Key Elements of Effective Crisis Response

James Lodge


November 1, 2023

Workers responding to a crisis

Whether from technical failures, natural disasters, civil unrest or many other causes, crises can strike at any time with little warning. To minimize disruptions and maintain organizational resilience when the worst happens, it is crucial to prepare ahead of time by developing robust and thoroughly rehearsed crisis management plans. Proper training, clear communication protocols, people accounting procedures, and nimble utilization of remote work and alternate sites will enable organizations to rapidly adapt and respond when faced with sudden threats of any type.

Unfortunately, many institutions still take a reactive approach to crisis management, addressing business continuity only after major disruptions occur. This leads to chaotic, inefficient responses that amplify damages. Effective crisis readiness involves envisioning worst-case scenarios across potential risk areas, then extensively documenting coordinated emergency protocols, securing redundant infrastructure, and training personnel in response procedures through realistic drills.

Technology leaders must weigh potential cascading failures in complex, interdependent systems and build in appropriate redundancies and failovers. Facility managers need plans to enable smooth work transfer or office evacuations during physical disruptions. Human resources teams should develop emergency communications protocols and remote work guidelines to keep staff connected, informed and productive through crises.

Criminal events like cyberattacks also require extensive readiness, from data and network protections to public relations messaging. Monitoring emerging political and environmental risks allows organziations to activate plans before threats escalate locally. Incorporating lessons learned from past response efforts can continuously strengthen preparations.

But plans on paper mean little without ingraining readiness into institutional culture through repeated training. Even the best procedures will falter if not practiced. Annual response plan reviews should assess whether skills are maintained. Drills should confirm staff understand individual roles and can follow protocols instinctively when emergencies strike. Scenario-based exercises can help build muscle memory to make agile but level-headed decisions amid crises.

With robust crisis readiness and response capabilities woven into everyday operations, organizations can tackle the unexpected with confidence. The following examples demonstrate how preparation and care for people will make all the difference when disruptions inevitably occur.

Preparing for Worst-Case Scenarios After a Tech Failure

In today’s hyperconnected world, organizations must prepare for cascading technology failures that can bring operations to their knees when multiple systems fail interdependently. Financial institutions are especially vulnerable to technical disruptions that can rapidly spiral through their complex IT ecosystems.

This was highlighted in a crisis that brought down a secondary data center of a bank after a contractor accidentally severed backup power lines during routine building work. While such an error should not have happened, the initial shutdown alone would have been serious. However, hastily restoring primary power even diligently following proper reboot procedures caused a surge that damaged physical hardware.

With several essential systems knocked offline, the bank had to immediately divert staff and resources employing several technical work arounds to avoid suspending critical operations like customer payments and trading. However, the urgent mobilization of technical teams to isolate and replace affected hardware was hampered by aging components across the data center infrastructure. Procuring replacements required a global search as compatible parts were long discontinued. Until full repairs were completed, complicated workarounds were required to maintain essential functions.

This crisis spotlighted the need to plan for extreme worst-case scenarios that can snowball rapidly. While individual system failures are not uncommon, the risks compound exponentially in complex, interconnected IT environments. Knocking out one system frequently cascades into others when recovery is not sequenced properly.

Unfortunately, many institutions take a siloed approach to disaster recovery planning, focusing on individual application rather than environment-wide contingencies. But compartmentalized plans cannot account for multi-system dependencies that will arise. Regular testing is essential, but should mimic full site failures, not just isolated applications.

When all systems are simultaneously compromised, it becomes vital to understand comprehensive recovery priorities and sequences. Detailed restoration plans and readily available spare parts enable businesses to fully recover operations quicker and more efficiently should the worst occur.

Threats like catastrophic power or network interruptions can inflict compounding damages rapidly. By envisioning and preparing for extreme scenarios, institutions can build greater redundancy and responsiveness into their technical ecosystems.

Protecting People and Assets When Responding to a Severe Storm

Severe storms can still disrupt organizations even without reaching hurricane levels. Proper contingency planning is key to effective response and recovery when adverse weather strikes. This was highlighted when an intense winter storm impacted New York.

While less than a hurricane, the strong nor’easter still packed high winds, blizzard conditions and significant coast flooding that exceeded initial forecasts. The heavy wet snow and whipping winds downed trees and electrical lines, causing scattered power outages. Flooding shut down road tunnels into New York City, making commutes treacherous. Public transit systems experienced suspensions or delays amidst the freeze. Businesses across the region wer forced to activate emergency plans in response to the storm.

