Preparing for the Unprecedented: Lessons Learned from the Flexential COVID Response Team
“We live the nightmare every day, so you don’t have to.”
As the SVP of Governance, Risk and Compliance for Flexential, it is my job to plan for the worst. As a risk manager, I think about all the bad things that can happen, how likely they are and what the potential impact could be. As part of our testing process, one of the first things we do is look at previous disasters and apply what worked with them to current and future disasters. We use the knowledge we have to be imaginative and think about the more exotic threats to make sure we have plans in place to protect our customers. We experienced one of those threats last year with the emergence of COVID-19.
While the global pandemic was different than anything we’ve seen, there are three lessons learned that I believe will ensure organizations are more prepared for expected and unexpected disasters:
1. Form a core team that will execute a disaster plan focused on people: Flexential actually had a pandemic response plan and tested it even before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. The impact of a threat can be bigger than you anticipate, and while we had a plan, we didn’t anticipate the magnitude of this pandemic. We formulated a response team (including a cross functional team with our CEO and senior executive leadership team) to better address the situation. The team met at least twice a week to monitor the situation, our customers’ and employees’ changing needs, and look at each of the areas we have a presence in to see how we deliver a coordinated response as a company.
While keeping your business up and running is to the mission in disaster planning, it’s essential to focus on the people in it. Often, there is a lot of focus on systems, but if you focus on the people first, people will take care of the systems. Make sure that the folks that are working hard have what they need, that they’re safe and taken care of. Also, have good coordination internally and externally so that your team is on the same page and that your customer and partners are working well with you in accordance with the new reality.
2. Provide frequent updates and create an open line of communication: We had a communication plan in place, with contributions from leaders in various functions, that included coordinated internal and external communications. We surveyed our employees and engaged focus groups to make sure the conversation wasn’t one-sided. The insights from those efforts informed some of our strategy, especially our return-to-work plan. The survey process was new for us, but hearing from employees ensured that we addressed the changes to people’s day-to-day experiences, had a conversation about it and provided supporting services to help us respond. One of our corporate partners, Virgin Health, added a capability for Flexential employees to monitor workforce health on a daily basis to determine whether it was safe to go into the office or not. That information was then added to a dashboard that our HR team could use to track the workforce and make sure we understood the availability and the risk level throughout the organization.
The Cybersecurity & Critical Infrastructure Agency (CISA), a part of the Department of Homeland Security, has classified our operations as essential to the nation’s critical infrastructure. As such, we had to ensure our data centers would be up and running 24/7/365. For customers, we were concerned with the localized impact site where a major city is hit hard by COVID-19, as well as making sure we had redundancies to support critical services and service providers. As the pandemic began, it became apparent that it was much broader in scope. The challenge became: How do we ensure that our customers and partners are following the guidance provided by the CDC and other authorities?
Our response was to be more restrictive than we usually are under normal circumstances. We modified the process to access our facilities to reduce the potential path of infection. We switched from an open access model, where our data centers were essentially an extension of our customers’ business and they could come in anytime they wanted without an appointment, to working on a per appointment basis. We also limited the number of people in our data centers at any given time, so we didn’t have a large amount of foot traffic, and increased our cleaning and other supporting activities so our data center staff could be there around-the-clock without a threat of infection.
Luckily, through our network of relationships and our service, continuity and recovery program, we were able to keep our customers up and running continuously throughout the pandemic. Our customers were also appreciative of the extraordinary steps we made in our data center operations despite not having their usual 24/7 access. No matter the threat, make sure you have a plan to keep people informed and keep those lines of communication open.
3. Create a disaster plan that covers a variety of disasters and their impact: In general, our expectation when dealing with a crisis situation is typically in one location at a time, and occasionally, one region at a time. One example are hurricanes in Florida – it’s a “go-to” disaster because we respond to hurricane threats every year and have a lot of practice in that. We would usually send our mobile response team, the Flexential GO Team, to augment staff in the local area. However, a hurricane is a disaster that tends to affect only one region. When thinking about disasters in general, it’s almost unheard of that you’ll deal with a national crisis, and it’s even more rare to consider a truly global crisis.
Prior to the pandemic, a global crisis that had such a large impact on the world of business was hard to find. Even with major events like WWII, the oil embargo and 9/11, day-to-day business outside of travel wasn’t impacted in the way it’s been with COVID-19. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we must prepare for more “unlikely” disasters than the ones we see on a regular basis.
In the end, I think it will be interesting to see how businesses adapt. We will probably see the first changes in government services, the travel and hospitality industry, and then spread from there to Fortune 100 and public companies. Although the global pandemic has changed the way we live and work, it makes me very optimistic that businesses will be more prepared moving forward because I have seen how effective people can be at preparing for and responding to threats that could impact their lives and their business.
How has your business better prepared for disaster since the global pandemic? I’d love to hear other tactics that have helped organizations with more effective disaster planning.