Gartner Research

Pandemic Planning: Responding to Coronavirus and Other Emerging Risks

Published: 03 February 2020


Pandemics aren’t your usual business disruption. Unfolding over months, these events require an extra set of activities that include consultations with epidemiologists, critical role identification and third-party evaluations. CHROs should use these tips and checklists to plan out a response.

A pandemic is not your normal business disruption. Unlike a cyberattack or natural disaster, it can affect operations globally for months and threatens the workforce directly.

A new coronavirus strain that emerged in Wuhan, China, last month is the latest reminder — like SARS, MERS and H1N1 before it — that companies need to plan and prepare for large-scale outbreaks of dangerous diseases. Even before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global public health emergency on 30 January 2020, companies had already begun taking steps to reduce their exposure, such as restricting travel to China, closing stores and factories there and ordering employees in affected regions to work from home.

Preplanning is essential during any crisis, but pandemics require extra activities. That includes keeping close contact with epidemiologists as well as monitoring and modeling the impacts over months. Hopefully, your organization already has a business continuity management (BCM) plan for pandemics, maybe from the last one in 2009. If you do, you should be able to adapt it. If you don’t, you can scroll to the bottom of this article for a checklist to gauge your preparedness and see which actions you still need to pursue.

Below, we’ll share important basics for assessing the risk of a pandemic and identifying critical roles in a preparedness and response plan. But first, any response should have two guiding principles:

It’s the smart thing to do as an employer (and the right thing to do for the species). When SARS (also a coronavirus) spread to four continents in 2003, executives at seven companies told us that managing employees’ concerns and questions was one of the most time-consuming associated activities. Even when a disease’s impact is limited, uncertainty can create fear and anxiety. If employees think that they could be exposed at work, morale will suffer. In addition, companies face potential for poor public opinion of company actions and of employee lawsuits. As a result, HR leaders need to be involved in any preparation and response plan, partnering with representatives from risk management, safety and security, communications, finance and IT.

Even if the new coronavirus is contained and suppressed in the coming weeks, it still provides an opportunity to see where the company is exposed and which business activities may not go as planned during the spread of infectious disease. After all, more common medical disruptions can be more costly over the long run. For instance, seasonal influenza cost businesses$21 billion in lost productivity in 2018 — not to mention the inconvenience to workers (and sometimes severe health impacts). Document your response this time around; note surprises or assumptions in your plan that turned out to be wrong. HR leaders should also work with employees, deploying targeted surveys or focus groups, to assess the effectiveness of the company response plan and any areas where employees wished they had more support.

Your organization should be in contact with epidemiologists to inform your own analysis. Ideally, companies will have consulted them ahead of time to prebuild pandemic risk models. You should also monitor releases from theWHO and government health agencies in all affected regions. The media often overhypes pandemics and misses nuances in epidemiological analyses.While developing a robust risk model may be the responsibility of the risk management team, HR leaders need to stay informed and should be comfortable asking questions about the analysis, because ultimately any resulting decisions will have an impact on employees.

The information gathered from external sources should feed into the impact analysis and determine triggers for action. After experiencing avian flu, H1N1 and SARS, American Express set up criteria to validate the threats of the next pandemic. The company included both the impact on the business and the impact on the community to determine thresholds for action (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Criteria for Independent Threat Validation

Hitting pandemic thresholds should trigger your response plans. Take a look at how another company set these thresholds and required its local HR managers to monitor and report on their conditions during a swine flu outbreak (see Figure 2). Each threshold had a predetermined action.

Figure 2. Reporting Template and Escalation Criteria for Local HR Managers

HR leaders should ensure their response plan clearly defines HR roles at different levels of the organization to improve flexibility and response time. Because pandemics can impact different regions rapidly and with varying severity, local HR teams should have the ability to evaluate triggers for actions and make time-sensitive critical decisions, such as office closures. At the same time, global HR should be responsible for providing timely and accurate information to local teams as well as keeping the senior executives informed of the company’s response plan.

A pandemic strikes directly at your most valuable asset — your workers, and when an outbreak could last for months, you will need to plan for absenteeism. When the organization makes an impact analysis, HR leaders must work with their partners in risk management and the business to determine which roles are necessary for the organization to function.

To prepare for an avian flu outbreak in 2006, Goodyear outlined three steps to make sure it would have the right personnel available to continue operating.

First, Goodyear tasked each business unit or region with identifying roles that had:

  • Functions that were directly linked to business priorities in that part of the world.

  • Functions that were directly linked to mission-critical products in that location.

  • Relationships with contractors and customers that the company needed to adhere to as long as possible.

  • Functions related to potential “surge” activities, which might be created or increase in number or intensity if a pandemic occurred.

Next, the company placed each role into one of three categories:

  • Essential: Roles and functions which must be completed under all circumstances.

  • Temporary Suspension: Roles and functions which may be suspended for a short time.

  • Extended Suspension: Roles and functions which can be suspended for an extended period.

Then, Goodyear used this analysis to develop skill sets required for critical roles where the employee bench was shallow, thereby building operational resiliency in case of an outbreak. The company also took steps to distribute essential roles and functions geographically in case it needed to suspend operations temporarily in one region.

This article hereafter highlights questions to ask during an outbreak, questions to ask once an outbreak becomes a pandemic and which actions you should perform regularly afterward to make sure you’re prepared.