With transportation disrupted, many companies quickly instituted remote work for non-essential employees even before the storm fully struck. For staff unable to avoid coming onsite, hotel rooms were arranged nearby so they avoided commuting issues.

The winds caused some office property damage like blown-out windows and roof leaks. Facilities teams did their best to mitigate and repair issues during the height of the storm. Proactive equipment shutdowns prevented electrical damage from power surges.

While disruptive, the storm’s impacts proved relatively manageable for most organizations. Cloud-based systems avoided data loss, and remote work enabled maintaining operations, though some employees lacked power at home initially. Meanwhile, forensic response teams were deployed to some offices to securely dispose of paper records damaged by water leaks.

Though less disastrous than something like a Category 4 hurricane, this disruptive storm spotlighted gaps in contingency plans. Hardened remote work capabilities and procedures are critical when facilities are physically inaccessible. But viable telecom and power alternatives must be incorporated to account for utility failures impacting workers’ homes.

By envisioning potential storm scenarios, companies can identify vulnerabilities in continuity and response plans. Without, adequate preparations, even smaller-scale weather events can create cascading business disruptions. Building organizational resilience requires planning for people’s safety and productivity under all foreseeable conditions.

Prioritizing People and Staying Operational During Civil Unrest

Organizations must carefully navigate operating during periods of sustained civil unrest driven by political tensions. This was highlighted during the 2019 Hong Kong protests when widespread rallies severely disrupted transportation across the city.

Numerous multinational companies faced challenges maintaining operations with headquarters located in the impacted areas. As demonstrations and crowds increasingly spilled from the streets directly outside offices, safe facility access became difficult. Several firms with a central Hong Kong office had to take swift action to keep business functioning. Leadership immediately implemented robust remote work arrangements for non-essential personnel that were not on site.

For client-critical staff still required onsite, secure corporate accommodations were often quickly arranged nearby so employees avoided commuting through protest zones. With public transit constrained by cancellations and road blockages, people accounting tools proved vital to closely track employees relying on disrupted routes.

Constant vigilance and responsiveness were crucial as conditions evolved. Companies also recognized that differing political opinions on the protests existed among their diverse staff. A key leadership decision for many was to unambiguously communicate through the crisis that safely supporting all employees would remain the sole priority, not any ideological stances. This apolitical people-focused approach fostered trust and unity. Employees willingly adapted to the abruptly changing working arrangements, recognizing the firms had their well-being and needs in mind.

Through proactive precautions like remote staffing and real-time monitoring of protest movements, the firms successfully maintained client services throughout the prolonged unrest. This experience spotlighted that during any civil crisis, responsibly caring for people must eclipse politics or business as usual.

By envisioning potential scenarios, companies can develop continuity plans tailored to civil disruptions. With readiness and resilience, organizations can operate through even severe instability when unavoidably caught in the epicentre.

Important Considerations for Effective Crisis Response

When crises and disruptions strike, proper preparation and response is essential to resilience and recovery. While each situation presents unique complexities, analysis of effective crisis management reveals several consistent elements:

  • Thorough planning, testing and training for even worst-case scenarios leads to more agile, tailored responses when the unexpected happens. Conducting preparedness drills based on extreme contingencies makes crisis decision-making more instinctive.
  • Investing proactively in redundant infrastructure, robust remote work capabilities and detailed response procedure documentation pays dividends when disasters hit. Companies should envision potential crises across risk areas, from cyberattacks to civil unrest.
  • Well-defined procedures around IT disaster recovery, emergency operations, remote work protocols and people accountability can enable a rapid and coordinated response throughout the company. Practiced communications protocols allow leaders to provide timely situational updates and decisive guidance.
  • Empowering personnel with remote work arrangements maintains business operations even when primary facilities are inaccessible. But viable technology and infrastructure alternatives must be accounted for if disruption cripples local resources workers rely on.
  • A people-focused approach that proactively addresses both physical and mental well-being is paramount during crises. Prioritizing worker health, safety and needs cultivates trust and unity. Building organizational resilience starts with building personal resilience among staff first.
  • Staying adaptable and politically neutral amid civil unrest is vital. Organizations must avoid reactive panic, and make level-headed decisions anchored in protecting people over profit or ideology.

By keeping people at the very center of crisis preparedness and response, companies can weather even severe disruptions. Leadership should set the tone and foster a culture of crisis readiness long before disaster strikes. With comprehensive readiness and compassionate vigilance, businesses can navigate even daunting catastrophes. And companies that support their people through the worst will earn their people’s support when facing the next crisis.

James Lodge is global business continuity manager at Linklaters LLP.