How businesses can prepare for a potential pandemic

As news of the spread of the avian flu grows, a global virus affecting more than a quarter of the world’s population is an unpalatable, but increasingly likely, prospect.

The impact on human life could be catastrophic, but the potential economic impact to organizations across the world also cannot be ignored. Consider the following:

• A report of the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project, Mapping the Global Future, identified a global pandemic as the single most important threat to the global economy.

• The London Chamber of Commerce found that one in five businesses would be unable to survive a 12-week outbreak of avian flu.

• The Asian Development Bank said in a report that “it is only a matter of time” before there is a major flu pandemic. 

Of course, no one knows when or indeed if avian flu will transmute into a form that can be passed from human to human. Many experts believe it is likely to happen, although the severity of the resulting global influenza pandemic cannot be predicted with any certainty. Awareness of the possibility is already creating significant nervousness among health organizations, governments and businesses throughout the world.

For companies, anxiety levels should be rising fast. Companies would most likely face severe restrictions on international, and possibly local, travel, significant disruption to their supply chains as increased inspections disrupt logistics, and a potential general slowdown in business. This would be particularly true for companies in the travel and hospitality sector, but it has the potential to affect virtually every industry. 

Being prepared for the unexpected is at the heart of business continuity planning. Due to the number of uncertainties with avian flu, companies can only plan for what might happen. However, avian flu needs to be viewed as only one of a number of threats that companies face from a variety of unpredictable and possibly catastrophic events.

Given some of the terrible and disruptive events of the last few years, it might be safe to assume that businesses have learned lessons and implemented measures to ensure that they can carry on normally in the event of a worse case scenario.

Such confidence, unfortunately, may be misplaced.

Preparing for the worst

According to the research and analysis firm Gartner, companies need to consider that avian flu could be more contagious and virulent than SARS. In many ways the SARS pandemic from 2003 prompted governments and businesses to take a proactive approach to addressing avian influenza, and many different agencies have outlined recommendations.

Often, this includes remote working of one form or another. Though remote working is part of the solution, it fails to address the realities of a likely pandemic. If people are too sick too work, they will still be too sick to work at home. In addition, school closures will force many employees to remain at home to look after children, and overwhelmed health systems will mean that many people diagnosed with the infection will have to be cared for at home, again limiting otherwise healthy employees’ ability to work.

In the event of a pandemic, remote working will allow segregation of the workforce. People will wish to avoid areas of mass congregation – such as an office environment – as well as situations like air travel where large groups inhabit confined spaces for long periods of time.

Remote working is only part of the solution. Organizations should also consider identifying “skeleton” teams of key staff who would be the only ones to come to work in the event of a pandemic. Primary and backup teams for key activities should be identified and organized on a split-shift, split-site basis to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. Implementing a change freeze on all systems development will allow IT development staff to be redeployed into support positions if required.

Additionally, measures can be taken within a company’s facilities, such as careful monitoring and maintenance of air conditioning and additional antiseptic cleaning of key “at-risk” office facilities (e.g. telephones in a call center, consoles and desks in a data center operations bridge, etc.). Even measures such as closing the site’s catering facilities and providing pre-packaged food would likely be considered.


It is essential that companies make employees aware of a pandemic threat, and kept up-to-date on developments and procedures to be followed. The uncertainty and threat of disease can seriously impact employee productivity, even if it affects only a small number of people. In particular, in light of the direct threat to people that avian flu presents, companies need to explain how they will maintain operations with a significantly reduced workforce.

By assigning ongoing responsibility and budgets for maintaining and exercising business continuity plans, and ensuring an appropriate level of employee training and awareness, organizations can embed business continuity into their day-to-day operations.

A further mistake can arise from a lack of coordination in the ongoing activities that support business continuity. It is revealing to ask companies what they spend on business continuity. Often, the response will be that – in the absence of a specific project -little or nothing at all. However, data backup and storage, for example, are daily activities and most businesses maintain a redundant network.

These are all business continuity-related activities, but are not often thought about in that way. To change this, senior management needs to move the issue of business continuity on to their permanent agenda. They must ensure that they can achieve an integrated view of all the activities and processes taking place within the business that relate to and support “business-as-usual” operations in the face of unexpected and adverse events.

Once this vision is achieved, a communications plan needs to be enacted which can keep various stakeholders informed of the measures taken, as well as measures proposed. It is crucial that investors feel their investment is protected and that all necessary activities are in hand – with the full and focused attention of senior management – to manage and mitigate the risk created by a global pandemic. Otherwise, the business impact of failing to prepare, plan and communicate effectively could be a disaster.

Martin Byrne is Accenture’s business continuity practice lead in Europe, while Robert Dyson, based in Dallas, Texas, has the same role in the Americas. They can be reached at and robert.w.dyson@, respectively.

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