Business Continuity: Finding Success in the Face of Crisis
Pandemic. Polar Vortex. Wildfires. Hurricanes. Tornados. Earthquakes. Protests. These are just a few of the disasters community associations in America have had to contend with in recent years. If a community association you manage were to encounter any one of the above, would you be prepared?
Preparedness is an important part of your business. From budgeting to seasonal awareness to time management, there are a lot of different aspects of preparation involved in keeping your business running. One of the most important, especially in the last decade or so, is planning for emergencies and crises to ensure your business can continue with as little interruption as possible.
Business continuity planning creates a foundation of ongoing support for your business in the event of service disruption. These plans try to account for all manner of disasters, from things like moderately predictable natural disasters (hurricane season in Florida, for example) to highly unpredictable infrastructural emergencies like long-term utility or vendor service outages.
But a successful plan should do more than help your team ride out the crisis; it should also help mitigate as much of the disruption as possible, for both your staff and your customers.
What is a Business Continuity Plan?
Generally, a business continuity plan is a series of steps that help keep business running amidst a service interruption. This can account for something as short-term as a brief power outage in your neighborhood, to something as massive as oh, let’s say, a pandemic.
A core tenet of successful business continuity planning is the recovery component. Every major emergency you encounter will likely come with a loss of some kind. That can be something as innocuous as a day or so of lost work due to a lengthy power outage, or something as monumental as a tree crashing through the roof on the community center. No matter the size of the impact, it is important that you include steps that need to be taken, by both your staff and your homeowners, to recover from any losses suffered.
What a Plan Needs to Be
Before you dive into building out your management company’s business continuity plan, you should keep a few key characteristics in mind:
- Is it actionable? This just means that you can immediately kick your plan off once it’s finalized. You should be able to execute most (but ideally all) of the steps at a moment’s notice with little to no friction. For instance, if one of the steps of your plan for a utility outage is to use a backup generator for community spaces, but you don’t actually own a backup generator, that takes away actionability.
- Is it achievable? Your business continuity plan should also include steps that are realistic and easily attainable. While it would be nice to include “take a helicopter out of state” when planning for an incoming storm, it isn’t a realistic solution.
- Is it adaptable? Not everything can have a backup option, but those that can absolutely should. Text messaging is one of the most effective methods of immediately reaching people and would be a great option for first response. But if the phone lines go down for a few days, you need something to fall back on, like email.
- Is it available? Chances are, you already have a plan for emergencies, it’s just in your head. But how will that hold up when disaster strikes? Writing down your plan will help ensure that your team (and you) remember all of the steps you need to take. The middle of an emergency is the worst time to forget an important step! If it isn’t written down and widely and easily accessible to your staff and homeowners, it’s ineffective, and only doing a tenth of the work it should be handling.
- Is it agreeable? “Agreeable? You mean do people like it?” Yes, exactly. Is this a plan that has the potential to negatively impact your homeowners (especially in favor of your business)? When building your plan, it’s important to remember the human element. Everyone will be impacted by the disaster at hand, so minimizing the potential impact of your response is a necessity.
Building Your Plans
The easiest way to start creating your business continuity plan is to bring all of your key personnel into a room for a day, half-day or even 2-hour workshop. It’s important that you bring others in and not try to do this alone. There are all kinds of things you don’t focus on every day, or are simply unaware of because someone else is taking care of it. You need the additional minds to pull you outside of your area of expertise for a more holistic view of the business.
Get a whiteboard, or a pad of giant post-it notes you can stick on the walls and a stack of markers. Start by having each person list out all of the points of failure in their area of the business (if X fails, we would be screwed). Some items will be obvious, and you can list those beforehand if the meeting time is short. For example, every business needs access to critical data, communication channels, and client systems to remain running. What you are looking to identify are the critical processes, people or systems that are unique to keeping your business running.
Then, play the “What If” game. What if we lost power, how would it affect the things on the list? What if we were forced to evacuate? Make sure you document each scenario as you and your team discuss it.
After this meeting, the hardest part is over – you’ve now identified the points of failure, and how business could be affected by various disaster scenarios.
Next, it’s time to do the research into the solutions that will help you get around each scenario. If the concern is losing power, look into possible solutions like battery backups, generators, or off-site servers. If the issue is a key staffer, consider what it would take to cross-train other employees so they have a backup.
Some of the solutions you come up with will require action be taken in advance of the disaster, such as cross-training key personnel or purchasing a generator. Others may be too expensive to take action on until or unless the scenario actually happens, but by doing the research now, you are prepared when you need it.
List of Emergencies to Consider
When starting off your planning process, you’ll probably already have a few disaster types in mind to start prepping for: natural disasters, utility outages, and global health crises are probably at the top of your list given the last couple of years. Those are incredibly important to consider, but they’re only a fraction of the situations you’ll want to have planned out.
Remember that those kinds of scenarios are all very high impact. And some of them are even related; natural disasters and utility outages almost always go hand-in-hand, and their plans will likely share a lot of steps.
But what about something without a physical impact, like a data security breach? Ransomware hacks have spiked in recent years, and your community data suddenly being encrypted and held hostage deserves a plan of action.
It’s important to remember that business continuity isn’t just staring down the barrel of a devastating scenario; it’s also ensuring that your business continues as usual in the face of day-to-day snags. Here are a few situations to bring up during your planning meeting:
- Protests that have forced streets to close, stopping staff from coming in
- A squirrel chewed through a power or fiber optic line, causing a quick but unplanned utility loss (We promise, this is a real scenario that can happen!)
