Emergency Preparedness: A reminder from COVID-19

There have been a handful of events in the GTA over the last 20 years that have made us all stop and say “wow, didn’t see that coming”.  Recent ice storms, SARS and the big blackout of 2003 come to mind.  Now this most recent event of Novel Coronavirus, formally known as COVID-19 and now declared as a global pandemic, has us yet again stopped in our tracks with a panic of what could happen and what the impact could be to our lives and businesses.  While these events can catch us off guard, they are also opportunities to check our gages for emergency preparedness. 

Between servicing clients, managing your team and getting tasks completed, emergency preparedness and Disaster planning probably rank at the very bottom of your daily priority checklist. However, having a full schedule is no excuse for not making time to develop a fully documented business continuity/recovery plan if something bad were to happen to your firm. The truth is, you might already have a plan filed away in a cabinet somewhere under dust and cobwebs, but you’re probably still unsure of what the procedures are or who takes the lead if a disastrous situation occurred unexpectedly. It’s also likely that disaster planning only crosses your mind when you read a news article about a business burning down, or maybe a hurricane, earthquake or storm is happening somewhere in the world. While natural disasters could have a ripple effect of devastating implications to any firm, we are now faced with the potential effects of a health crisis that can affect everything from our employees, to clients, vendors, suppliers and the financial state of our businesses and the global economy.  People everywhere are scrambling to come up with measures to keep their business afloat in the event of a possible outbreak. If your firm isn’t geared up and ready to face the “what’s the worst that could happen”, then stick around to find out how you can be better prepared for this current threat, or any other disastrous threat to your business.  For this article we will be speaking primarily about technology preparedness.  For personal emergency preparedness, the Canadian Government’s GetPrepared website (https://www.getprepared.gc.ca/cnt/plns/index-en.aspx) has some very good and useful information. 

COVID-19 is a serious threat to our lives and businesses, and this is an opportunity to look at our businesses and our extent of emergency preparedness to weather any type of disaster or major potential disruption to day-to-day operations.   

Here are some of the top considerations to help your business mitigate against any disaster scenario: 

Disaster/Business Continuity Plan – Everything starts with planning!  Every business should have a written disaster/business continuity plan which will address both the business and technical aspects of recovering from and continuing business after an event.  You have the option to hire a consultant/business that specializes in creating disaster plans or create one yourself using a template/guide.  In either case, if you have the right consultant or guide, they will take you through the process of identifying a) Your emergency team who will be responsible for actions and communications in the event of a disaster or emergency; b) the critical functions of your business and the effect on your business if impacted; c) a list of issues/events that could happen and a plan for business continuity (if possible) in each scenario; d) a list of key personnel, clients and vendors and how to communicate with each in the event of a disaster; and lastly d) a process to review and test the plan that you’ve written.  

Having a written plan doesn’t guarantee that you will have prepared for every possible scenario, but you will have a much better chance of surviving a disaster scenario if you do have a plan and you know how to use it.   

If you don’t have a plan, the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) has a great how-to article as well as free templates to create your own Emergency/Disaster Plan (see https://www.bdc.ca/en/articles-tools/business-strategy-planning/manage-business/pages/business-continuity-8-steps-building-plan.aspx) 

Remote Access – One big eye-opener COVID-19 has presented is the possibility of ordered and/or self-quarantine for individuals who have been exposed or may have been potentially exposed to others who have the virus.  In this scenario or other similar scenarios where individuals cannot come into the workplace, businesses should review their existing remote access capabilities.  Some businesses already have full-functioning remote access for a portion or all their employees.  A note of caution, if you have remote access enabled for some of your employees it’s not a given that you can easily just get the rest of the staff up and running easily.  You will need to look at several things including Internet bandwidth, existing computing capacity/resources, security, licensing, the availability of all software and systems in a remote environment and training for your staff in the event they need to use it.  For those who don’t currently have remote access capabilities, there are several considerations including an inhouse solution built on a VPN or remote access protocol (Citrix, Remote Desktop) or potentially moving your systems to cloud hosting.  Each scenario has its advantages and disadvantages and it’s best to review it with your IT department or provider to assist with the best solution for your business. 

Cloud Services – If your business is already 100% on the cloud, then you should have most of the technical aspects of business continuity in the event of a disaster, however, don’t take this for granted.  It’s still important to ask questions regarding disaster scenarios.  Is your cloud solution resilient against a local or regional event?  If your people had to work from home, do they have the proper machine, Internet connection, security, etc. to access systems remotely?  Have you tested this with all employees or at minimum key personnel? 

If you are not on the cloud or only partially on the cloud, it would be a good exercise to see what cloud solutions are available at minimum for critical applications (email, financial systems, ERP systems, line of business applications, etc.) or potentially all of your systems.  Speak with your IT staff or provider to assist with the best cloud strategy for your business. 

