As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages societies and economies around the globe, companies and organizations are engaged in intensive crisis response, decision and execution on an unprecedented scale; everyone is in new territory. Depending on location and exposure, some have been in this mode for weeks, others for nearly three months. Multinational companies are contending with different pandemic phases across the globe, bringing the complexity of having some markets entering recovery while some are getting to grips with the first phases of a complete lockdown. Wherever you are on the pandemic curve, the reality is that for all April 2020 and beyond, global workforces, operations, supply and distribution chains, logistics, customers and clients, will largely be shut down.

The complexity of a geographically evolving pandemic, the breadth of impact and the challenges of managing a global, long-running crisis are compounded by variable responses from national and state governments. The spread of the COVID-19 disease is pushing leadership teams into uncharted territory, exhausting operational resources and making it difficult for everyone to find their feet.

COVID-19 is an intensely operational challenge that requires focused and clear operational responses. Business continuity planning that discounts worst-case scenarios is obsolete: for many companies, this is worst case already. Lessons are being learned hard, and fast. What is certain is that crisis management will, above all, be operational for much of 2020.

Stalking the operational crisis is the impending global recession and financial costs that are coming fast down the line. The psychological impact on all of us is significant; teams across the world are absorbing a continual flow of bad news, coping with taxing domestic situations all while facing possibly the biggest professional challenge of their careers.

With much of the world now under some form of government lockdown and working remotely, those companies that have come through the most acute initial response phases are now transitioning to some form of monitoring mode or ongoing crisis management to continually assess direct business impacts and continuity needs. Some are beginning to think through the return to business as usual and longer-term recovery.

Regardless of where you are now and what your current posture is, there is a growing body of knowledge and shared lessons learned on what works and what doesn’t to accelerate your own crisis response.

This is what you need to focus on now, and what you need to focus on next:

1/ Monitor and analyze business relevant information

The companies who have done this best have established monitoring capabilities in place that draw from tactical, real time intelligence feeds in each of their impacted locations and filter for direct business relevance. Every day, designated multi-level crisis teams are then leveraging that data to work through specific scenarios with predefined triggers to execute on decisions as the situation evolves. Note, government updates are critical context, but are insufficient as a primary source of intelligence.


2/ Go beyond “worst-case”: extend your timeline assumptions and planning against scenarios

No matter how robust your business resilience, crisis management or business continuity programs were before COVID-19, no one’s plans anticipated the scale and longevity of the disruption that we are now seeing. Maintaining continuity of critical functions over a three to six-month timeframe is wholly uncharted territory. The impact is greatly amplified when your workforce is remote and your service providers, vendors, suppliers and your supplier’s suppliers are all in the same boat. Review critical contracts and make sure you know where your supply chain and your own client commitments stand. Scenario planning and impact analysis can be a useful tool to structure and drive decision making around best case, most likely, and worst/beyond worst-case scenarios.


3/ Be the “trusted source” of information: proactively communicate with internal and external audiences

Identify internal and external stakeholder groups, then define selective communications strategies. On the internal front, anticipate, collect, and consolidate questions from employees around tactical issues like sick pay; what to do with suspected/confirmed cases; disrupted vacations; expectations for remote working. Prioritize communications, FAQs and collaboration platforms. This can help avoid your HR function from becoming completely overwhelmed.

Think about key messages that will help take down overall levels of employee anxiety and enhance remote productivity. For example, reinforce the priorities of the leadership team and business to give employees greater reassurance and confidence that while extremely painful now – this is a temporary disruption and business as usual will return in some form, even in the face of uncertain timelines.

These same messages are also vital for your clients, suppliers and vendors, all of whom are seeking reassurance.


4/ Start to think through decision criteria and conditions for return to business as usual.

Part of this will be driven by governmental and public health guidance that is specific to different jurisdictions, but this will be a whole new planning exercise to walk back certain policies, consider more operational and company specific issues – and then communicate that effectively to all stakeholder groups. Everyone is starting to struggle with the questions: How do we, as a company, determine (in a rational, objective manner) when it is safe to tell our people to go back to work/the office? How do we message this appropriately to ensure there is trust that the decisions aren’t just driven by the bottom line?


5/ Maintain transparent, empathetic leadership

This is critical to keep workforce and other key stakeholders feeling informed and reassured. Now is not the time to panic. Now is the time for an informed, honest, and steady hand on the wheel: this is a leadership test. This is an opportunity to provide information and reassurance to your employees and make the tough decisions necessary to safeguard the financial health of the business. Act to uphold fiduciary responsibilities and maintain shareholder confidence. Ultimately, leaders have to make the right calls to effectively balance the greater good with the bottom line. Aligning your actions with your values will prove critical to success.

Finally, the art of crisis management is to improve critical decision making in those “bet the company” moments, when you don’t have the luxury of time for analysis of complex issues, you don’t have the information you need at your fingertips, and the impact stakes are high. This requires discipline, a crystal-clear decision-making structure and the ability to always be looking ahead, planning for what’s coming next week, next month, next quarter and next year.

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