Five lessons from implementing Coronavirus contingency planning

May 27, 2020
Dietke Fowler Senior Manager, Business Operations

This is part four of our “Contingency Planning During a Pandemic” series. Check out part one / part two / part three.

One overarching lesson in life that I learn and forget over and over again: I am wrong 80% of the time. (The “80%” figure is most likely included in the 80% of me being wrong.) As it turns out, being wrong is especially likely when it comes to making assumptions about unprecedented situations, like foreseeing the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic on Redox’s business operations.

I like knowing that I’m probably wrong, because it’s a great starting point for correcting assumptions. And that’s what this blog post is about: assumptions we took with us into contingency planning that taught us lessons and helped us further understand the complexities of remote business operations.

Lesson #1: Use data to check your assumptions

The novel coronavirus showed up on our doorstep toward the end of March. Among Redox’s first reactions was for the leadership team to estimate how their team’s capacity was impacted. The estimation came in at 70%, or a 30% reduction. That number intimidated me because if the pandemic reduced our capacity by 30% before the impact and outages really hit, I surmised that capacity was going to get much lower in the weeks to come. 

Fortunately, we decided to put more detailed measurements in place, which showed that our overall capacity was—and so far has remained at—around 80%, only a 20% reduction and a less intimidating number. So the data showed us that our initial estimates were off. 

The lesson is to measure as precisely as your organization will let you, especially if you make decisions based on estimations.

Lesson #2: Assume the worst to be pleasantly surprised

Redox put a temporary hold on elective time off (i.e. vacations) to make sure business as well as necessary time off could continue (i.e. childcare during no-school times and days off for physical or mental health). As of mid-May, the temporary hold was lifted and Redoxers are free to take elective PTO again. Were we wrong to put a hold on vacation? Yes and no. In retrospect, maybe it wouldn’t have been necessary. However, I think that it pulled us closer together during a crucial time, and lifting the hold also signaled that things were getting more stable again when they did. 

It’s better to assume the worst and be pleasantly surprised about having been wrong than to become unstable as a team and have to right the ship.

Lesson #3: Volume isn’t the only thing that counts

We thought that we would have lots of outages, which would create the need for lots of Redoxers to help each other out. In retrospect, our team members didn’t need as much help from each other as we’d anticipated, and we’d overprepared. 

Or had we? 

We prepared for a higher volume of smaller requests, but we ended up with a lower volume of very important work that got assigned to various team members across the organization. We made lots of progress with a few—but important—jobs. 

Most important was not the exact system we built to prepare for a high volume of requests, but that we built a system to surface and coordinate needs and requests for help.

Lesson #4: Others may have been quicker than you—and that’s ok

Going into the Contingency Planning project, we contrived a solid template for Outage Plans that would outline each person’s main responsibilities and who would take them on in the person’s absence. We contacted all teams to assign them the work of filling in the templates, just to quickly hear the response, “We already did this, albeit a bit differently.” While there’s value in consistency, there’s a price to pay for making team members do something your way if they’ve already done it their way. 

Once more, it’s OK if others got there first or in their own way: just work with each team to review their plans for covering all of the elements identified as important.

Lesson #5: Act with urgency to get things done

Finally, we learned one lesson not by having been wrong, but by getting positive reinforcement from doing it right from the start: We approached the Contingency Planning project with urgency. We set other work aside to prepare for changes that would happen with the pandemic. We gathered in a team to make a plan, and we divided up communications with the teams.

Within a week, we knew where our capacity really was, we could coordinate help where it was needed, and virtually all Redoxers had completed their outage plans. 

By now, business operations at Redox have settled into a “new normal” even if it is different from our assumptions. While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact Redox and our customers, we feel confident that we can deal with the impact the pandemic has on our work capacity and collaboration. Knowing we were prepared for the shift of the past two months—and will continue to be prepared for what the future will bring—is worth the effort we put into Contingency Planning. 

Having a quick, flexible, and prepared response is more important than being right about predicting the future (if that’s even possible). 

We wrote this series with the hope that other organizations could learn from our experience. As we continue forward, we will work to share more best practices we’ve developed operating a remote-first company. Thanks for reading!