Remote Communications – Good backups and remote access are critical pieces to a disaster scenario plan, but many businesses miss a critical piece that’s necessary to keep productivity levels up – communication.  How will your people, teams and departments, who may be more used to face to face interaction, communicate in a disruptive scenario?  Let’s start with a basic one – the telephone.  Telephone communication has certainly become more accessible with the adoption of VoIP telephony and mobile phones.  VoIP telephony allows for the mobility to make and receive calls anywhere with an Internet connection as well as the flexibility to forward calls to a cell phone, use your pc or laptop as a “soft phone”, etc.  Be cautioned that this functionality is not necessarily setup and ready to go at any time with all systems.  Your systems may need additional configuration and/or licensing to provide this functionality.  That said, it is a good idea to review and test your systems for these scenarios.  If you’re not using VoIP technology for your phone system, it should at minimum be a consideration for your business 

Email is the next obvious one.  If your email is hosted externally, you’re probably OK if you’re hosted with a larger provider (I.e. Microsoft Office365, Google, etc.).  However, if you are with a more local provider or if your email is hosted on an inhouse server, you may want to do some due diligence to ensure you have failover systems in place to cover against internal, local or regional events that may disrupt your service. 

Communication doesn’t end with phones and email and relying on just these two modes may be a clunky way of communicating.  There have been great innovations with messaging and team-based communication apps that help to keep Teams functioning and collaborating efficiently whether in or out of the office and you don’t need a disaster scenario to benefit from using them.  One notable app is Microsoft Teams which has basically taken the business world by storm with massive adoption of the app by businesses everywhere.  In fact, I’m using Teams right now to collaborate with a coworker in writing this article.  Teams is a communication and collaboration application that has many features: File sharing and collaboration on files with an individual or group, instant messaging to individuals and groups, audio and video calls with an individual or group, screen sharing and more.  If you’re using Office365 you most likely already have Microsoft Teams available to you as it’s included in most O365 subscriptions.  A great feature of Teams is that all the information can be backed up.  If you are not familiar with Teams, here is a brief video overview from Microsoft- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jugBQqE_2sM.  There are certainly other applications for collaboration that can accomplish similar features to Teams.  In any case, I would highly recommend implementing a remote collaboration solution in your firm to increase productivity every day and prepare you for disruptive scenarios. 

Backups/Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity Systems – Backups is a technology that has seen big changes over the last 10-15 years.  The biggest changes have come with how data and systems are backed up and how systems are recovered and/or how systems continue to function in a disaster or failure scenario.  Many people think “we have backups, so everything is OK”, however depending on the technology used, many businesses are unpleasantly surprised when they discover how long it takes to get their systems back up and running from a failure.  When I ask business owners what the process and timeline is to recover from a failure or disaster event, most have no idea – and every business should know this.  So, please ask your IT people.  If your infrastructure or systems are all cloud based, you are most likely OK but ask anyways.  If you are on a file-based backup system with inhouse servers, you can be looking at 2-5+ days to recover from backups.  Newer image-based business continuity backup solutions can drastically decrease the recovery time down to minutes, but even this varies depending on the solution and technology used.  This should be reviewed and tested at least once per year to ensure you know the timeline and process and determine if it meets your criteria for recovery time.  If it doesn’t there are many other options available. 

IT Security – Although not the traditional type of disaster we imagine, IT security events can have disastrous effects to a business if it is not properly protected.  IT security is a big topic unto itself, so I’ll just hit on a couple of important points.  The first is that businesses around the world all have firewalls and antivirus, and big businesses spend millions on tools to protect their infrastructures, yet we hear of breaches every day.  IT security is not “set it and forget it” – if there is not a proactive process in place and dedicated individuals for checking systems, settings and security then you will have blind spots (unknowns) and potential risk to your business.  Along with proactive processes, employee security training is proving to be a very effective way of keeping your users and thus your business safe from threats.  For more information on how to secure your business, see this article on The Cybersecurity Essentials for your business. 

As of the writing of this article, we’ve seen major events and conferences cancelled, the NBA season put on hold, an entire country on lockdown, disruption to families travel plans and a major celebrity (Tom Hanks) identified as having COVID-19.  We’re not sure exactly where this is going, but best to take whatever measures we can now to prepare for this and/or any other disaster scenario that presents a threat to business.  Hopefully this article has given you some ideas to help your business weather any type of storm.  Please stay safe! 

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Toronto, Ontario’s IT Experts. Nestled smack in the middle of the thriving Technology sector of Markham, Ontario, PACE Technical Services Inc. is comprised of a dynamic group of professionals dedicated to bringing Fortune 500 I.T. solutions to small and mid-sized businesses in the Greater Toronto Area.


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