Business continuity in the age of a pandemic

Central Cape Town from Lions Head. January 2007. Author Andrew Massyn

How one big business prepared itself for the 21-day lockdown long before knowing it would be implemented.

Right now, businesses in South Africa – and around the world – are living the reality of a classic business continuity case study: we find ourselves, still somewhat unbelievably, in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic. One way to ensure a business’s ability to continue its operations in a crisis situation is by creating and testing a business continuity plan (BCP) –the procedures and instructions an organisation should follow in the face of potential threats.

The threat confronting us now has largely paralysed business productivity and the economy and immobilised employees. On 23 March, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the actions South Africa would be taking to fight the spread of COVID-19 – chief amongst them, a nationwide 21-day lockdown wherein nonessential South African workers would not be permitted to leave their homes for any reasons other than visiting grocery stores and pharmacies, seeking medical attention and collecting social grants.

With the lockdown set to commence at 11:59pm on 26 March and offices across the country being forced to shut, the smallest start-ups all the way up to giant corporations were flung into a frenzy, now faced with the uncertain reality of a fully remote workforce with only three days’ notice.

It’s a somewhat bitter irony that the prediction 2020 would be “the year of remote working” would be proven true under these extraordinary circumstances, and yet, with the vast majority of the South African workforce currently confined to their homes, it’s where we find ourselves today. Whether or not companies suffer during these unprecedented times comes down to the success of their business continuity plans.

Remote working is a business resiliency strategy that has become one of the most important – and most complex – elements of a BCP. The effectiveness of a remote working policy can only be assessed after stringent testing and consistent tweaking. One business with the foresight to regularly test and update their BCP is Broll Property Group, acommercial property services business with operations across Africa. On 12 March 2020, just two weeks before the President’s announcement, Broll put its BCP to the test at a bigger scale than ever before.

Putting a plan into practice

For Broll, a BCP has always been a key initiative in an ongoing process of fine-tuning. Bev Esterhuizen, Group Risk and Compliance Executive at Broll, says the company’s BCP has been in place for many years, and its individual components regularly audited. What made the business continuity testing exercise of 12 March unique is that, for the first time in the company’s history, the BCP in its entirety was tested in a live environment across six regional offices: Sandton, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, KwaZulu-Natal, Bloemfontein and Polokwane.

The company was quick to identify the potential risk posed by COVID-19, making the decision to attempt a trial on the morning of 10 March. Just two days later, the exercise was underway. For a full day, the components of the BCP were tested together from end to end, aiming to answer a crucial question: was it possible for Broll to be mobile – for its regional staff to operate as a fully remote team?

A business like Broll is one of the toughest to control from a continuity perspective. “Our business is anything but static,” Esterhuizen explains. “We have several divisions, all of which get new clients in on a regular basis. Each of these divisions must be routinely analysed, and the BCP assessed, adapted and altered accordingly.”

Preparing for a BC test for any business takes time and effort. Even at Broll, where individual testing of the BCP’s components is systematic, 12 March marked the first time the plan was tested across all regional offices simultaneously. But Broll knew that COVID-19 had the potential to change the way the business operated, and wanted to be ready for anything.

Lessons learnt from the results

Upon completion of the testing exercise, the test participants were sent an online survey about their experience. The final review of completed surveys at 11am on 13 March – the day after the exercise – revealed that 99.4% of staff were able to perform their functions effectively, with productivity for the remaining 0.6% impeded by issues out of the control of the business, such as load shedding and connectivity.

Malcolm Horne, Group CEO at Broll, says the company was extremely pleased with the results which yielded solid proof, not just in theory, that Broll has a fully functioning BCP and can operate without any hitches as a remote business across South Africa. The success of the exercise, according to Esterhuizen, came down to three things: leadership, great teamwork and action plans that had been tested extensively and then tested again.

When the national lockdown was announced, Broll not only knew it was able to operate remotely, but had had 10 days for tweaking its BCP. Many other big businesses who were less predictive and proactive might not have been so lucky. Some believe they can quickly put together a Plan B in a crisis; others spend time, money and resources making arrangements for events they hope will never happen.

Preparedness is the key to mitigating risk, and even in times of peace, a business should be considering a thousand different future scenarios. It might seem counterintuitive to prepare for the bad when everything is going well, but it’s a necessary exercise to ensure a business’s longevity. Maybe everything will run smoothly and a thoroughly tested BCP will never need to be implemented. Or maybe, just maybe, a business will find itself in the midst of a global pandemic and nationwide lockdown, whether it’s ready or not.

Source: Your Brand Agency

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