Just a few weeks ago, I was working in my home office when the whole house began to shake. It may have seemed minor to anyone who has lived in California, but an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.8 is a big deal for those of us on the U.S. east coast.
Many businesses sent their employees home, either because they wanted to check their buildings for potential damage or because those employees needed to deal with personal matters, like picking children up from the many schools that closed.
A week later, a hurricane swept up the same coast. That led to more downtime for businesses that needed to batten down the hatches and, in many cases, make repair afterwards. There was more warning for the hurricane than the earthquake, but it was still tough for many businesses to handle.
The big problem is planning
The simple truth is that, as business owners, most of us are focused on building our businesses. We can be so busy working on the opportunities in front of us that we often forget to do any contingency planning. In fact, at the time of the 9/11 attacks only 19 percent of CEOs reported having a crisis management plan in place, according to PRWeek. But that sort of planning is absolutely crucial.
There’s no way to plan for every eventuality, but there are a lot of generalized responses that you can put together. In the process of creating a crisis response plan, you may spot some weaknesses in your business’ operations that you can take steps to fix now.
Categories of catastrophes
Think in terms of categories of potential issues, rather than every possible permutation. That will you will have options that you can adapt to different situations. After all, what you need to do in the event of a blackout will be different than what you’ll need to do in the event of a full-fledged evacuation. Where possible, you might want to consider preventative steps you can take, as well.
There are plenty of companies that specialize in handling every aspect of crisis management, from prevention to recovery. The price tag can get a little steep for a small business owner, and it is certainly possible to put together a plan for your business without those companies’ guidance, provided you can invest some time in the process.
The crises worth planning for
There are plenty of natural disasters that could potentially strike your business, to the point that it can feel absolutely overwhelming to start planning. A more manageable approach can be to think in terms of what you actually need to operate your business—and what you would need to do if you had to go without.
Make a list
You can start by making a list of what you use every day in the course of running your business. Dig down deeper than the obvious, though: If you boot up your computer, you’re not just using your computer. You’re using electricity, an Internet connection, software and, perhaps, even some Web applications.
Don’t forget to think about a crisis that might remove you from the equation. If an employee or one of your family members had to step in and handle your business for you, having a plan in place they can follow—typically referred to as a continuity plan—is crucial. The same goes for the employees who work for you. Especially if you work with a remote team, a team member may be unexpectedly unavailable, for days or even weeks.
Documenting your crisis response plan
Keeping your crisis response plan in your head is a sure way to make managing a crisis harder. If a hurricane is headed your way or you just rode out an earthquake, you’re going to be stressed—ask anyone living in the Mid-Atlantic region. You’re bound to forget at least a few details.
With a written set of guidelines, you can respond quickly. A checklist is nice, especially in situations like an evacuation, when you may have to do a lot in a short period of time.
Be sure to have multiple copies of your plan available, in multiple locations. Storing it on your laptop is great—but what happens if the battery runs down and you can’t recharge? For once, this is a situation where electronic tools shouldn’t be your main choice. Sure, you should keep a couple of copies on different computers and in the cloud, but you absolutely need to print out a couple of copies as well.
You’ll find that it’s worth running drills, as well, even if it’s just you in the office. Practicing the steps you’ll need to deal with a certain situation can help you find potential problems in your plan. Solving such issues now means one less thing to worry about in the event that there’s real trouble. You may also notice opportunities for preventing certain situations: Even something as simple as setting up off-site backups for your computer files can save you in the event that a crisis wipes out your desktop or laptop.