For businesses with disaster recovery and business continuity plans already in place amid the coronavirus pandemic, the transitioning of employees off-site to a home office environment should be straightforward. Further easing this transition is the fact that many businesses now provide their employees with laptops instead of desktop workstations and have moved to cloud-based collaboration, project management, communications, and productivity apps.

For organizations without a formal DR/BC plan, things will be a little tougher. They need to quickly develop some sort of roadmap so everyone knows what to do and what is expected of them, said Pat Morley, vice president of global product management at Sungard Assurance Services, a disaster preparedness and services company.

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Because formal business continuity planning is extremely complex, trying to create one from scratch in the middle of a pandemic is not realistic. Fortunately, there is a big difference between a pandemic and a natural disaster like a flood, hurricane, or tornado that wipes out your facilities and data centers. With a pandemic, all of your infrastructure is still intact and fully functional.

“It is about identifying the individuals that would be suitable for home-working, individuals that can stay in the production site and then both, from the compliance and human side of things, build that plan so you know what you are trying to do,” Morley said. “You need, no matter how small that business is, something structural to relate to.”

Even if the majority of your people can do their work from home, there will be essential employees that must be on-site, or up and running quickly—like IT help desk personnel—so everyone else can get their work done. Once you have figured this out, you have to make sure that the people who will be working from home have broadband internet and a smartphone, said Matt Prezbindowski, vice president, infrastructure, ops and security, at State Auto Insurance Companies.

“I can remember here in our situation, if we were to go back several years and say, ‘Hey, work from home, OK?’ They’ll go home and then they’ll be like: ‘I don’t have a fast internet connection. It’s really slow here.’ So, we have that capability but it’s always caveated with…you must have a high-speed internet connection.”

After device-level connectivity is established, the two main problems you need to solve are access and communication.

The first, access, means making sure that off-site employees have access to the applications, data, and tools they need to do their jobs. Accessing cloud-based applications will be the same regardless of where the employee is physically sitting but, for on-premises applications and data, tools like virtual private networks (VPNs) will need to be deployed so employees can securely access the corporate network.

To be fully functional from a home office, they also will need access to their desktops. While there are solutions like virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and remote desktop protocol (RDP) available they are complex to set up on the fly and can be hard to use for many people. The simplest way to get around this problem is to have employees unplug their work stations and take them home, said Morely.

The second big problem is establishing clear and consistent lines of communication with employees.

“Your communication protocol is critical,” said Morley. “It can be as simple as a list of phone numbers. It could be text messages, emails. Sending regular and clear communication is really important. But, I wouldn’t over-complicate it, I’d keep it simple.”

You need to plan for how often management will be communicating with all employees and the information that they will share. You also need to make sure that department-level communications between employees are maintained so that they can get their work done with as little disruption as possible, said Brie Weiler Reynolds, career development manager and coach at FlexJobs, a remote-working jobs site and consultancy.

“Are you going to have extra meetings?,” she said. “Maybe at the beginning of the week, check in just to make sure everybody’s on the same page, everybody’s getting comfortable with this new setup. You might have to communicate more at first; being proactive as a manager instead of assuming that everybody’s got this, we’re all set. Especially for those companies where this is pretty new, where people don’t work remotely on a regular basis and it’s not just part of the everyday. I think the communication piece of it—the when, where, and how are you all communicating together—that helps clear up a lot of the issues that come up later.”

Not only will this help keep operations up and running, it will help people feel less isolated now that they can no longer see their colleagues on a daily basis. This will be important to keep them motivated and focused.

“The biggest thing that changes is usually those impromptu meetings you have in the hallway, the by-accident conversations that happened over the water cooler,” she said. “You can’t see people physically at their desks.”

According to Morley, here are the top five things that companies without a business continuity plan should focus on first:

  1. Determine who should be responsible for your pandemic preparedness and response. Usually, it’s your head of human resources for the workforce and workplace elements and the COO for the operational aspect.

  2. Set protocols for communicating with personnel and outline specifics around when and how you will keep employees in the loop with updates.

  3. Know which employees can work from home and which ones can’t. For those who can’t work from home, create visitor policies that limit the spread of infectious disease to protect employees and visitors in your workplace. For example, in a shared office building you may want to create a dedicated entrance for employees to limit their exposure to others.

  4. Consider how increased absenteeism or remote working may affect your business. Will you be able to meet customer demand, for example?

  5. Prepare for changes in demand for your products or services or supply chain issues. This may mean ramping up production if you manufacture medical supplies or sourcing alternative suppliers if your usual suppliers are experiencing shortages in components.

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