The Chennai floods were an unprecedented disaster causing a large scale loss of life and significant damage to both public and private infrastructure.
The floods also served as a stark reminder to many businesses that Business Continuity Planning (BCP) is not just a plan to be drafted and filed away; rather it needs to be a “living and breathing” process that is actively kept up to date and in sync with the rhymes and rhythms of the business. This is essential to ensure the business faces minimal or no disruption during catastrophic events.
So how do you effectively disaster proof your company? Here are some pointers:
1. Document every role in your company: Build a thorough understanding of your business and its dependencies by documenting every single role in the company and their specific responsibilities. Once this is in place, the procedures and processes required to seamlessly take over any business critical role will naturally flow. Also, through this exercise, it will be easy to identify single points of failure, natural escalation paths and communication protocols. As a side benefit, your employees will appreciate the clarity in role definition and objectives.
2. Develop and frequently test your BCP: Develop and properly document a Business Continuity Plan that addresses all aspects of how your business will need to react to a disaster. A plan is only as good as the tests that are done to stress test it. Run a periodic (i.e., quarterly or half-yearly) exercise where identified key personnel are required to execute your BCP within short notice. Make sure to include key vendors in your BCP if they provide business critical services (e.g., building management, call centre). Observe, learn, discuss and work improvements back into BCP v2.0; rinse and repeat
3. Know when to execute your BCP: All the efforts that go into disaster planning are useless if not executed at the right time. Often disaster situations develop over multiple hours and it is unclear when exactly to trigger your BCP. For example, during the Chennai floods, triggering BCP on the 30th November afternoon to 1st December midday would have been the right time; by evening 1st December, it was likely too late as many employees returned to their homes and would not have been able to come to work the following day or even be reachable by cell phone. Ensure alignment with your leadership team on what conditions justify triggering BCP and clearly vest those decision rights with leaders that are present in the office.
4. Build communication / power redundancy and avoid too many changes in production: This is especially the case for software / online tech driven businesses
a. Do not underestimate the importance of powerlines, internet cables and communication links – costs permitting, build multiple levels of redundancy across all three. We were fortunate enough to see one of our three Internet providers (a local provider) remain live while our other national ISPs and cellular data networks shut down for multiple days
b. With limited resources on hand during a disaster, best to delay any changes in your live production environment – debugging a production issue caused by a new release is the last thing you need your employees to focus on
5. Employee safety is first above all else: While business continuity is critical, even more important is ensuring the safety of your employees during a disaster. Smaller companies can often overlook this aspect as they scramble to ensure the business can remain productive. Key aspects of employee safety to keep in mind:
a. Maintain an up to date contact sheet that has addresses and phone numbers of your employees and their immediate family members
b. Ensure your BCP includes reporting mechanisms to update senior leadership on the safety of each and every employee and escalate safety efforts if required
c. Have your HR or facilities team get familiar with groups / organizations on the ground that can help drive search and rescue efforts if needed
6. Post disaster, it’s the small things that matter: Once the safety of all your employees has been ensured and business critical functions are seamlessly running, it is important to focus on helping your employees rebuild their lives back to normalcy. Think out of the box to help your employees such as providing cash advances (functioning ATMs were a big nuisance), make-shift beds / living accommodations in the office, house-cleaning support for employee homes, etc. Small gestures from the company in times of need go a long way and have the added benefits of (1) helping the business quickly return back to 100% productivity and (2) strengthening employee loyalty for putting their mind at ease during a difficult time.