first pandemic plans, and we’ve faced other pandemics before, from SARS to MERS to Ebola. Despite this frequency of pandemics, many enterprises still feel unprepared when they emerge. There are a few reasons for this. First, enterprises don’t conduct enough business continuity (BC) exercises; one large simulation per year is typical, and when they do conduct exercises, they’re not selecting a pandemic as the scenario. They opt for more common scenarios such as extreme weather or IT failures. It’s not to say that I blame enterprises — I often advise clients to prepare for the most probable and high-impact scenarios, and extreme weather and IT failures usually top that list. And unfortunately, both the emergence and the spread of pandemics are difficult to predict. We are already a global, interconnected society, so pandemics are nothing new, but climate change will actually increase the frequency of pandemics in the future as rising temperatures change the distribution of insects (for example, mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus moving north) and habitat loss forces more animals and humans into closer living conditions. Planning a pandemic scenario exercise is also not easy. It’s not episodic like a hurricane; it unfolds over weeks and months as the virus progresses through various stages, with numerous downstream impacts. Finally, the people side of BC planning has always been a challenge for organizations — everything from understanding and accounting for human reaction and behavior during crises to creating robust and multimodal communication plans.

The World Health Organization (WHO) classified coronavirus as a global emergency on January 30, which should fully galvanize organizations to prepare themselves by addressing the following:

  • Seek out and maintain risk intelligence during the entire outbreak. Immediately familiarize your response teams with the latest recommendations from leading health authorities. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is currently recommending that organizations ban all nonessential travel to China. The US CDC, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the WHO, and other local country resources provide helpful information for how individuals can help curtail the spread of the disease.
  • Communicate essential advice — now. Some organizations are afraid to communicate too early, worrying that this will add to unnecessary panic. In fact, it’s the absence of information that sows panic. Plan to communicate regularly before, during, and after the outbreak. This virus is already an emergency in China, and there are already cases in multiple countries in Europe and in the US. Let employees know now that the organization is monitoring the situation; early communication should reiterate travel bans and best practices for prevention from health authorities and provide additional resources for concerned employees.
  • Direct all managers to put employee health and safety first. If employees feel uncomfortable traveling currently or want to avoid large conferences, that’s their prerogative — support them. It’s during crises that leaders can demonstrate their true commitment to employee experience.
  • Review, revise, and communicate work-from-home and sick-leave policies. If the virus continues its spread, you want to encourage employees in higher-risk locations to feel comfortable working from home or taking sick leave to take care of themselves or their loved ones.
  • Plan a walk-through of current plans immediately. Walk-throughs don’t require the development of complex scenarios and objectives necessary for a more robust tabletop exercise. The important thing for now is to refamiliarize everyone — from executives to line-of-business managers to the core response team — on the contents of the plan, on their roles and responsibilities, and so on.
  • During the plan walk-through, challenge plan assumptions and ensure that it’s still current. Today’s businesses change on a dime. Since the SARS outbreak, how many new third-party relationships does the organization have? How many new locations or offices? How many new employees have you hired? Or contractors or gig workers? What assumptions are built into your plan? Is the assumption that most employees can work from home? Can your IT environment handle this scenario? Do all your critical employees have enough bandwidth at home to serve customers effectively?
  • Remember, it’s all about people. Remote access technologies will play a huge role if a huge portion of your workforce will need to work from home or other remote locations. But remember, for a large outbreak, during which potentially 20% of your own employees (plus contractors, partners, etc.) are affected, it will be important to have succession or backup plans in place for critical roles and skills.
  • Meet weekly until the outbreak subsides — especially if you have an out-of-date plan. It might take multiple walk-throughs and iterations to make the plans current and viable. Use this same meeting to decide on necessary communication updates.

This is just immediate advice for now. In the coming days, Forrester will be refreshing our own research on pandemic planning best practices. I welcome everyone’s recommendations and advice in this area.