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Coronavirus: Businesses count the cost of their continuity plans

Ms Athirah Khairunnisa (on laptop screen), an account manager at Splash Productions, conducting a video conference call with her colleagues who are based at separate worksites. The marketing communications company split its staff into two teams a week ago, with half of them in the office and the other half at home.PHOTO: SPLASH PRODUCTIONS


20 Feb 2020

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Firms looking into sustainability of split operations in the long run

Yip Wai Yee Tech Correspondent

With Singapore in its second week since the authorities stepped up the national response to the coronavirus to the orange level, workers and business leaders who took measures to ensure the continuity of their operations are beginning to wonder just how long this state of affairs might continue.

Many firms have activated their Business Continuity Plans (BCPs) since the disease outbreak response level was raised on Feb 7.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM), the National Trades Union Congress and the Singapore National Employers Federation issued a joint advisory at the time on the appropriate workplace measures to guide employers in running their operations while minimising risks of community spread of the virus.

These include making plans for staff to work from home, or for the workforce to be divided into separate teams according to different work schedules or at different worksites. Many of the major banks, including UOB and OCBC, have already split staff involved in critical functions and services into separate teams.

In response to queries on whether government agencies have activated their BCPs, a spokesman for the Public Service Division said on Tuesday that some agencies have adopted BCPs for critical functions, while other agencies have arranged for teams to work in different offices.

An MOM spokesman told The Straits Times: "Implementing split teams is one possible measure of companies' BCP. Under Dorscon orange, companies should review their BCP and implement relevant measures based on their own assessment."

With more staff holed up at home, and striving to stay connected through online messaging and teleconferencing services, business leaders are starting to count the cost in terms of lost productivity and business.

Questions are also beginning to be asked about how sustainable such split-mode operations might be over the long haul, and what the conditions might be that would allow for a return to a more normal mode of operations.

Government leaders have been saying that life must go on despite the outbreak and people should go about their lives, while taking precautions, not least of which is maintaining good personal hygiene.

There have also been suggestions that the country might shift its approach, should the situation change to one where the virus becomes more contagious but less deadly over time, with mortality rates more in line with the seasonal flu.

But given the many unknowns about the virus behind the Covid-19 disease, and the uncertainties over how the situation might unfold in the weeks to come, many questions remain.

Some experts have said that the peak of the outbreak might come at the end of this month, while others maintain that it is too early to be pointing to a peak any time soon.

There is also the possibility that secondary waves of infection might follow, given widespread travel connections across the region, including by infected people from countries where no cases have yet been detected.

This has led some to conclude that the outbreak could drag on for several more months, perhaps until warmer weather returns in the summer, if not beyond.

This poses a challenge for business leaders and managements having to decide on the extent and sustainability of their contingency plans.

A key factor is the question of how much risk an organisation is able to take that one of its staff getting infected might result in entire teams of co-workers being taken out of action, thereby undermining its ability to continue to function.

Organisations might respond differently based on how vital a team - or part of its operations - is, and also whether it is providing a service or function that is critical to the rest of the business, or the community. A one-size-fits-all approach across the entire organisation might thus not be necessary.

Another concern is that long-term BCPs such as split-team operations or work-from-home arrangements are sustainable only if companies are ready to adjust expectations and adapt to the ever-evolving situation surrounding the coronavirus outbreak, said business experts.

Mr See Hong Pek, partner for business resilience at PwC Singapore, said: "BCPs are intended to help an organisation deal with the immediate aftermath of a crisis and continue its business-critical functions. Essentially, a BCP helps an organisation 'buy time' during a crisis."

Adopting these plans may mean additional costs have to be incurred in the process, such as the need to upgrade teleconferencing tools or improve the security of the company network.

Mr Mark Hall, country manager for Adecco Singapore, told The Straits Times: "If there is indeed an extended period of this type of arrangement, companies will need to quickly review and adjust their target operating models, to see what efficiency can be recovered."

Marketing communications company Splash Productions, for example, admits that while things have been running relatively smoothly since the firm split its staff into two teams a week ago, such operations are not sustainable in the long run.

Some technical challenges have been an issue for the firm, which has half its employees working from home and the other half in the office.

The sharing of large video files, for example, has been slow and inefficient when previously, colleagues would simply view these files together on one person's computer.

Splash's managing director Jerome Lau said of the split-team arrangement: "If this goes on for a long time, say, more than a month, we would need to reorganise our operating model to cater for this, such as supplementing the current team with freelancers."

Experts said employers should always ensure that employees are informed of all plans and what needs to be done.

Ms Linda Teo, country manager of ManpowerGroup Singapore, said: "Communication is key during this period of uncertainty."

Mr Clarence Quek, senior client solutions director at Randstad Singapore, added that companies also need to provide staff with as much support as they can to make the situation more bearable.

He said: "Some employees may voice that they feel cooped up at home and unproductive.

"It is important for companies to remind their employees that unless they are under a quarantine order or stay-home notice, they can step out of their homes to re-energise."

• Additional reporting by Linette Lai

Recommended measures

The Ministry of Manpower, the National Trades Union Congress and the Singapore National Employers Federation have recommended these workplace measures in response to the disease outbreak alert level being raised to "orange":

• Employers should step up business continuity plans (BCPs) and prepare for widespread community transmission. They may want to consider the following in their BCPs:

1. Separating staff into teams that can work at different places or times. Employees can also be cross-trained and have covering arrangements to minimise disruption.

2. Allowing staff to work from home if possible.

3. Employers can also consider temperature screening for visitors or customers, and ask them to return another day if they are unwell.

• Employers should require their staff to check their temperature at least twice daily and to check for respiratory symptoms. Those who are unwell should visit a doctor immediately.

• Employees who are older, pregnant or have underlying medical conditions should be given special attention in planning their work, and should have less exposure to front-line work.

• Employers should also support employees with caregiving needs for children and family members, and should consider allowing these employees to work from home.

• The Ministry of Manpower urges employers to be flexible and supportive of their employees' needs during this period. Employees are urged to cooperate with their employers in executing the BCPs.

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