Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, governments worldwide have opted to confine citizens to their homes. Forcing physical distancing among the population is a strategy of risk avoidance geared towards reducing the likelihood of the virus’ transmission.
In these uncertain times, when so-called “non-essential businesses” are banned from operating, small and medium companies must begin planning now for their eventual return to normal operation once confinement is over. Enterprises with limited resources must become familiar with the concepts of crisis and risk management; otherwise, they risk remaining permanently shut down.
After governments worldwide passed emergency legislation to stop the virus’ spread, companies came face-to-face with the new reality of confinement, which severely restricted operations and displaced employees. One day however, this quarantine will be over and workers will have to return to the workplace. Before this happens, all companies should develop a well-assessed and gradual return to normalcy introduced through phases.
Phase 1 – Observation
After weeks of confinement, citizens and businesses alike might react like a bull charging into the arena once the ban is lifted. Being deprived of simple freedoms like interacting with family and friends drives the desire for returning to normalcy. However, relaxing restrictions and a false sense of security from the viral threat will increase the likelihood of disease transmission. A rise in new cases will follow people as they return to work.
Risk management requires establishing an observation period of the disease’s impact on those wishing to return to work quickly. This observation period is necessary to monitor how the situation evolves as well as to analyze best practices from around the world. This phase should last at least two weeks (the estimated quarantine period for COVID-19) after the end of confinement enforcement.
Phase 2 – Kick-Off
Businesses should not attempt to return to regular operation without a proper mitigation plan in place, especially as staff return to shared workspaces. Companies have a duty to ensure their staff stay healthy and should, therefore, plan additional protective measures.
Evaluate and analyze multiple risks, identifying the most suitable treatment strategies to minimize the existing uncertainty. These strategies should consider (among other things): the number and type of staff physically returning to perform essential tasks; employees in specific risk groups (such as the elderly or those with pre-existing health conditions); and the returning staff’s willingness to share spaces. Managers should plan for shift work for selected staff; know how staff commute to work and develop plans to mitigate the risks of public transportation; and establish protocols for decontamination of public areas and use of personal protection equipment. Managers should continuously review and draft new processes and operating procedures as the world learns more about this virus.
Phase 3 – Presence Escalation
A business’s most valuable resource is its staff and should avoid putting all of its assets at risk. As companies recover, gradually allowing employees to return while others continue to telework is a valuable strategy.
Additionally, preserving a clean working environment is more vital than ever. Any employee or third-party entering the workplace poses a risk of disease transmission and contamination. New standard operating procedures should include separate decontamination protocols for visitors and be strictly enforced. Social distancing inside the working environment should also be clearly defined and incorporated into these procedures.
Eventually, additional risk mitigation procedures, such as COVID-19 antibody tests that can indicate a person’s immunity to the disease, will be available to the general public. Until then, the above strategies will help prevent a resurgence of the disease as employees gradually return to work. This phase could take weeks or even months but should be completed before any return to full operational capacity.
Phase 4 – Long-Term Treatment
Western countries must enhance preventative measures and modify risk tolerance towards health crises. This means changing our social, cultural, and work habits, especially towards personal hygiene and proximity to others.
Most forecasting at the beginning of this crisis proved to be wrong or imprecise. It is difficult to forecast what may come in the next months, but health specialists believe a second, and even recurrent waves of COVID-19 infections could occur. We can only assume that access to tests and vaccines will be made available in the near term. However, we are not there yet, and other risk avoidance strategies must remain in place for now.
Proper planning for a return to normalcy is necessary as solidarity soars, and we prepare to weather this storm together.
Victor Perez Sañudo is a Law Enforcement Officer with over two decades of professional experience in security and risk management worldwide, having worked for the EU, NATO, OSCE and the United Nations in the five continents. Victor is certified Risk Management Professional C31000 by ISO 31000:2018 and certified Director of Security by the Spanish Ministry of Interior.