What is a business continuity plan?

Want to take bets on what’s next for 2020? 

My money’s on aliens. 

Between the COVID-19 pandemic, a global economic downturn, massive protests over racial injustice, presidential impeachment proceedings, the Australian wildfires, and the appearance of murder hornets—yes, murder hornets—on American soil, the last six months have been one of the most turbulent periods in modern history. And we still have half a year to go before 2020 is over. 

Honestly, an extraterrestrial encounter doesn’t seem out of the question at this point.

Whatever the future holds, it’s imperative for your business to think ahead and prepare for the unexpected. Your organization will survive—and perhaps even thrive—in any situation if you take certain precautions now. I’m talking about implementing a business continuity plan.

A what now?

A business continuity plan (sometimes shortened to “BCP”) is exactly what it sounds like: a strategy for ensuring your organization remains operational. Companies of all sizes use business continuity plans to minimize the impact of emergencies and unexpected events on their supply chains, processes, people, and customers. 

A business continuity plan is how a restaurant chain like Waffle House is able to stay open in the midst of hurricane season, or how a company like Amazon realigns its logistics to manage supply and demand in a pandemic

But business continuity plans aren’t just for national and multinational brands. Disasters affect small businesses, too—with perhaps even more dire consequences. In fact, according to the Small Business Administration, approximately 9 out of 10 companies fail within two years of being struck by a disaster.

I bring up that terrifying number because too many businesses have been ignoring reality and simply hoping for the best. In early March 2020, when the coronavirus was still primarily confined to Wuhan, China, most organizations didn’t have emergency protocols in place. Perhaps they realized the importance of business continuity planning, but just didn’t consider it a priority at the time. 

I’m guessing those organizations now wish they had done things differently. If you want to avoid the fate so many companies have suffered, you need to think like Waffle House and Amazon and develop a business continuity plan ahead of the next crisis. Establish your framework for survival now—your future self will thank you.

How does a business continuity plan work?

A business continuity plan is more than an intention or a series of mental notes. It’s a detailed, written document that outlines what your team needs to do before, during, and after a significant disruption. 

Every business continuity plan is different, just as every business is different. That said, the best business continuity plans tend to have a few things in common

  • They emphasize employee safety. The physical and mental well-being of people is always the first priority.
  • They establish flexible infrastructures. The goal is to develop ways of doing business that work in practically any set of circumstances.
  • They don’t rely on any single human or piece of technology. Instead, they account for multiple backup systems and support roles, and include several contingency plans if the primary strategy isn’t feasible.

Whatever form it takes, a good business continuity plan contains the following:

1. An assessment of potential disruptions to the business. Floods, earthquakes, wildfires, power outages, public health emergencies, security breaches, incidents of workplace violence—your business continuity plan should cover them all, with different strategies and procedures laid out as necessary.

2. A catalog of all systems and assets the business needs to preserve to stay operational. Your essential systems may include your accounting, workforce management, sales, and fulfillment processes, as well as any technology you need to facilitate those processes. Your essential assets might include legal and financial documents, data, equipment, and/or intellectual property.

3. A set of directives for conducting business during a crisis. Once you’ve identified your essentials, you’ll need to determine how you’ll protect, maintain, and adapt those essentials. Your business continuity plan should cover how you’ll safeguard key equipment, preserve critical job functions, and ensure data security. It should also spell out which team members (individuals or roles) are responsible for which tasks, as well as what to do in the event that someone is incapacitated or unable to perform their tasks.

4. A crisis communication strategy. Consider how your business will communicate before, during, and after a disaster internally (i.e. staff talking with staff) as well as externally with any clients, customers, vendors, or other third-party stakeholders.

How to create a business continuity plan: 5 steps to get started.

1. Determine your goals and vulnerabilities. First, ask yourself: “What does successful continuity look like for my business?” Quantify this, if possible, by establishing metrics to track and assess during a crisis (e.g. business downtime, emergency notification speed).

Next, consider which elements of your operation are particularly susceptible to various disasters. For instance, would a flood destroy your servers? Would a pandemic compromise your communication systems?

2. Develop your crisis strategies. Come up with plans for short-term disaster mitigation, such as machinery replacement and remote working arrangements.

Next, consider your plans for longer-term business continuity: How will you stay open with reduced staff? Can you continue working without daily in-person deliveries?

3. Test your approach. Choose a specific threat scenario: e.g. a tornado, denial-of-service attack, or pandemic. 

Next, choose a format for the exercise. A tabletop exercise engages leaders from all departments to read through every step of the plan together and roleplay their response. A drill exercise involves the entire office, with everyone going through the physical motions of the plan.

4. Evaluate your test results and revise your plan. How did the testing go? Note any strengths and weaknesses you discovered, change your approach as necessary, and rewrite your documentation. Then test, evaluate, and revise again. And again, until you feel your organization is fully prepared.

5. Publish and promote your business continuity plan. Present your plan to your entire staff, and then take the time to review it with every employee. It’s important that you earn buy-in from each member of your team and conduct thorough crisis preparedness training.

A few more BCP tips.

  • Hope for the best, plan for the worst. Expect the unexpected. Never assume you have every scenario covered, or that a disaster will happen exactly the way you predict it will.
  • Involve every employee. The people on the front lines of your business operations can offer valuable insights regarding business continuity workflow, necessities, and vulnerabilities.
  • Use clear, accessible language. When disaster strikes, your team should understand exactly what they need to do.
  • Train, train, and train some more. Thorough, interactive training ensures every member of your team knows your plan and is capable of following through in a crisis.
  • Revisit your business continuity plan often. From operating systems and supply chains to the realities of staffing and environmental threats, everything evolves over time. Make sure your continuity plan remains relevant and up-to-date.

One item you can check off your BCP right now: customer communication.

In today’s turbulent world, business owners have a lot to think about and prepare for. When you use Ruby, you can rest easy knowing we’re taking care of one of the most important things at all times: your customers.

Ruby provides outsourced reception services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. We’re ready to answer your customers’ or clients’ calls and live chat conversations no matter what disruption, emergency, or interplanetary visit 2020 throws our way next.

Get started with Ruby today.