Agency Experts Talk Business Continuity Planning in Crises

How to expect the unexpected and prepare your business for survival.

As someone who serves clients, you probably like to present a highly organized, expertly prepared version of yourself to the people who count on you to do good work. But in times like these, it’s important to remember that you’re human, and so are your clients. Humans sometimes need to reassess how they plan to respond to the unforeseen.

“If there is one thing the COVID-19 crisis has shown us, it is that things rarely go as we plan,” says Nana Nørlund Eldevig, Inbound Marketing Specialist at Danish digital consultancy firm Novicell. “And even though a global pandemic most likely has not really been on anyone’s continuity plan, a company (of any size) should try to plan for the consequences that follow–whether being caused by a virus, economic recession, or something else.”

With the perspective that COVID-19 brings, it’s an ideal moment to fortify your business with a continuity plan. Beyond being your backup plan, or even merely your official COVID-19 response, a business continuity plan will direct how you best serve clients now and in the future.

Put people first

Creating a business continuity plan might sound daunting—like something reserved for big corporations, rather than agencies or freelancers. But it’s essential for any business, and it’s easier than you think.

“No matter the case or your size and type of company, a holistic continuity plan that focuses on mapping out and securing vital aspects of your operations is a must have,” says Nana.

The first step in creating a continuity plan is to consider the people impacted by what you do. That includes teammates, if you have them, and the clients you serve.

“People must be at the center of every aspect of operations,” she says. “Whether that is providing the clients we serve with a sufficient and proper experience, or making sure that employees and co-workers have optimal circumstances to execute their daily work plans.”

To identify how people are impacted by your business, start with these questions.

What do you (and your team) need to work? What do your clients expect from you? How might everyone be impacted when your workflow is disrupted? How can you keep every stakeholder up-to-date as part of your continuity plan?

Evaluate what’s happening now

Andreas Lorenz, Managing Director at design and engineering studio dctrl in Zürich, Switzerland, originally crafted their continuity plan for a particular certification they needed to work with healthcare companies in Europe. Now it’s something he’s grateful to have.

“We now have a big, big problem, and it's not only a theoretical problem. It was really a real problem that touched everyone, everywhere. So everyone has his own experience,” he says.

Whether you have a plan you’re presently working from or not, Andreas sees this as a chance to assess and adapt how you’ll respond to crises in the future. He suggests evaluating how your business and your life have already been impacted by COVID-19 as the foundation for your continuity plan. Ask yourself these questions and make notes that will work into your plan.

  • What was your problem?
  • What worked?
  • What didn’t work?
  • What would you do differently next time?

“Ask yourself what might happen and how you could continue operating, because this time it was a pandemic, but next time it could be your office burning,” says Andreas. “The situation can always change.”

Be prepared to respond

Portland, Oregon-based marketing consultancy The Program originally developed a continuity plan to get a client bid. But when an unauthorized rooftop party turned into an office fire, they had to immediately face a worst-case scenario. Their plan turned into action.

“You have to insulate your team members from the chaos,” says Ethan Smith-Gillespie, founder and CEO. “The priorities have to be continuing to service clients and keeping people employed.” Your continuity plan should cover how to strike that balance.

If you typically work from an office, part of your continuity plan should focus on how to move forward remotely. “If you have to switch fast to everyone working from home, you will not have the time now to set up all this infrastructure, like data management systems,” says Andreas.

Of course, you’ve likely set that change into motion in recent months, but now you should document how you can do that more smoothly in the future.

“If you work in a team, one important part is that there are not any single point dependencies. Ask yourself if there are other people in the team who could replace someone,” says Andreas. “It's important it's to define key role responsibilities—who should do what at which time, which step.”

If you work independently as a freelancer, you should compile a running list of your projects and the contacts and details involved. Consider talking with trusted peers in your network about being a backup resource for your clients if there’s ever a reason that you can’t complete a project.

Then, Andreas says you should identify your key products or services and how they are at risk in a disastrous scenario. Articulate the objective of your plan and estimate how long it would take you to resume business operations.

You should also include a recovery strategy. What will you do when it’s time to go back to normal?

Make sure your plan is intelligible and easy to act on. Andreas recommends formatting it as a simple checklist that’s available to the whole staff and hosted in multiple places so that it can always be accessed.

Communicate with stakeholders

“Communication is a huge part of any continuity plan,” says Ethan. “You can't get out in front of a fire happening unexpectedly, but if you can communicate clearly, ‘This is what is required of you. This is what we're doing,’ it makes it a lot more seamless.”

Not only will you need to communicate with your team, you need to be clear with your clients, partners, and anyone else impacted by your work.

  • Create a template to reach out to each group of people separately.
  • Add a list of stakeholders who will need to know what’s going on.
  • Be sure to include their updated contact information and relationship to your business.

Communication is also vital in developing your plan. Check in with your team, peers, and clients about whether your working plan covers their concerns. The good news? Doing so will boost their confidence in you, and it provides an opportunity to learn from one another.

Moving forward, sharing this plan might be part of your onboarding process for teammates or fellow freelancers, and your clients. Don’t wait for a crisis to strike; review it annually.

Stay nimble and welcome change confidently

Your continuity plan will help you identify what’s absolutely vital to the function of your business so that you can keep moving forward no matter what life throws at you.

As someone who serves clients, you’re accustomed to working creatively to accomplish goals—this is just one more opportunity to do so. And although this will pass, that doesn’t mean there won’t be new challenges to the way you work in the future. Use this experience as inspiration.

“The time is now to get that continuity plan going, and learn from the best who have excelled during this time of crisis,” says Nana. “I actually believe that learning from our surroundings is the key to success. So remember to share your pains and triumphs—let other people learn from your mistakes, or get inspired on how to do things even better.”

Jodi Cash is a freelance writer and photojournalist who covers small business, community, and sustainability. She runs a site about all 3 called The Seed & Plate.