How pandemic lessons can be used to improve workplace recovery planning

Published: Wednesday, 23 December 2020 08:52

With future pandemic lockdowns highly possible in 2021 how can business leaders use pandemic learnings from the first UK lockdown to improve their workplace recovery planning? Chris Butler explains…

As we head into 2021, continuing to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic remains one of the biggest business challenges of the decade.

Following the first UK lockdown, Sungard AS commissioned IDC to conduct an independent research study into workplace recovery and the associated motivations, challenges, and priorities. The findings show that most organizations have a partial disaster recovery (DR) plan in place, but far too many have no plan at all.

This year has shown both the need for, and previous gaps in, business continuity (BC) and DR planning within a variety of industries. Business continuity planning provides a framework to deal with complex situations, to allow organizations to function with as little disruption as possible. The first lockdowns, which occurred in many countries around the world, came as a surprise to most companies; and resilience planning lessons from these lockdowns should be identified and implemented to improve workplace recovery options for an uncertain future.

The pandemic exposed the preparedness weakness of many companies. The IDC survey found that fewer than half (48.4 percent) of all applications were protected by a disaster recovery plan and, unfortunately, when it comes to workplace recovery and pandemic planning, the situation appears to have been even worse. Only 17.4 percent of organizations had planned for workforce contingencies covering more than 20 percent of their respective workforces. This barely starts to cover the number of employees who have been impacted by the pandemic. 

Are businesses learning from the first lockdown?

IDC found that three-quarters (75 percent) of surveyed organizations can be considered as unprepared for a significant organizational disruption. Pandemic planning is a necessity, and few organizations had formalised it.

The first lockdown in the UK exposed the preparedness weakness of many companies. Those with workplace recovery plans typically had considered only 5–15 percent of their workforce (deemed critical), whereas the pandemic affected the majority. 

Most organizations moved quickly to a working from home (WFH) posture, as UK Government guidance required people to do so wherever possible. Not all companies achieved this seamlessly. WFH limitations were quickly exposed and included: employee collaboration was initially limited or hampered; use of personal devices, whether PC or tablet, increased, challenging device management and security controls in IT teams; extensive emergency purchases of IT hardware; and home networks did not meet corporate standards for security, creating vulnerabilities and increasing the attack surface into corporate systems.

Companies need to define their cyber security new normal, which should see flexible and adaptable solutions, such as software-defined perimeters replacing older, more vulnerable technologies such as VPNs. The future dispersed way of working implies less control for IT security teams as their companies use more cloud-based services (IaaS, PaaS, SaaS) from major outsourced vendors.

The positive news is that organizations seem to recognise the need for greater preparedness – 66 percent of organizations surveyed said that they expected to spend more on business continuity, and 61 percent plan to spend on workplace recovery over the next 24 months. This is a positive sign, but with the potential for further lockdowns continuing until a vaccine is made widely available, organizations need to act decisively.

A quarter of organizations expect to increase the use of third-party workplace recovery facilities in the future and 22 percent expect to increase the use of dedicated/reserved seats in third-party workplace recovery facilities. Investment in infrastructure is also key, with 92 percent of business leaders panning to invest in better video/voice systems and 91 percent are investing in better collaboration tools.

The pandemic has caused leaders to take action to improve their organization's response to the crisis, and these investments will be vital to improving workplace recovery during future disruptions. So far, the signs are positive, and businesses intend to use the pandemic lessons to improve their resilience.

The risks of going fully remote

The increased working from home, encouraged by Government policy, has certainly proved challenging for many organizations.

Many organizations have worked hard to improve working from home capabilities, and some have looked beyond corporate IT devices to aspects of health and safety. However, the rapid procurement of unplanned IT hardware runs the risk of purchasing equipment that will still require ongoing maintenance, upgrades, and patching whether they are inside or outside the enterprise IT network.

With the possibility of future restrictions on office working, organizations need to weigh the cost of a range of options to keep the business going. There will be a trade off in split-site working, which would see staff working across multiple office locations, and those who will be required to work from home. There are benefits and costs in this model, and serviced office workspace, whether for normal operations or recovery, will certainly play a part for those teams for whom WFH is not an option.  The cost of on-demand third-party recovery facility subscriptions, where the vendor is responsible for keeping the infrastructure up to date, will have to be carefully considered.

Organizations must be lead from the top for effective workplace recovery planning

The overall reason for workplace recovery planning is simply to keep the business running as close to normal as possible and minimise disruption to the customer.

Organizations that are unable to resume normal operations in a timely manner or unable to sustain prolonged recoveries in every aspect of the organization risk the direct loss of revenue, permanent loss of customers, loss of organizational reputation, and more.

For the most effective workplace recovery planning, organizations should begin with senior executive sponsorship – business continuity is an enterprise-wide collaboration in the support of organizational needs. Executive involvement ensures that the program receives adequate funding to accomplish the necessary goals.

As organizational leaders explore workplace recovery planning, they should prioritise answering the following four questions:

Future planning

Workplace recovery would benefit from a renewed focus in the field of resilience planning. It’s always good to have a plan. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the fact that all organizations can be affected by disruptions, often at short notice, sometimes from completely unexpected directions. Having a sound workplace recovery plan in place will help an organization to reduce costs, and adapt to disruptions, however and whenever they threaten business operations.

Businesses that build agility into their recovery planning stand a much better chance of not just surviving a disruption but also gaining competitive advantage over peers that struggle to recover. With future lockdowns a possibility, organizations need to incorporate business continuity, disaster recovery, and workplace recovery planning in a more holistic and integrated approach to resilience, supported at the highest levels of the organization.

The author

Chris Butler is Lead Principal Consultant, Resilience and Security at Sungard AS.