Australian corporates and law firms, particularly those with large operations in Asia, are gearing up for a potential avian influenza outbreak, an issue that is pushing business continuity and people management questions to the fore.
Mallesons Stephen Jacques, which has Asian offices in Hong Kong, Beijing and Port Moresby, is taking a two-pronged approach to the issue. “We have a twofold approach — we’re looking at the people issues and business continuity planning,” said Carolynne Lepp, security and crisis manager at Mallesons. “In Hong Kong, it’s very high on the agenda, particularly among staff that experienced SARS a few years ago. We are developing protocols for stockpiling and distributing our protection equipment, and developing our policies in relation to travel restrictions and evacuation and isolation policies, and the different triggers and authorisations for all that.”
“In terms of business continuity, we are looking at identifying key people and processes, developing plans for working from home and updating our communication plans,” Lepp said. “We are struggling with the dilution of issues because there are so many other risks being presented for our Australian offices. We are also finding there is a shortage of vaccines in Asia, so we’re thinking this could be a potential issue. Another issue is keeping up to date with rapidly changing information.”
While many corporates in the region have had recent experience of dealing with health-related risks from the SARS outbreak in 2003, the people risk element of planning for any avian flu outbreak is breaking new ground
Experts say an outbreak is inevitable. “There is no doubt that an influenza pandemic will occur,” said Dr Chris Wilkinson, medical director at International SOS. “It will be an extended event of months or perhaps years — very different to other business continuity issues,” he said. “Any planning will have to respond to changing events quickly. Business will be disrupted, but the question is by how much?”
Experts agree that communication is likely to emerge as a key differentiator in how companies deal with any outbreak. “In addition to managing the risks of the disease itself, we also need to manage the outrage that exists within our employees and their families and within the community,” said Dr Chris Darling, manager, safety, health and risk at BlueScope Steel. “Our experience from SARS is that the amount of information out there on the web in newspapers all potentially create issues for our employees about confusion. One of the key pillars of our communication strategy is to make sure we get timely and accurate information through our intranet that our employees can rely on as their prime source of information on the outbreak.”