Before COVID-19, one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding workplace pandemic planning was that only healthcare organizations needed to be prepared. While the healthcare industry stands at the forefront, the impact of COVID-19 has clearly illustrated that every organization is at risk in the face of a pandemic.

Lisa McLean, Vice President, Human Resources at Cowan Insurance Group, discusses how workplace pandemic continuity planning continues to provide guidance through COVID-19, and the lessons we have learned so far.

1. What is a workplace pandemic continuity plan?

The plan at Cowan focuses on business continuity, ensuring that we can continue to deliver essential business functions to best support our clients, employees, and communities during a pandemic.

2. When was the plan created?

Our plan was developed around 10 years ago during the H1N1 or “swine flu” outbreak. It has evolved over the years, but it has largely stood the test of time.

3. What are the key components of your pandemic continuity plan?

Our plan includes the following components:

  • Planning
  • Monitoring
  • Communicating
  • Controlling the spread of infection
  • Maintaining business operations
  • Implementing measures to minimize the risk to the health and safety of our clients, employees, and communities

4. When did the pandemic continuity plan for COVID-19 go into use?

We reviewed our plan in January 2020 when the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency. Since then, we’ve been monitoring the situation closely and following the plan by taking the identified proper action during each phase or wave of the pandemic.

5. How did the plan guide Cowan during the transition to working from home for the majority of the workforce?

We started by identifying the key stages of a pandemic, including:

  • Routine monitoring
  • Enhanced monitoring
  • Activation
  • Enhanced/Full activation
  • Recovery
  • Stand-down

Insurance is an essential service in Ontario, so it is imperative that the business continues to operate and support our clients. In the activation stage, we initiated several activities, which included increased monitoring, implementing infection control procedures, and we began preparing for alternative work arrangements like remote working. In the full activation stage, we moved the majority of our workforce to remote working; however, we have kept a small group of employees that continue to work in the office.

We have also placed a heightened emphasis on communication, creating many educational and informational pieces for our clients and employees as the situation evolved.

6. What role did technology play in how the pandemic continuity plan was implemented?

Technology has advanced tremendously since the last pandemic. We are fortunate to have a fantastic Information Technology team who worked tirelessly to ensure the successful move of the majority of our workforce to remote working in a very short time.

Our employees also rose to the occasion by learning technologies that provide increased opportunities to collaborate and stay connected. I believe COVID-19 brought the “future of work” to our doorstep, more abruptly than anticipated. Witnessing how technology facilitated our transition this time has been incredible.

7. With the majority of the workforce now working remotely, what is the current focus in this phase of the pandemic?

For our organization, helping our clients navigate the uncertainties during this unprecedented time is our top priority. Offering resources to help our employees to provide thought leadership in different areas to our clients is key. From a Human Resources perspective, we put a focus on employee well-being and leadership training to keep everyone motivated and engaged in this challenging time.

The next phase will be scenario planning for the return to the office. We are surveying our employees to get their input into how to do this most effectively while keeping the health and safety of our employees as a priority.

8. What are some lessons we have learned from managing and implementing the COVID-19 pandemic continuity plan?

While we focused on open, transparent communication with our employees, we did not fully embed the appropriate level of mental health and wellness support into our plan.

Thankfully, we have internal experts who specialize in these fields, who provided timely consulting to our clients, helping them respond to their employees with professional and practical recommendations.

Internally, we have been using a variety of communication channels to keep our employees engaged, such as weekly video updates from the President, virtual coffee breaks with the President, and short surveys. We have also been providing health and wellness resources to our employees through a dedicated COVID-19 section on our intranet.

9. Are there any final thoughts you would like to share?

This situation can be overwhelming at times. Most, if not all, of our employees, find themselves in uncharted territory—balancing work with kids at home, unable to visit their parents, or possibly having family and friends fallen seriously ill due to the pandemic. But remember, through this shared experience, we are all building resilience. What can be more important than that?

Regardless of the size of your organization, proper pandemic continuity planning will better prepare you for how to respond to a crisis like COVID-19. If you need help, our dedicated team of expert advisors are available to offer advice on how to minimize risks presented by unexpected events.