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COVID-19 has caused the nation and the world to stop in its tracks. All but essential businesses have been shuttered. The financial markets are in chaos.  And yet, you and your crisis management team need to be looking forward.  The plan for re-entry during this pandemic is much different than any other crisis the world has seen – it is not possible just to “go back to work” once the stay-at-home orders are lifted. 

COVID-19: Seven Planning Phases of the Pandemic

Although these phases are listed in numerical order, they do not represent a linear timeline or a mandated sequential order. It is likely you and your crisis management team will bounce back and forth and won’t do them in a prescribed order.

This article focuses on re-entry planning which will start up in full force in Phase Five. In this phase, there are two very distinct and different activities – both critical to the preservation of the organization. The first is cocooning.  At this stage, we have pared down critical functions to the minimum and our goal is to keep the business alive. As a caterpillar spins itself a silky cocoon or molts into a shiny chrysalis, we are cocooning to preserve the business. This is done by the tactical crisis management team and the business units.

Simultaneously, it is critical to begin thinking about re-entry and recovery. This is both at the tactical and strategic levels of the organization. First on the tactical side of re-entry, we need to think about how we will “unfold the organization” from the neat cocoon in which we have placed it. We cannot open it all at once, as the disease would likely spread. Just like after any interruption, you need to develop a plan on how to start up the business again – the mechanics, if you will.  Who comes back first? Preparing the facility and the technology support structure for an office restart, with a keen eye on not affecting the current work practice, is likely your first action. You must develop a systematic way of restarting the organization, keeping in mind you may have to fold it back up in two or possibly three subsequent disease waves.

There are also strategic re-entry issues which executives will be discussing. Are there business activities the company will permanently drop, new ones to be added, companies which might be bought or sold, or other transactions which will start or stop? There are many issues executives will be discussing to determine how the organization moves forward. These strategic and tactical conversations are deeply intertwined. Executives must “drive the train” by necessity because any such changes must be reflected in the tactical return plan.

Ten Steps: Re-Entry Planning

  1. Assemble a re-entry planning team and schedule
  2. Establish a “Plan B Team” to review the re-entry plan (a trusted team of people not directly involved in creating the plan who reviews all decisions and strategies and provides objective feedback with the goal of a better final product)
  3. Develop your framework starting with economic assumptions and health-planning scenarios
  4. Develop your current status and situational awareness data sources and metrics for evaluation
  5. Develop the re-entry plan
  6. Present to Plan B Team for review
  7. Present to executive management for final approval
  8. Execute the re-entry plan
  9. Evaluate performance using a continuous feedback loop built on situational awareness
  10. Prepare for a possible second wave

Assemble a Re-entry Planning Team (RPT) and Schedule

Who should be on the re-entry planning team? Key membership should not come from the people who sit on your crisis management team (CMT). Your CMT needs to remain focused on keeping the business, in whatever shape it is in, functioning, so you should use other leaders for the re-entry team. The team leader of the re-entry team should communicate with the CMT and executives on a regular basis. Develop the planning schedule. This should be a fast-track project, with an aggressive timetable, meeting schedule, and planning objectives.

Establish a “Plan B Team” to Review the Re-entry Plan

A “Plan B” team has several roles:

  • Review decisions and strategy
  • Provide objective feedback – a set of fresh eyes

In a complex planning environment, the primary team may:

  • Become too involved in the details of a problem to look at the situation as a whole
  • Overreact or underreact to longer-term problems
  • Lose objectivity over time and “fall in love” with their own ideas

Develop your Framework with Economic Assumptions and Health Planning Scenarios

Before a re-entry plan can be developed, the team needs to establish the economic assumptions and the different health scenarios which could occur.

  • Develop economic planning assumptions using information regarding your company and the business sector. This work will likely be performed by the CEO and CFO or their designees.
    • Strong growth and business rebounds
    • Moderate long-term growth and modest economic recovery
    • Slow long-term growth with an economic downturn likely
    • Flat or negative long-term growth and a prolonged economic downturn
  • Craft three possible health scenarios based on the amount of human transmission
    • Minimal human transmission (White House Phase Three) – public health measures are mostly successful, with very limited disease transmission. Physical distancing requirements would remain in place
    • Modest human transmission (White House Phase Two)  – public health measures are mostly successful, there is some continued human transmission, and physical distancing and facial covering requirements remain in place
    • Moderate human transmission (White House Phase One)  – public health measures have had limited success, there is still moderate human transmission and bans on large gatherings and public venue use, such as theaters, remain in place. Physical distancing and facial covering requirements remain in place

Develop Your Starting ‘Current Status’ and Situational Awareness Data Sources for Evaluation

It is critical to have a benchmark for where you stand before the re-entry plan starts. Where will you get the information to evaluate your plan’s performance? This could include COVID-19 health data (confirmed cases) in an area and company performance information such as sales and revenue information. Data sources and metrics which will be used to evaluate the re-entry plan’s effectiveness must be developed in this phase.