HR leaders cannot wait for a crisis to develop to start responding. In the event of a global pandemic, you can be certain that employees will be reading the news, discussing the implications for themselves and their coworkers and asking what their organizations will do to respond. HR leaders must have the answers to these questions to assure employees the organization is prepared to handle a crisis.

Information and Communication Concerns

  • What is the nature of the disease? How is it transmitted?

  • What are its symptoms, and what healthcare precautions are appropriate?

  • Do employees know what to do and who to contact if they are infected or may have been exposed to the virus?

  • How will the company communicate with its employees if they are not at work?

  • At what point do managers need to communicate to upper management that there is a potential problem?

  • How will potential problems be communicated to employees and clients? Can you use the name of the employee when communicating to staff?

  • Have call centers been set up to maintain contact with third parties, clients and employees?

Employee Concerns

  • What is the company’s position if an employee wants to work at home?

  • What happens if an infected employee comes to work?

  • What if an employee wants to be temporarily transferred to another region? What about his or her family?

  • Is the company prepared to provide family death support, paid time off to attend co-worker funeral, increase the limit on vacation time, etc.?

Operational Concerns

  • Can the company operate with 25% or greater absenteeism?

  • Can the company have employees work remotely?

  • Can the company increase flexibility and accommodation for liberal leave and compensation?

  • Will the company monitor or even restrict travel to high-risk regions?

  • What infrastructure support is needed to support a shift to an at-home workforce?

  • What are the procedures to decontaminate the facility and its heating, ventilation, air-conditioning systems, electronic equipment and soft materials (blankets, curtains, etc.)?

  • What assurances need to be provided to the facility staff members so that they are safe at work?

  • At what point does the company prohibit staff from traveling to certain geographic areas?

  • How will traveling employees be brought home, particularly if they are sick?

  • Are there escalation procedures to get additional resources?

  • Are employees cross-trained and able to perform multiple duties if an illness causes high absenteeism?

  • Is there a trained crisis management team that includes on-call staff?

  • Do the team members know what is expected of them? Are the correct personnel management and others designated to participate on the team?

External Communication Concerns

  • How can we ensure executives are prepared to deliver messages?

  • Who have we approved for external communications?

  • Have press releases been prepared that can be adapted to fit the situation?

  • Are mechanisms in place for managing external communications?

  • What if the current means of communication fail?

  • Are there trained spokespeople for dealing with the media and other stakeholders?

During a crisis, HR leaders need to be prepared for the situation to develop rapidly and in unexpected directions. HR leaders must leverage the most appropriate communication channels to ensure rapid deployment of information to employees who need it. Tailor mass communication outreaches to employees according to the level of crisis or disease outbreak in or near their regions (i.e., no cases reported, isolated cases reported, significant number of cases reported). HR leaders should be in constant communication with the crisis management team to understand:

  • Is the crisis management team operating effectively? Does it have the necessary and readily available resources to support its activities?

  • Where will the team and its support resources stay if they have to travel or relocate to a different facility?

  • Has the team initially identified and monitored changes of the recovery time objectives for each of the critical business processes that may be interrupted?

  • Have pandemic-specific strategies been developed for each process? Does the organization understand how these plans will be put into action?

  • Have the strategies been integrated in an effective manner or prioritized, particularly if multiple facilities and regions are affected?

  • Have supply chain dependencies and alternative channels been identified and secured in case of disruption? What happens if the backup fails?

  • Are there alternative premises and facilities within and outside of an affected region that can be used?

  • Are transport links likely to be sufficient to get people and resources to the alternate sites?

Crisis planning doesn’t stop once a crisis is over. By taking the following steps, HR leaders can ensure the organization maintains high readiness for the next potential scenario.

  • Review, update and test all existing plans based on the threat posed by any pandemic.

  • Consider establishing escalation trigger points based on warning levels issued by WHO, CDC, etc.

  • Maintain contact with governments, international agencies and industry groups about the availability of new guidance.

  • Tell employees what to do and who to inform if they identify a suspected infection among their colleagues.

  • Define responsibilities within the organization for pandemic planning and tracking the development of potential threats.

  • Reexamine the supply chain and assess what additional risks exist to the continuation of service from third parties through operations to customers.

  • Share pandemic preparedness and response plans with key third parties and service providers to increase transparency of responses and align activities.

  • Review or develop employee health procedures to minimize the potential for transmission of infectious diseases to other workers.

  • Evaluate current employee healthcare plans to ensure adequate coverage in the event of prolonged absence from work.

  • Consider building capacity for telecommuting.

  • Develop a plan to educate staff about possible consequences and preparation steps being taken by the company.

  • Test operations pandemic response plans regularly. Consider running a rehearsal using various outbreak scenarios.

  • Train senior managers in crisis management skills and/or give them access to crisis management resources.

  • Check whether facilities can support clean operating environments (e.g., filtration of air conditioning systems).

Recommended by the Authors

American Express (AXP) developed a playbook to protect the safety and health of its employees and to improve HR leadership in anticipation of recurring pandemic threats. The playbook capitalizes on American Express’s existing crisis management framework to clearly define each HR stakeholder’s role in responding to a pandemic. It contains guidance and policies to give HR direction and discretion in leading the response and advocating employee health in all actions.

This tool outlines relevant communications questions and actions to consider during a crisis. HR leaders can use this tool to enable better conversations with stakeholders and employees.


“Impact of Illness/Disease on Business Continuity Plans and Crisis Management,” Gartner.


“HR Policies and Contingency Planning in Preparation for a Possible Outbreak of the Avian Flu — Part II,” Gartner.


Human Resources Research Team

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