7 Steps for Business Continuity in Uncertain Times

Male business owner with dark hair and glasses reviews ways to ensure business continuity during uncertain times.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a stark awareness of how vital it is to have a business continuity plan in case of crisis. The virus has caused untold damage to small businesses—even if the owners themselves remain healthy.

Even in the midst of a crisis, it’s never too late to create a plan for catastrophic events. After all, besides a pandemic, other circumstances can impact your business, such as a natural disaster, fire, flood or even protests.

How can you continue business as usual—as much as possible—during times of uncertainty? An “emergency preparedness” policy can help to guide your reaction and provide a thoughtful approach to what happens next.

Here are eight steps that every business should consider to ensure business continuity during a crisis.

1. Determine Potential Risks

Few could have predicted a global pandemic. And many other events could impact any business at any time. That’s why it’s important to identify the risks your company might face, such as:

  • Your brick-and-mortar location needing to close for an extended period of time
  • An economic downturn that affects your customers’ finances
  • A key employee who falls ill
  • An interruption in your supply chain
  • A technological breach
  • A disruption to your production machinery
  • Severe weather that makes it hard for you or employees to conduct business

Determining the risks you could incur can help you start planning the appropriate responses.

2. Have a Communication Plan in Place

From customers to suppliers, employees to the media, it will be critical to keep your stakeholders apprised of the situation. The necessary tactics will vary depending on the specific incident, but it’s wise to have some templates ready to go that you can quickly adapt as needed. For example:

  • Customers: Prioritize client communication, so your customers can continue to reach you. Triage what’s needed first: whether it’s to let customers know to reschedule existing appointments or that an upcoming shipment will be delayed. Maintain trust with customers by making every effort to anticipate how your circumstance will affect them, and mitigate it the best you can. One way to do so is to create a “frequently asked questions” (FAQ) document that covers the key points. Use all channels at your fingertips—social media, postings on your website, personal and group emails and posts with local community groups—to keep customers apprised.
  • Employees: Your first concern will be for their safety, in the case of a situation that’s affecting your community, such as a weather event. Store emergency contact numbers in a place you can readily access, and encourage employees, likewise, to check in with you as an emergency unfolds. Take your cues and adjust your communication based on the current reality, but remember that transparency is always best. Prioritize frequent, transparent updates. For example, if you’ve needed to furlough workers, maintain ties so that ideally you are ready to staff up when the time is right.
  • The media: Put a media protocol in place, including an identified spokesperson, in case of interest from local media. If reporters contact you, return their calls immediately, if only to assure them that you will be in touch as the situation evolves. Remind employees that any media requests should pass through the designated person.
  • Suppliers: if a crisis will prevent you from taking an inventory shipment, you’ll want to be in touch as soon as possible in order to make other arrangements to avoid penalty charges, if possible.

3. Designate a Procedure for Working from Alternate Locations

If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, it’s that business continuity relies on having technology that workers can access anywhere. Even schools are finding ways to implement online solutions. Many companies that already had flexible or virtual work options in place were able to pick up seamlessly to perform critical work functions.

If you found your team struggling to work remotely, now is the time to determine what support would make it smoother next time. That might include solutions like VPNs or access codes that allow workers to securely connect to your systems.

While remote work can be easier for knowledge workers, you might need other options to keep your operations running, such as manufacturing space. In that case, plan in advance to make a reciprocal arrangement to partner with another similar company (if both facilities aren’t affected by a crisis).

In addition, create a process to build in redundancy to your data storage, both for computer files and hard copies. While being unable to access your physical location or inventory can be disruptive, having your data unavailable can be crippling. And as an added benefit, cybersecurity threats can also be mitigating by having your data stored in more than one location.

4. Cross-Train Your Team

In a crisis, it can be critical that more than one person can conduct any essential activity. Talk to your team about what tasks absolutely have to be done to keep the business running—whether it’s related to your website or your inventory management—and equip employees to handle multiple areas.

5. Investigate Financial Options

In many crises, small businesses need fast access to cash, so it’s never too early to talk to your banker about capital you may be able to tap in a crisis. Currently, the Small Business Administration is offering loans to many small businesses so they can continue their fundamental services and keep their workers employed.

Even without a government safeguard in place, there might be ways your business can access credit that you need to keep afloat if your revenue stream is disrupted. Talk to your banker today about potential options to have at the ready, from accessing a business line of credit or credit card account, to other loan products that might be suitable.

6. Look Into Business Interruption Insurance

While not a panacea for any situation (many companies are learning, for instance, that most policies don’t cover pandemics), this type of insurance can be valuable in other incidents that lead to temporary closures, such as a fire, flood or vandalism.

While policy terms vary, business interruption insurance is designed to provide a business owner with a set monthly income that can replace some of the lost revenue while a business is closed and even cover expenses you might incur for a temporary move. Consult with a reliable business broker regarding whether this might be right for you.

7. Review Your Procedures Frequently

Once you put a business continuity plan in place, it’s all too easy to check it off your list and forget about it. Your program will be most useful if it’s revised to reflect current realities, from an updated employee and customer list to a change in your physical location or key technologies or operating processes. In addition, stress test it against various scenarios, such as whether all employees are on-site or whether everyone is gone for a long weekend. Rarely do emergencies happen under the most ideal circumstances.

As COVID-19 causes a 180-degree turn in how companies operate, it’s clear that a business continuity plan is more important than ever. Every company must consider how they can adapt and apply the lessons they have learned over the past few weeks and months to future business incidents.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Fifth Third Bank, National Association, and are solely the opinions of the author. This article is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute the rendering of legal, accounting, or other professional services by Fifth Third Bank, National Association, or any of their subsidiaries or affiliates, and are provided without any warranty whatsoever. Deposit and credit products provided by Fifth Third Bank, Member FDIC.