Develop the Re-entry Plan

Imagine the plan describes the slow unwrapping of a package. It is done carefully as to not tear the paper or damage the package. The Re-entry Plan is very much like that and is based on three possible health scenarios:

  1. Mild or minimal human transmission (White House Phase Three)
  2. Moderate human transmission (White House Phase Two)
  3. Severe human transmission (White House Phase One)

Re-entry Plan Principles

There are four basic principles to a re-entry plan:

  1. Trigger – The trigger to resume re-entry is the “release” by the Department of Public Health (or in some cases state government) allowing work to resume. What is your trigger to return?
  2. Business Impact – A key goal in re-entry is to not disturb or disrupt what is working, in particular revenue producing functions, when business teams return to the office.
  3. Disease Monitoring – There must be a steady eye on illness outbreaks in the community and the company. There is an acute need for situational awareness to make sure illness does not spread throughout a facility, forcing a return to work-from-home.
  4. Who goes in first? Just as after any business interruption, the facility has to be completely readied for occupancy. This will involve the infrastructure teams of the organization, including  facilities, security, and technology.

The Mechanics of Returning to Your Facility

The plan should include a detailed process for the return to work and the required monitoring of any COVID-19 cases. Here are some things to consider:

  • What is the strategy for return? Here are some options:
    • Shift work
    • Team rotation – dividing teams into two groups and rotate them (A and B or color teams such as red and gold)
    • Stagger entry times to avoid crowding at beginning and end of day
  • Who returns first? Infrastructure teams
    • We have already established that the infrastructure teams (facilities, security, and technology) must return first to prepare the facility, but who after that?
  • Who is next? We have dropped all of the departments into two categories: business support teams (HR, communications, finance, etc.) and lines of business.
    • Determining the sequence of re-entry takes some careful thought. What functions are the most critical?
  • Develop triggers for each of the three categories of human transmission for each of the team categories and movement between one trigger to another
    • Percentage of illness at work
    • Percentage of illness in the community or state
    • Capacity of health care facilities
    • Local government guidance

The plan should be designed so it can be adjusted rapidly as health conditions change or government advice is issued. For example, if the plan was adjusted to minimal or modest transmission levels and the disease transmission in a particular area shot up dramatically, the plan would be adjusted quickly to moderate or severe guidelines.

The plan should also include these:

  • Responsibility
  • Program triggers
  • Frequency of review
  • Program Rollout
  • Travel
  • Client meetings, site visits, or visitors

Present to the Plan B Team for Review

Once the plan has been completed, it is presented to the Plan B Team for feedback and refinement. Often this Plan B Team will be able to see faulty logic or a missed opportunity that the Re-entry Team missed. The goal of this review is to challenge the approach and to come up with the best plan possible, minimizing infections while “turning the company back on.”

Present to Executive Management for Approval

Present the final Re-entry Plan to executive management for discussion and approval. There will likely be revisions to the plan. Quickly make any revisions so the plan can be deployed.

Execute the Plan

Once the plan is approved, inform managers and employees about it. Everyone will want to understand their department’s activities and roles. Begin with a plan education program which could be done using the virtual platforms you are likely using in your current remote work strategy. Once the authorities have allowed business to resume, determine a date to initiate plan execution, after revisiting and validating strategies based on current conditions.

Evaluate Performance Using A Continuous Feedback Loop Built on Situational Awareness

Once the plan is deployed, continual evaluation of its execution and disease spread rate is critical. Current situational awareness on employee illness and community spread is essential to understand if the plan needs to be modified to prevent further illness.

Prepare for A Possible Second Wave

The world has never before experienced a coronavirus pandemic. Our only respiratory pandemic examples are with influenza. Once we all go back, we could easily get a second wave, and this could keep happening with COVID-19 until treatments and a vaccine are released. We don’t know. To this end, it is critical that your planning includes how to “fold up the package” once again if the disease begins to again spread aggressively.

Going Forward

It is critical we keep this in mind: there is a need for continued, ongoing vigilance. We will grow tired of this crisis after months of hardship. We will want it to go away and to get back to our old life.  The COVID-19 threat is not abated until there is widespread “herd immunity” or a COVID-19 vaccine.  Neither of those solutions will likely happen for at least 12-18 months. We must stay strong and continue the good fight. Our families and communities need a vibrant business community with jobs and a thriving economy. It is our responsibility to work to help create the environment for that to happen once again. That is, after all, what crisis managers and business continuity professionals do.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Regina Phelps

Regina Phelps is an internationally recognized expert in the field of crisis management, continuity planning, pandemic and infectious disease plans and exercise design. She is the founder of EMS Solutions Inc, (EMSS) and since 1982, EMSS has provided consultation and speaking services to clients in five continents.

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