Planning for the next emergency is easier after the first one


By Laura Haight
Originally published as The Digital Maven column in Upstate Business Journal, Feb. 28, 2014

"If winter comes, can spring be far behind?" The poet Shelley encompassed much hope in those eight words. But he didn't articulate the corollary: Winter returns.


It is easy to forget the record snowfall, treacherous roads and shuttered businesses of just a few weeks ago, be relieved it wasn’t worse and go back to business as usual. But why not take the opportunity to review what worked and what didn’t and how prepared you might be for an event that could take a bigger bite out of your business?


There are two terms used here and they are not interchangeable. One is business continuity planning designed to keep your business going when a short- or mid-term event occurs, such as a weather event that closes roads or knocks out power for days or a week. Another is disaster recovery planning, which is resuming business after a disruptive event occurs. Sometimes large events — a fire or a major computer virus — can damage files and equipment, cause business disruption and require significant remediation to get back to normal.


With our “that-can’t-happen-to-me” approach, we often don’t allow for the possibility of a major disaster so we don’t plan well for one. But a good business continuity plan usually has elements necessary for recovery from a disaster anyway.


During the recent snowstorm, many businesses closed for a few days. With impassable roads and icy sidewalks, it may have been hard to get employees in to work and, for retail businesses at least, few customers to service. Even if you close, how do you notify your customers? Do you update your website, post on social media and do you have the logins and procedures on how to do that? Do you know how to program a new message on your business answering machine?


Whether or not you can just shut the doors for a day or two really depends on the kind of business you are. The time of the month can also factor in, such as payroll or close week. A lot of things can get pushed off, but employees still need to be paid on time. Ensure you have a plan so that this critical process never suffers.


While we’re talking about critical processes, do you know what yours are? And, for that matter, what is required to complete them? Access to company resources like databases, account information, customer files, etc., may be critical. In the past, data like this was often locked down safely in locally based servers that might be inaccessible in the event there was a power failure at your facility. But accessibility is a non-issue for businesses that have moved to cloud-based servers and services, making it possible for staff to work remotely with little more than their home computer and an Internet connection.


Having the capability and using it are two different things. Part of your plan must be that each person know that they have responsibilities during an emergency, what those responsibilities are and how to access the necessary resources. Do all the critical people have remote access and the ability to get into your cloud services. Have they ever used it, do they have their account information?


People are your biggest resource. So make sure you identify all your key employees, that you know their home email address, cell phone number and alternative number (such as a beach house). You should also know if they have the capability to work at home such as an appropriately configured computer and a solid Internet connection. Sure, you say, we have all this in our HR software. But if you aren’t in your building, can you access that information? Maybe not. Make sure you have a digital copy on a secure resource accessible outside your business network.


Like data, people need backups. Every critical person needs a backup and everyone needs to know what their responsibilities are. For critical staff, staying home may not mean the same thing as a snow day. Staff need to understand the expectations and be informed of when the emergency plan is in effect.


Part of your business operations during an emergency, has to be remote collaboration. Ensure you have access to a service that can bring your team together to make sure key tasks are getting done, discuss issues and make critical adjustments. It could be a Skype call (you’ll need Business Skype for group calling), an online meeting or even a group text chat. But determine what service you will use, make sure everyone knows how to access it and that you distribute a communication list that includes IDs and account names for these services.


Often with weather emergencies, we have a day or two to plan for the worst. Use that time to go through your plan and make sure all information is current, everyone has a copy of the plan and communication touch points are established. Don’t expect business as usual, but identify the truly critical tasks that must be accomplished during the duration of the emergency.

These tips just scratch the surface of what a complete plan should have, but with a significant event fresh in our memory, it’s a good place to start.