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Coronavirus puts attention on business pandemic plans

The coronavirus is making pandemic planning a business issue, once again. The last time businesses had to consider this problem was in 2009, with the H1N1 virus.

Scott McPherson, CIO of the Florida House of Representatives, was heavily involved in the state's 2009 pandemic planning. The state assumed 30% absenteeism from the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, he's been dusting off his pandemic plans. But some things have changed since then.

In the ensuing years, businesses have shifted work from in-house and co-location data centers to SaaS providers. HR, finance and other business executives often manage these third-party services. For HR specifically, there are thousands of vendors -- many of them small.

Scott McPherson, CIO of the Florida House of RepresentativesScott McPherson

"These organizations need to be reaching out to their SaaS providers and asking one simple question: 'What is your pandemic plan?'" McPherson, still the House CIO, said. "How are you going to be able to keep high availability in the face of a potential coronavirus pandemic that could cause an unspecified level of absenteeism?"

In many cases, it will be the responsibility of department managers, such as HR, to contact their vendors, although it may be the CIO who oversees the efforts, he said.

Janet Phillips, VP of People, Kong Inc.Janet Phillips

In San Francisco, part of Janet Phillips' job as HR director is to prepare for disasters, including earthquakes and viruses. She is VP of People at Kong Inc., a tech firm with a global workforce of 170 employees. The firm manages cloud API services.

About half of Kong's employees work out of its San Francisco office. Others work in countries all around the world. Three U.S.-based employees were in China last week, and the company was trying to get them home, Phillips said.

Preparing for disasters

Kong was preparing for potential business disruptions well before the new coronavirus emerged.

"We have done quite a bit of business continuity planning," Phillips said. "We live in San Francisco, and we're waiting for the big one."

Last March, Kong employees spent two weeks working remote. Phillips called it a "pressure test." The idea was to see if the company could conduct business as usual if all the firm's employees were working outside the office.

We tend to try to hit the hard things straight on so that we aren't caught by surprise.
Janet PhillipsVP of People, Kong Inc.

"We've put quite a bit of thought into it and practice," Phillips said. "We tend to try to hit the hard things straight on so that we aren't caught by surprise."

Part of the Kong's continuity planning included making sure that employees could work remotely. It also meant practicing how to conduct meetings online -- and keeping them inclusive, Phillips said.

Phillips said they picked cloud-service communication providers that have redundancies. The company's main tools are Zoom video conferencing as well as collaboration platforms Slack and Confluence.

Phillips believes the firm is ready to face any problem, including a virus outbreak. "We have built considerable muscle around the remote working framework," she said.

SaaS providers deliver the full range of HR services. Many are specialized and cater to certain markets or types of HR services, such as payroll. If any go offline, as happened to New York-based MyPayrollHR last year, the consequences can be severe. While the services appear simple to customers, there is often an entire chain of providers involved. In the payroll example, the chain includes hosting firms, clearinghouses and banks that deposit employee pay.

Readiness is an unknown

Stephanie Balaouras, group vice president at Forrester Research, believes that checking the readiness of third-party providers is something HR managers need to do.

"There is a shocking percentage of companies that don't know the readiness of their third parties, and even the ones that do, it's pretty superficial," Balaouras said.

Customers may ask for third-party pandemic plans, but they aren't doing joint testing or negotiating strict service-level agreements, according to Balaouras.

For SaaS providers, globalization may make them more susceptible to disruption, Balaouras said. But that could also be mitigated if overseas services can load balance and shift customer support to other locations, she said.

"It's a pretty big area of risk to begin with," Balaouras said, and the coronavirus "makes it more urgent."  

The 2009 flu pandemic was not as severe as other pandemics, with relatively small absenteeism rates, according to government studies. But the problem pandemics create persists, McPherson said.

"The first thing that IT has to recognize is that it has a problem, and … that it hasn't thought about this issue, probably, in at least a decade," McPherson said.

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