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Maintaining Business Continuity: 7 Tips for Organizations of All Sizes

As an emergency-management professional, I’ve seen companies big and small face the same fundamental challenge over and over: how to keep operations running in the face of disruption. Disasters, cyberattacks, and pandemics—whatever the hazard and whatever the scenario—can have a significant impact on business operations, but the businesses that have survived more than a year after the event have one thing in common: preparation. That’s why it’s crucial for organizations of all sizes to have a solid plan in place to ensure their critical business functions can continue, even in difficult circumstances. Planning helps you think ahead; it’s worth the exercise and can give your business a head start down the road for incrementally improving company resiliency.

Here are seven tips to help companies maintain business continuity and keep operations running smoothly:

#1 Conduct a Thorough Risk Assessment

Conducting a thorough risk assessment is key to business continuity planning. Risk assessment is an organized thought process. It’s your research term paper to a passing grade. This process involves identifying potential risks and vulnerabilities in your operations and determining their likelihood and impact. By forming a cross-functional team to gather information about facilities, systems, processes, data, employees, customers, and suppliers, you can ensure that all aspects of your operations are considered. You can then use the results of the assessment to develop an emergency-preparedness plan, then train and obtain assets that prioritize for sustainment of critical business functions.

An example of risk evaluation in practice: While consulting with a global computer company in Europe, I found that its critical facility and key engineers were located near railway tracks carrying chemical trains. During the evaluation of the company’s emergency plan, I began looking into “what if” scenarios and discovered that the engineers were in the path of a potential chemical release from the nearby factory. This situation highlights the significance of conducting thorough risk evaluations for maintaining business continuity.

#2 Develop a Comprehensive Business Continuity Plan

Once you have a clear understanding of your risks, it’s time to develop a comprehensive plan to keep critical operations running in the event of a disaster. This plan should include a detailed incident response plan, communication procedures, access to critical systems and data, and alternative work arrangements for employees. Regularly reviewing and updating the plan, including conducting regular tabletop exercises and simulations, and gathering feedback from employees, customers, and stakeholders, can improve the plan’s effectiveness.

Business continuity planning is not just a privilege for large corporations but a necessity for businesses of all sizes. The objective is to have a strategy in place to maintain operations during times of income disruption.

Take, for instance, a small pizza shop owner who understands the significance of being ready for emergencies and decides to create a business continuity plan. They perform a comprehensive risk assessment, considering the potential impact of incidents such as power failures, natural disasters, and supply chain interruptions. Based on the risk assessment results, the owner creates a plan that includes backup generators, alternate food suppliers, and other delivery options for customers during emergencies. Additionally, the owner trains all staff on the plan, conducting periodic tabletop exercises to ensure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities. If the owner can’t get to the pizza shop, someone else knows where the key is to unlock the door and turn on the oven without starting a fire.

Often, people say “we were lucky to survive those tough times.” However, luck is just preparation meeting opportunity.

#3 Utilize Tools to Identify Risks

To help identify potential risks, tools such as vulnerability assessments, IT penetration testing, and disaster simulations are available. These tools can help guide the development of a robust business continuity plan. Regular training and drills for employees with nearby businesses, local emergency services, and suppliers are also crucial to help them understand their roles and responsibilities and become familiar with emergency-response procedures.

Take, for instance, the security engineer at a large digital media provider who was worried about data privacy and the protection of sensitive customer information stored on their servers. One of the ways they ensure the security of the company’s systems is by conducting periodic penetration testing to simulate potential attacks by cyber hackers. The engineer uses specialized tools to scan the target systems for vulnerabilities, such as missing patches or misconfigured servers. If any vulnerabilities are found during the scanning phase, the engineer then attempts to exploit them to see how far they can penetrate the system and what kind of information they can access.

The engineer documents the results of their testing, including any vulnerabilities they discovered, and then provides a report to the appropriate departments within the company, such as IT, Compliance, Legal, and management.

