Author Profile Picture

Stephanie Balaouras

Forrester Research

VP & Group Director, Security & Risk, Infrastructure & Operations

Read more about Stephanie Balaouras

Coronavirus: six steps to prepare your organisation for a pandemic


There is still a good chance that with all local and international cooperation to stop the spread of the coronavirus that it won’t turn into a global pandemic like the H1N1 virus of 2009-2010, which killed more than 200,000 globally. But all organisations owe it to their customers, employees, partners, and others to prepare for the possibility.

And beyond the ethical and fiduciary responsibilities employers have, it also makes good business sense. How your organisation fares during and after the pandemic will be the result of how it assesses, mitigates and prepares for the risk. 

Unlike more common risk scenarios that frequently befall organisations – such as extreme weather, power failures, IT disruptions and cyberattacks – pandemics require their own dedicated response plans for three critical reasons.

HR plays an outsized role in pandemic planning.

First, they disproportionately affect people – your employees, partners, customers – while typical business continuity response plans are geared towards the loss of resources like facilities/buildings, IT services and utilities like power and water.

Second, unlike a hurricane or a power outage, pandemics aren’t episodic. They occur over weeks and months as different phases of the outbreak unfold from the first sign of employee infection, to 5% absenteeism, to 15% absenteeism, to 40% absenteeism, and so on.

Finally, because of their impact on people and their long duration, pandemics result in multiple cascading impacts that can wreak havoc across human resources, procurement, production, and all other aspects of the business. 

Already, industries such as manufacturing, high tech, luxury goods, medical devices, travel and tourism, airlines and hotels are feeling the financial impact of travel bans and closures. But it will also cause short-, mid-, and long-term impacts for other industries as well.

Short-term impact

 Already, companies are temporarily shutting stores and factories in the areas most affected by the outbreak. Many have plans to reopen in April – if the virus is contained. That means lost wages for employees and lost revenue for companies.

Mid-term impact

The Mobile World Congress, high tech’s biggest international event scheduled to take place in Barcelona later this month was just cancelled because of coronavirus fears. Just the cancellation of this one event has cascading financial impacts.

The congress brings 100,000 plus attendees to Barcelona. Think of the impact on Barcelona’s hotels, restaurants, retailers and transportation services. All of these businesses and the city itself will be missing out on anticipated revenue.

Also, when you consider the thousands of conversations and deals that would have taken place, this actually has long-term implications for vendors, suppliers, and customers.

Long-term impact

Large manufacturers often have backup plans that help them avoid supply chain issues, but for smaller manufacturers that don’t have the luxury of sourcing materials and manufacturing from multiple vendors, closing a facility or losing a supplier can threaten their long-term viability depending on how much inventory they have on hand.

As the spread of the coronavirus impacts more supply chains, what happens when products, parts, and resources run out? The long-term impact is greater than the economy of China or even the region.

We’re living in an interconnected business economy; extended supply chain disruptions could impact the global economy.

For a variety of reasons from climate change to ongoing globalisation and ease of travel, coronavirus won’t be the last disease outbreak that your business will have to contend with.

Update and exercise your plans now

In a best-case scenario, the coronavirus will be contained as a regional disease outbreak. But since we can’t know the outcome, based on the current disease spread, organisations need to create or update their plans now and test them immediately.

Remember, your current business continuity plans aren’t appropriate to a pandemic. The response to a pandemic involves changes in, for example, travel policy, work from home policies and succession planning – and not necessarily changes in technology. For this reason, HR plays an outsized role in pandemic planning.

As HR pros and leaders help their organisations prepare for a pandemic, they should make sure plans contain:

1. A detailed communication strategy

It’s critical to communicate before, during, and after the pandemic with employees, partners, customers, first responders and the press. You can’t communicate too much. In fact, a lack of communication can lead employees and key stakeholders to wonder if the business is doing anything about the pandemic.

2. Preventative measures

The planning team must implement as many preventive measures as possible to curtail the spread of the disease. This is where travel bans and restrictions become critical. Numerous multinational corporations are banning travel and even requiring employees to quarantine themselves at home before returning to work if they have traveled to the affected areas prior to the travel ban.

3. Changes to employee sick leave and work-from-home policies

HR should encourage employees to work from home when they feel sick and to stay at home for one to two weeks (or the time frame recommended by health authorities) if a family member appears to be sick. Make sure this applies to your frontline workers too.

For those who can’t work from home because their jobs rely on physical presence (e.g. retail associates or front desk workers), consider offering additional sick leave and/or flexibility in hours.

4. Employee cross-training, succession planning and outsourcing

Understand what roles are critical for your organisation’s operations and define who can fill those roles when the current individuals fall ill. Pay particular attention to assigning backups for critical business decision makers if you can’t wait until they recover from the illness.

5. Training and awareness

Both before and during a pandemic, the organisation should communicate its response plan to employees, identify the key changes in employee policies, outline employee responsibilities and direct employees to additional sources of information. 

6. Medical guidance

Governments usually have full responsibility for overseeing the creation and distribution of vaccines. However, well-prepared businesses will monitor the situation to provide guidance and assistance to their employees when possible. If vaccines become available for the outbreak, schedule onsite vaccinations and monitor for vaccine availability.

Whatever happens with the coronavirus, your preparations won’t be wasted.

For a variety of reasons from climate change to ongoing globalisation and ease of travel, coronavirus won’t be the last disease outbreak that your business will have to contend with.

Author Profile Picture
Stephanie Balaouras

VP & Group Director, Security & Risk, Infrastructure & Operations

Read more from Stephanie Balaouras
Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
Subscribe to HRZone's newsletter