Curtailing Crises through the Command Center

Just one person can infect 59,000 others. COVID-19 is a crisis that has transformed our world instantly, challenging the norms of crisis management itself. From utility providers to Fortune 50 retailers, most organizations have designed their command centers to drive crisis response and business continuity in weather events or other emergencies that involve a predictable set of scenarios. The situation we face today brings health and well-being into the equation—people-related variables that quantifiable models alone cannot address.

Each day, the pandemic introduces new unknowns that evolve continuously on both a local and global scale. How quickly is the virus spreading in our state? Where have employees' family members traveled recently, and could they be infected? Are we sanitizing stores rapidly enough to manage the risk of keeping doors open to customers?

This turbulence requires a reimagined approach to crisis management—one that looks comprehensively across customer impact, workforce needs, and operations through the command center. COVID-19 is rapidly transforming the processes and policies that drive routine business operations. And at the same time, customer needs and expectations for engaging with businesses are shifting, too. Confronting these challenges, employees play a crucial role at the intersection of operational and customer impact. They must be empowered with the reporting structure, defined responsibilities, and decision-making authority to uphold business continuity, promote safety, and minimize disruption to the customer experience.

COVID-19’s uniquely unpredictable nature requires unprecedented flexibility in the command center, powered by shared ownership, alignment, and agile mindsets. In challenging times, employees intuitively seek guidance from their leaders on how to feel, respond, and act. Yet, employees should also understand that they, too, are the leaders – and should be accountable for the health and safety of their customers. To empower the entire workforce with ownership and accountability for pandemic response outcomes, leaders can lay the operational groundwork through a playbook. The playbook covers the critical elements of emergency response, including an incident management team structure and assignments, risk level definitions, processes and procedures by function, and communication protocols. These components ensure alignment and the seamless orchestration of ownership, customer engagement, product positioning, communications, IT systems, store mobilization, and more.

Once you’ve documented the rules of the road in the playbook, you should consider five fundamental elements to accelerate and amplify the value of the COVID-19 command center:

  1. Alignment: All employees, from the C-suite to store associates, must be in lockstep on how to act and embody the organization’s values during times of crisis. This alignment ensures consistency in interactions and communications with customers – acutely important during emergencies in which customers look to the actions of businesses and public institutions for clarity and guidance.  

Put it into practice: Establish a direct line of communication that’s consistent at all levels of the organization. Empower leaders at each level with the appropriate information and messages they need to cascade to others in the business.

  1. Activation: Equipping and enabling employees to put your plan into action is key to responding at the scale required for effective crisis mitigation and business continuity. Fostering preparedness starts with validating current incident volume capacity, identifying the appropriate incident management team members, and, most importantly, giving those team members access to all the tools needed to activate the plan across central systems.

Put it into practice: Perform dry runs for disaster recovery and business continuity activities with the members of your incident management teams. Unlike weather or other more conventional emergency scenarios, pandemics introduce unprecedented operational implications that organizations can only learn to manage through experience. In these sessions, add abrupt changes and twists that the team is likely to encounter in a real-life situation.

  1. Training: Responding to the virus and preparing for a new, post-pandemic normal is everyone's business. In other words, it isn’t enough to train only a primary team for emergency response. Instead, leaders should arm their full workforce with a 360-degree view of pandemic response operations so that all employees can charge ahead with business continuity plans. Training is acutely critical as organizations face the new realities of a virus-related crisis, including virtual activities, dedicated crisis roles, and return-to-work planning.

Put it into practice: Perform an analysis of critical roles and identify any needs for niche or specialized training. Focus on delivering training to both primary and secondary teams, for physical and virtual operating environments.

  1. Reporting: For employees, COVID-19 carries profound professional and personal implications. Not only are they likely wary of the prospective health impacts on themselves and their loved ones, but employees may also have fears about job security and disruption to ways of working. In the absence of regular, proactive communication, employees are likely to assume the worst-case scenario. Instead, transparent reporting–tailored to the appropriate audiences and delivered at a predictable cadence – will put employees at ease. Ultimately it allows them to focus on performing their job well, rather than playing the “what if” game.

Put it into practice: Identify the aspects of reporting that are valuable – and not valuable – in COVID-19 response operations. From there, design reporting that communicates only the critical information (at the appropriate level of detail) that an employee needs to operate effectively in his or her respective role. A strict focus on only the value-added information eliminates the opportunity cost of reviewing non-essential details. Specifically, give employees the insights they need to uphold business continuity, communicate consistently with customers, and minimize disruption to the customer experience. Also, create channels for employees to provide feedback on the quality of the reporting so that these reports can enable continuous improvement in crisis response.

  1. Lessons learned: In emergency response, the famous adage rings true: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it." Here, organizations should not only document their learnings, but identify opportunities to apply those learnings to optimize processes continuously. Cultivate a culture of candor in which employees feel empowered to bring both successes and failures to light.

Put it into practice: Use gathered data to refine emergency response practices and processes. Supplement quantitative insight with robust qualitative feedback that is acknowledged and celebrated. Create open channels and forums for your workforce to provide feedback on what went well, what didn't, and what could improve in the future. Leaders specifically need to close the loop with employees on how this feedback will (or will not) be applied.

Although it introduces a host of financial and operational headwinds, COVID-19 also presents an opportunity to call nearly every element of the business into question—including how you operationalize crisis response. By pushing the boundaries of your command center for COVID-19, you’ll not only tackle today’s challenges, but also strengthen the flexibility, collaboration, and transparency to drive your organization’s strategy forward when the seas are calm again.