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Business continuity challenges emerge as work from home ends

As governments consider reopening, organizations must address how it affects business continuity planning, such as accounting for WFH employees returning to offices and the potential for outages.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, business continuity conversations focused on keeping a business up and running in a fixed physical location under a variety of adverse circumstances. Now that we're faced with a new reality in which entire organizations work from home (WFH), business continuity conversations have changed.

Today, IT leaders have to grapple with two brand-new business continuity challenges: transitioning teams back to in-office work and developing a readiness model that prepares an organization for a system-wide shock. We'll explore how these challenges together constitute the new face of business continuity.

Business continuity challenge: Reopening offices

While organizations will have to work through public health concerns as they forge a path to reopening, the business continuity challenge of reopening an office extends well beyond social distancing.

The BC challenge involves the question of how to reintegrate technology that's been "in the wild" in employees' homes for weeks or months. Returning hundreds or thousands of WFH machines to the office at the same time would pose serious risks: Even a single machine with weakened security, non-secure programs or a virus could wreak havoc on all kinds of sensitive data.

To prevent such problems, IT teams may have to re-image all machines that were used remotely and restore approved and trusted workplace settings. This means workers may need replacement devices to work on during this process. This seems straightforward enough, but it raises several logistical questions:

  • How many spare laptops does the organization have (or how many can it afford)?
  • How long will it take IT to secure each machine upon reentry?
  • How many employees can an organization bring back online at once?

When these are answered, there's the question of deciding which employees and teams come back when.

One way to prioritize reentry is to start with those whose machines need the least work (or the most). To figure this out, it's helpful to look at expense reports. Why? Because in the rush to achieve productivity in a work from home setting, a lot of employees improvised.

For example, maybe an employee on a tight deadline needed certain functionality they didn't have access to via their VPN. They requested access and then they requested permission to purchase software that would provide a workaround. As the deadline neared, the employee simply downloaded the software, expensed it and didn't think twice about it.

The project got completed on time, but the machine now runs an unapproved application that could pose any number of security risks.

Of course, expense reports won't tell the whole story, but they can help IT teams develop a plan of action for preparing work computers to reenter a work environment.

When this reentry transition is over, though, business continuity won't go back to the way it was. That's where the second challenge comes in.

Continuity challenge: Making continuity Agile

Business continuity is notoriously under-tested. Almost every organization has a plan and almost nobody runs regular tests.

This became abundantly clear during the rapid forced transition to company-wide work from home so many organizations experienced in mid-March. The goal for many business continuity plans is to be up and running within hours -- and within 24 hours at most. Unfortunately, a more common experience during the COVID-19 adjustment was a transition that took seven to 10 days of working long hours and weekends to get everyone up to speed and working productively.

This was a significant wakeup call for many organizations. In the IT community, it sparked conversations about how to treat business continuity more like other development functions, with an implementation model similar to DevOps or continuous integration/continuous delivery.

One solution that's quickly gaining some traction: designed intermittent outages, team by team, every few weeks. By doing this, everyone within an organization gets used to what an outage looks like, how to operate during nonideal conditions, how to work under stress and how to cope with the sudden uncertainty. Triggering regular scheduled outages forces teams to find alternative ways of doing things and to become comfortable in addressing sudden changes to business conditions.

This model can also reveal any nonessential processes, workflows and functions still operating within an organization, in a way that a full outage often cannot due to the panic and stress it brings.

Here's how: If taking a function or process offline doesn't disrupt the organization, this is a good indicator that there is an opportunity to optimize this process. At a minimum, you will have a solid understanding of which processes and systems are truly critical to your business. You can then prioritize administration and response accordingly so that limited resources can administer support to the most critical areas of the business first.

The three key takeaways in thinking about Agile continuity are:

  1. Stage outages in a way that forces teams to develop strategies for working under less-than-ideal circumstances.
  2. Use these tests to identify any areas of the organization that aren't mission-critical and can receive secondary support.
  3. Strengthen the organization by eliminating unnecessary workflows and retraining staff to contribute to more profitable operations.

The continuous future of business continuity

COVID-19 has had a far-reaching impact on the economy in the short term. It will also have an impact for years to come.

One major opportunity it presents for IT leaders is the chance to rethink business continuity models so that they operate as living, breathing parts of an organization and add value by making organizations leaner, stronger and more resilient.

About the author
Tom Kiblin is the vice president of Managed Services at ServerCentral Turing Group (SCTG). SCTG offers cloud-native software development, AWS consulting, cloud infrastructure and global datacenter services.

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