Contingency planning is a broad term. In theory, any business continuity checklist can be developed around issues as mundane as organizing fire drills (don’t forget to take your laptop with you!). But if the COVID-19 crisis is any indication as to how quickly normal operations can be upended, today’s HR organizations should be thinking about and creating business continuity plans for a much wider range of scenarios.

Everything should be on the table, from the next pandemic to preventable and unpreventable scenarios alike. Think natural disasters, accidents, intentional acts, IT outages, you name it. In each case, lay out how operations and resources must be shifted, refocused, removed, or added to maintain as much business continuity as possible.

All this begs the question of where to begin.

The short answer is anywhere and everywhere, all at once, so the organization isn’t caught flat-footed, as so many were at the start of 2020. But the long answer is that there are several emergency-preparedness best practices that HR managers should adhere to in part or in sum to ensure business continuity in the face of a crisis. Keeping these best practices in mind will inform the foundation of a business continuity plan template that can be followed, expanded upon, or customized to fit any situation as it develops.

How to create a contingency plan: Critical elements  

There’s power in communication and policy alike. So before developing tactical steps to suit any possible scenario, it’s important to think of contingency planning as encapsulating three ideas:

  1. What workers want, which is essentially the employee experience in an emergency situation;
  2. Perception, which comprises the rumors circulating about how the company is handling the situation; and
  3. Business needs, which is how the company is performing in terms of maintaining business continuity and serving customers effectively.

Where these three overlap is the feedback loop – when, where, how, with what frequency, and the authenticity of communication between the company and its employees about the adverse event or situation. 

“The feedback has to be timely, and whoever delivers the communication has to be honest and transparent.”

Greg Selke, VP and HR value advisor, SAP SuccessFactors

“The feedback has to be timely, and whoever delivers the communication has to be honest and transparent,” says Greg Selke, vice president and HR value advisor for SAP SuccessFactors. And as part of any business continuity plan, he explains, the methods of communication need to be planned well in advance. If, in the aftermath of unfortunate events, HR managers are deciding whether to send an email or text message to employees, the action plan is already lagging. But the more important thing to remember about the model above, Selke notes, is that it can work as well for a company of 20 employees as for one of 200,000.

The model must, however, be underpinned by a robust examination and evolution of policy. That requires equal parts intelligence and agility, particularly for a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, since no one knows what a return to normal even looks like, never mind if and when it will be possible. This should include everything from rethinking what performance management looks like to providing resources or even time off for employees to manage stress – or perhaps help with their school-age kids’ homework. It all speaks to a better employee experience while still holding workers accountable for results. Still, policy flexibility is essential.

Think of it like this. What if a company asks sales reps to arrange in-person meetings, but some feel it’s unsafe? Or what if the clients don’t want to be visited due to safety concerns? What about employees with disabilities or those at a higher risk of severe coronavirus symptoms? HR managers need to weigh all these types of scenarios and more as they augment emergency preparedness strategies with new policies. The employee experience of any situation is what should drive the business continuity response.

It’s only after the above three elements – what workers want, perception and business needs, and the overlapping feedback – are carefully considered that specific plans should be laid out.

two coworkers in masks sitting with clear barrier in between for COVID-19 protection

Find the right framework: Common characteristics of continuity plans 

There are multiple business continuity plan samples to be found online, all of which help lay out the types of steps and procedures for different types of companies, nonprofits, and public services – even schools. As an HR leader begins determining tactical steps in any of those frameworks to preserve the business amid several unfortunate scenarios, a few key components should stay front and center of plans that address both small- and large-scale situations.

Agility

While this is a broad and often overused term, in the context of business continuity it’s perhaps the most important consideration. It’s not just about people being able to work remotely; it’s about the company’s ability to communicate with everyone, wherever they are. Here are a few questions to start with: 

The more HR leaders can think about agility in these terms and employ the proper tools (many of them interconnected and cloud-enabled), the easier it will be to develop a more comprehensive set of contingency plans.

Succession modeling 

When talking about business-critical roles, HR needs to be able to identify the required skills, potential successors, and alternates who can step in at a time of crisis. As part of contingency planning, HR professionals should be constantly imagining and reconfiguring the organization for certain and uncertain times alike. That means thinking about positions or even entire departments that might need to be moved, reconfigured, or reallocated under various business conditions and scenarios. It’s also important to have insight and analytics that lay out the wider effects any of these emergency-situation reconfigurations will have on the company – to payroll or diversity, for example. After all, realigning resources to fit with new goals will only go so far if it doesn’t deliver the cost savings required in leaner times or if it adversely affects diversity and inclusion – some of the most important considerations in any company’s long-term plans. 

Worker training

Most would file training, upskilling, and reskilling under agility (above), but in the context of business contingency planning, training takes on a different meaning. In terms of keeping operations running during uncertain times, having a robust training program in place well in advance of any crisis helps HR managers avoid frantic hiring when and if the corporate strategy needs to shift.  

By defining the types of jobs that will be necessary and the requisite skills for each, then instituting the appropriate learning tools, HR managers can set up, launch, and track the needed training programs. This may constitute upskilling or reskilling initiatives – or a combination of the two – in line with business objectives likely to arise in the face of specific emergency situations. Either way, this means setting the concept of skills at the center of the HR talent approach so that they are the foundation of both job descriptions and people’s careers – and are ready for further development before adverse conditions arise.

woman working from home

Realigning and reconnecting 

In times of normal operations, businesses tend to have little trouble setting goals and communicating them to employees. People tend to know the targets they’re working toward. However, when operations are disrupted by a pandemic, natural disaster, or some other short- or long-term situation, the goals tend to go out the window. But it’s not just about scaling back expectations. In order to preserve business continuity, objectives might have to be completely redefined, so it’s critical to set new targets, communicate them clearly, and keep track of how workers are performing toward those new objectives.  

It’s also important that everyone and everything is working in harmony, even mid-crisis. HR managers in particular should look for digital toolkits that help teams, departments, groups of employees, HR – really anyone – communicate and collaborate without the hassle of adding IT infrastructure. The more employees can share knowledge and information with one another quickly and easily in times of uncertainty, the more resilient the business will be. 

Balancing the business with the employee experience

While continuity planning is about having both the right mindset and set of tools in place so the company can pivot broadly or selectively in response to a crisis, HR managers must always walk the uncomfortable tightrope between employee advocacy and business strategy. At the same time, however, HR can’t and shouldn’t go it alone.

Effective preparedness requires input and buy-in throughout the organization – from the CEO to legal to finance to health and safety. HR should take the lead, but the best-prepared companies bring all the aforementioned functions to the table to plan and act accordingly so no one person – not even the CHRO – is making critical decisions in a vacuum. This approach not only puts the company in a better place for crises on the horizon, it underscores the unique role that HR plays in caring for employees while simultaneously honoring a commitment to ensure business continuity. Making accessible, intuitive technology a part of those plans only strengthens the understanding of HR’s mandate up and down the organization.

It shouldn’t take a once-in-a-generation earthquake or pandemic for everyone in the company to understand that. But if best practices are followed when developing continuity plans, a company’s preparedness will ensure business agility and resiliency in the short and long terms.

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