#4 Implement Mobile or Remote Work Arrangements

Implementing mobile or remote work arrangements is an important part of business continuity planning. In the event of a disaster, employees may not be able to access the company’s physical premises and having remote work arrangements in place can keep many critical operations running. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has shown that remote work can be effective, and many companies were able to continue operations with little interruption by increasing the capabilities of existing systems.

Many organizations that face frequent weather emergencies have implemented an emergency messaging and voicemail system that provides updates to employees on commute conditions and instructs them to work from home if the conditions are deemed to be unsafe. Likewise, the employee can simply send a text message to let the organization know if they will be choosing to work from their home location.

#5 Utilize Cutting-Edge Backup and Disaster-Recovery Systems

Backup and disaster-recovery systems, such as an off-premises, cloud-based data storage solution, are a crucial part of a comprehensive business continuity plan. These tactical backup processes can quickly restore critical systems and data in the event of a disaster, thus minimizing disruption to operations.

The use of advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, can help organizations to automate key emergency-management processes, such as incident response and communication with employees and stakeholders. Additionally, the use of cloud-based technologies can help organizations to quickly restore critical systems and data in the event of a disaster, thereby reducing the impact of disrupted operations.

#6 Have Clear and Well-Defined Roles for All Staff

Having clear and well-defined roles and responsibilities for all employees is important to ensure response activities are coordinated and everyone knows what’s expected of them—to include filling in for an absent colleague—in the event of a disaster. Regular training and drills can also help employees understand their roles and responsibilities and become familiar with emergency-response procedures. Involve employees at all levels and from all departments in the development of the emergency-preparedness plan.

One example of activating this plan is through the use of a “call tree”—an internal phone-chain system. In the event of an emergency, the backup contact list of multiple non-office phone numbers and alternate email addresses provide flexible communications. The call tree is used to alert and mobilize employees, and it could be a supervisor’s responsibility to verify the status of every team member (a safety wellness check). The supervisor and the employee may be asked to report up the chain multiple times a day, especially in longer, evolving emergencies like hurricanes and the flooding aftermath. Circumstances change quickly for a family in any emergency, whether a toxic chemical release or a wildland fire; employees may be evacuating and in need of company assistance.

#7 Maintain a Culture of Preparedness

Finally, it’s important to maintain a culture of preparedness by regularly communicating the importance of business continuity planning and involving employees in the planning process. Encourage employees to prepare for emergencies in their personal lives and provide them with resources to do so. By fostering a culture of preparedness, you can ensure that everyone is prepared to respond effectively in the event of a disaster.

Imagine a company in a coastal city that is prone to hurricanes and tropical storms. It’s important for the company to be prepared for these regular disruptive events, so its management takes proactive measures to ensure business continuity. Determining how we contact each other and where we reassemble are key first steps.

In summary, let all employees in on the action. Let them see that the company invests in a robust disaster recovery plan, which includes backup generators, redundant internet connections, and cloud-based data storage. They also regularly train on evacuation procedures, and the company provides them with the necessary equipment and supplies to work remotely.

When a severe hurricane hits the city, the company’s offices could become badly damaged, but its employees are able to continue operating with minimal interruption. The backup systems allow for seamless communication and data access. The company’s preparation and quick response to the disaster not only protect its employees and assets but also ensure that its clients and customers are minimally impacted.

Tailor Business Continuity Plans to Your Company

It’s crucial to remember that no two organizations are the same and that each emergency-management plan should be tailored to meet your specific needs. By having a well-structured emergency-management plan in place, you can protect your employees, customers, and assets and minimize the impact of an emergency.

If you’re looking to create and implement (plan-train-exercise) an effective emergency-management plan, reach out to GP Strategies today. Our team of experts will work with you to develop a customized solution that meets your specific needs. To get started with your consultation, email us today at info@gpstrategies.com.

About the Authors

Joe LaFleur
Joe LaFleur, Director of the GP Strategies Corporate Crisis Management Program, has been with GP for 10 years. He holds the distinction of being the first person in history to be a gubernatorial-appointed state emergency management director for two states: Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. He was also a senior executive with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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