- A boil water order has been enacted
- A tornado watch, storm surge watch or hurricane watch has been called in your area
- A storm took out a power grid and it will take an unspecified amount of time to regain electricity
- A tornado or hurricane has caused damage to a portion of your offices or a community you manage
- Global emergency
- Terrorist attacks
- Massive natural disasters
Sustaining Critical Business Functions
There are a lot of ways to respond to crisis scenarios, and you and your team will inevitably come up with plenty of solutions. Regardless of the scenario you’re gearing up for, these general concepts will likely be important to consider integrating into your plans:
- Remote flexibility: Giving your staff the option to work from anywhere is a crucial component of an effective business continuity plan. Evacuations, office closures, social distancing orders, and street protesters are all potential reasons why your staff may need to clock in from an off-site location.
- Data retention: Your community data is precious and must be a top priority in your planning. Using your technology to routinely store backups in the cloud is a great way to instill an ongoing peace of mind and bolster your business continuity plan at the same time.
- Communication planning: Knowing that you’ll need to send out critical information to your staff and homeowners is one thing, but in the middle of a crisis, it’s hard to clear your mind enough to know what to say. Developing the language you want to send out during an emergency before it happens could be a crucial time-saver for you and your staff.
- Task assignment: Even the best laid plans can fall to pieces if there are too many people trying to claim leadership, or if multiple people carry out the same task and duplicate effort and deplete finite resources. Assigning tasks to staff ahead of time is a important step to ensure success.
- Pre-emergency spending: This is a two-part step in your continuity plan: budgeting, and acting. You should first establish a budget for purchasing the things you’ll need to make the readiness plan happen–like buying that backup generator and quick repair supplies, or switching to a browser-based property management software provider to provide remote flexibility and data retention. But remember, that budget isn’t effective if it isn’t acted upon. It’s crucial to determine when your team should spend that budgeted money on the supplies you’ll need so that you can have them in place for an emergency. Start by prioritizing purchases that will benefit multiple plans (like that generator we keep mentioning!!), and remember to include in your task responsibilities who makes the decision of executing that spend.
Plan Maintenance & Followthrough
Peter Drucker said, “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.” In other words, if you don’t follow through on your plans, they will be worthless when you actually have an emergency.
The planning process isn’t just your planning meeting. There should be continuous upkeep and testing to make sure the plans in place are effective, and a meeting or series of meetings after a real emergency scenario to assess what went right or wrong.
As we mentioned above, your planning stage should include a lot of brainstorming amongst a variety of shareholders, and your plan should be measured against the five key characteristics we mentioned earlier: Actionable, Achievable, Adaptable, Available, and Agreeable.
You should consider appointing a staff member or team of staff members who can determine when your business continuity plan needs to be put into effect–basically, who gets to sound the alarm. Another great step in preparation is running trainings or test scenarios/simulations every 3 – 6 months. This can be something small like sending out test communications to your staff and homeowners, or something with a little more impact like taking a week to have most or all of the staff work remote and document the problems they might encounter.
Don’t forget to check in on your data backups, too. They’re designed to be very “set it and forget it” but it doesn’t hurt to take a peek every so often just to be sure it’s all up and running.
As much as we all hope that disaster never strikes, it’s a fact of life that inevitably, it will. The most important thing you can do when it happens is follow through with the plan you’ve assembled. In the midst of a crisis it can be easy to lose focus and give in to panic. It’s human, and completely valid, but it can be costly to your business and your homeowners if you let it get the best of you. Closely following the steps you’ve planned out is the best way to ensure success.
As much as we all hope that disaster never strikes, it’s a fact of life.
The aftermath of an emergency is a critical part of planning for business continuity. You’ve just endured a difficult situation and hopefully the plan you had in place helped guide you through it successfully. Take the time to assess how your plan held up in the heat of things in a post-disaster meeting with the original shareholders involved in building the plan, as well as any of the key players on your staff who were responsible for carrying the actions out.
You’ll want to discuss at least the following topics:
- What steps were carried out and worked as expected
- What steps were carried out as expected but didn’t work as well as you’d hoped
- What worked in your favor even though it wasn’t something you’d built into your plan
- What steps weren’t successful and why
- What gaps in your planning require in-the-moment reactions, and how can you close those gaps in your new plan
Of course, sometimes there isn’t a clear ‘after’ in a crisis scenario–like, for example, a year-long pandemic. While situations like that are hopefully rare, there will likely be lengthy emergencies in your future, like multi-day power outages or evacuation orders. In those cases, it can be helpful to plan for some kind of analysis of the parts of the plan that have already been taken. It helps you and your staff stay aligned and keeps everyone focused on the tasks coming up.
Something else to consider is holding check-ins with your staff and your homeowners during these long-running scenarios. It’s one thing to know how the tasks were handled or the impact your plan had on your community, but making sure they’re handling the situation on a personal level is a really important human element for your plan.
What You Can Do Today
If you don’t have a business continuity plan right now, don’t panic. It’s okay. Like we’ve said, you probably already have a lot of the basics thought out, even if you haven’t put pen to paper. Take five minutes to quickly jot down whatever you’ve already thought out, whether that’s actionable tasks to carry out, or things you need to look into before setting up a full plan. Then, set up that first meeting with your staff and really get the ball rolling. You’ll have a fully developed plan in no time!