Exactly one year ago, our newspapers had already been filled with stories about the approaching coronavirus for weeks when then Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès was given proxies to establish a ‘Corona Cabinet’ to deal with the crisis in cooperation with all opposition parties. Two days later, Belgium entered its first lockdown. Clearly a lot has happened since then as we are experiencing our second lockdown and awaiting the much-needed vaccine roll-out to bring our societies back to full functioning mode.
Chatting with CS&A International’s – leaders in crisis preparedness – Koen Peeters and Caroline Sapriel, Daniel Pyster from AmCham Belgium is keen to find out what efforts organizations took in their journey to keep afloat.
It’s a year since Belgium went into its first lockdown. What has been the impact on organizations’ crisis preparedness? How have your clients lived the past 12 months?
Koen: It certainly was a challenging year for most organizations. Soon after the first lockdown was triggered on March 18, we observed very decisive actions among our clients. In terms of business continuity, all of a sudden, employees were obliged to work from home and needed to do so safely and securely so that organizations could continue to operate. There was a clear ‘all hands on deck’ attitude, recognizable with crisis teams who mobilized to address this unprecedented crisis situation, and a raft of measures were implemented quickly.
From our conversations with clients, many of whom had pandemic plans in place which appeared to partially address the challenges of a full lockdown, we understand that it took a few days to effectively set up employees in their ‘home offices’.
As the first few months passed, we noticed that organizations embraced the momentum to level up their crisis management and business continuity capabilities. For instance, we supported clients to develop worst-case scenarios and prepare for a second wave, grabbing the opportunity to get their house in order: revising crisis manuals, assigning crisis roles and responsibilities and training teams in crisis leadership skills.
Caroline: Unfortunately, we also noted complacency: organizations that were hopeful to overcome the pandemic by Summer and move towards business as usual in Q4. As is often the case with crises, the worst was yet to come.
The companies that felt they performed effectively during the first wave of COVID-19, but did not necessarily anticipate a relapse, were now caught physically and emotionally unprepared, unsure what else they could have done.
It is the one constant of crises: they typically get worse before they get better and in this case, much much worse. Since the start of the pandemic, governments, organizations and the public have struggled to accept this reality. Hoping for the best keeps us motivated, but is not necessarily a useful strategy to face up to worsening adversity.
In crisis management, preparing for the worst – while still hoping for the best – is an essential crisis survival skill, which should drive actions focused on protecting people’s lives.
What has been the impact on organizational resilience?
Koen: All of a sudden, business continuity professionals and those in charge of crisis programs normally working in the background had the spotlight shining on them.
Great efforts were made, but we saw that as the pandemic dragged, companies faced one setback after another, crisis fatigue set in and less appetite remained to focus on and sustain organizational resilience. Moreover, the economic impact is considerable, causing budget freezes and slowing down progress.
Are companies drawing lessons from this experience or will we have suffered a collective case of amnesia by the next time this happens?
Caroline: We surely hope that companies will take the time to learn from what they went through. In our experience though, once the crisis is over, typically everyone wants to go back to business as usual as fast as possible.
However, the pandemic, as a lasting crisis, provides the opportunity to draw lessons and make improvements along the way.
It is too early to say whether the pandemic will have had a substantial impact on organizational resilience. In 2019, CS&A and PR News engaged in a global survey on crisis preparedness, which indicated that only 30% of organizations had an up-to-date crisis management plan in place and that nearly 60% never ran a crisis exercise.
A study by Deloitte in 2018 found that organizations’ confidence often exceeds their actual crisis preparedness levels. I wonder whether the same still applies.
Since it looks like it may take a while before COVID-19 is behind us, what can companies do to strengthen and sustain their robustness?
Koen: All hopes are set on the vaccines, but we must be mindful that this may not mean a definite end to the pandemic.
Therefore, the best thing to do now is to prepare for the worst, whether it is dealing with fatalities and their next-of-kin, future-proofing the business to deal with possible future waves or honing crisis management skills on different crisis scenarios.
After all, there is no guarantee that another crisis might not occur when you’re already dealing with a pandemic.
We’ve been fortunate to work with a number of clients who really invest in their crisis preparedness and we have helped them conduct a pandemic response survey to assess the impact of COVID-19 on different departments as well as crisis and business continuity capabilities across their organization. This eye-opening experience not only ignites the reflection process for management teams across business units, it also stresses the importance placed on the topic by headquarters and reveals areas for improvement and best practices every time.
How can organizations raise the topic of crisis preparedness to the C-Suite?
Caroline: If the pandemic hasn’t succeeded to raise the topic on the agenda, then I’m afraid it’s probably a lost case. It really comes down to the experience and understanding of leaders themselves. There are enough examples of bad crisis management to justify investing in crisis preparedness.
Over the years, research has indicated that for unprepared companies, issues or crises tend to last 2.5 times longer. Crises are costly and robust mitigation plans will make a difference. Therefore, crisis resilience is also an insurance policy.
About the interviewees
Koen Peeters is a Senior Consultant with CS&A International and is particularly involved in the development and facilitation of crisis training and exercises.
Caroline Sapriel is Managing Partner of CS&A International. With over 30 years experience in risk and crisis management, she is recognized as a leader in her profession and acknowledged for her ability to provide customized, results-driven counsel and training at the highest level.