Special thanks to these professionals for their contributions to this article.
Nancy Green, CPCU, ARM
Executive Vice President, Coleader of Aon's Global COVID-19 Task Force, Strategic Account Manager, and Coleader of Aon's Hotel Industry Focus
Managing Consultant, US—Casualty Claims Consulting, Global Risk Consulting, and Member of Aon's Global COVID-19 Task Force
In light of the COVID-19 public health emergency ending on May 11, 2023, we reached out to members of our COVID-19 Task Force for thoughts around "lessons learned" from the pandemic. See below Q&A supported by Aon's COVID-19 Task Force leader Nancy Green and Task Force member Carol Ungaretti, managing consultant, with some final thoughts.
What changes did you see or are you seeing related to crisis management and escalation practices postpandemic? The pandemic exposed vulnerabilities across most business practices, including crisis management programs. In the early stages of the pandemic, organizations with already-developed crisis management programs and pandemic response plans were certainly better situated to act, but all our clients were tested as they addressed the COVID-19 crisis because the differences in how the pandemic was perceived, the extended length of time in which all communities experienced this event simultaneously, the catastrophic economic and social impacts of sustained mitigation measures, and how safety practices were managed at individual state, city, and municipal levels. The United States was not alone in this; the same challenges were true in other countries as well. Delayed and fragmented messaging painfully revealed our failure to plan for the unexpected.
An important lesson learned from the pandemic is the importance in designing a multidisciplinary, consolidated escalation framework that integrates human resources (HR), legal, finance, operations, safety/security, and risk management resources to maintain situational awareness, align response posture to the evolving event dynamics, and clearly channel directions and instructions in a uniform and transparent manner.
What "silos" did the pandemic break down, and do we expect these avenues of collaboration to continue? One of the biggest challenges faced by organizations during the pandemic was the challenges of their own organizational structures that hindered information sharing and critical communication in order to solve for the multifaceted issues required for business continuity and employee safety. Aon's COVID Task Force was purposely made up of colleagues from a number of Aon specialties for us to better understand the impact of the pandemic on business and allow us to identify solutions and actions from as many perspectives as possible. We noted that many of our clients also deployed a "whole company," enterprise-wide response and collaborated with all sectors of their organizations, as well as their external partners, to implement solutions to address the havoc caused by the COVID-19 crisis.
An example is a large client who brought together their risk management, HR executive, and legal teams to design and implement a workflow that allowed immediate reporting of any positive COVID test, allowing the organization to complete required contact tracing practices as well as to report potential COVID-related workers compensation claims in a single report. This team not only collaborated internally but deployed their COVID tracking process on a third-party vendor's reporting platform; the same vendor they were using to report casualty claims. This same client has regularly brought teams from different disciplines together to tackle some big challenges. This client demonstrated the value in working collaboratively during the pandemic and thereafter. We'd like to believe a silver lining to the pandemic is a continuance of this teamwork across many organizations.
How did the pandemic expose the need to counter disinformation/misinformation with colleagues? Most clients experienced challenges in communicating illness, vaccine, and safety information to colleagues due to large segments of the workforce being influenced by disinformation/misinformation in social media and other sources. Since the disease was previously unknown and required rapid development of vaccines and treatments, the science behind it was evolving, and the guidance based on that science evolved as well. Unfortunately, this provided fertile ground for misinformation/disinformation to grow, which contributed to differences in take-up rate for vaccination and safety protocols among employees. Those challenges worsened as organizations implemented plans to return to office after lockdown. We saw many clients recognize trust as a key factor in countering these influences, and Aon worked with them to implement creative strategies to build trust.
One example was a client who engaged Aon to provide qualified members of our COVID Task Force to lead in-person COVID education sessions for their employees. An Aon representative and a medical professional from a local healthcare provider would conduct sessions for the employer's employees and walk them through facts, allow them to ask questions, and provided fact-based responses that were compelling and grounded. The employer was stunned at how appreciative these employees were for this opportunity to be heard and for their concerns to be addressed on the spot with facts that dispelled fear. The human factor is important in effective communication, and it underscores that a core strategy to tackling polarization and distrust is to get people to work together for a common goal—in this case, the safety and security of colleagues and their families.
What lessons did we learn related to situational awareness? Who does it for the organization, and how is it done? The challenge with situational awareness isn't just setting it up, but it's also maintaining it, knowing how and when to escalate information that requires attention, and recognizing pivot points when change is required. It also requires a multidisciplinary approach between HR, legal, finance, operations, safety/security, and risk management so that an organization can connect the dots more quickly and effectively. We saw many organizations evolve their approach to situational awareness over time as they came to understand the event arc of a pandemic (and COVID, in particular) to have waves and a long duration, rather than be a specific event with a defined start and end date. This realization should hold organizations in good stead for the future, as surveillance for risks and threats must be ongoing, and the ability to know when and how to escalate and pivot is a skill that can support ongoing resilience.
Did the pandemic provide us lessons in knowing when/how to stand down from crisis footing and how to communicate changes in posture? One of the things we learned is that standing down is different than ramping up. It's not just "reversing" the steps, but it's also knowing when/how to do it and about recalibrating readiness to the new normal—how we make sure lessons learned stay with us.
As respects to knowing when/how to do it, we can take some cues from the government's response and how those changes will impact employers and the healthcare industry. For instance, the US government has announced that the emergency phase of the COVID pandemic will expire on May 11, 2023, and the response will transition to a traditional healthcare footing. There are certain things that will be triggered upon this expiration, and those may have an impact on how we access COVID vaccines, treatments, and testing. Employers who have an understanding of these changes can help ensure employees and their families are aware. For more information on the US government's transition away from the emergency phase of COVID, please see this link: COVID Public Health Emergency Transition.
Communication is a key component of managing the changes required as an organization stands down its threat posture. Change is difficult for people, and the human element must be considered. Communicate openly, allow questions, involve experts to support fact-based perspectives, and recognize that employees may have fears about next steps.
From a lessons learned standpoint, we also suggest that a multidisciplinary team continue to interact on a regular basis to support effective threat surveillance/"connect the dots" process that promotes ongoing resilience. Combine it with enterprise risk management and the organization's environmental, social, and governance (ESG) approach to build infrastructure and discipline around threat surveillance and further embed it into the organization's DNA. It's important that theory and assumptions be linked to real-world verification so that more informed decisions can be made about moving the organization forward.
Some Final Thoughts
The pandemic was an unprecedented event that not only highlighted inadequacies in business continuity programs but also exposed the challenges of organizational silos and their effect on agility and internal and external communications, as well as navigating fluid local and national regulatory environments. The items covered in this article are just a few examples of the lessons learned and the resulting increased resiliency of organizations that has resulted from overcoming these challenges. Unfortunately, as has been warned by global health professionals, this is likely not the last pandemic. The lessons learned from COVID will hopefully serve as a guide to increase organizational preparedness for future regional or global health events.
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