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(The following is taken from the first half of the Bold Business webinar “Beyond Working From Home: Strong Workforce Strategies for a Disrupted World“, which aired on April 2, 2020.)

A pandemic has forced entire countries into lockdown, and made businesses both big and small reckon with their continuity in ways most never anticipated. It has become apparent over the last couple of weeks that companies are really struggling with this environment. Over half of the world is in lockdown, and amazingly, only about ten percent of the employees in the United States have flexible workplace environments. The topic of how are we going to reorganize ourselves and how are we going to function is a very, very timely topic.

What’s a businesses to do? For those who have shifted their talent to a work-from-home posture (and for those still struggling to keep themselves afloat), the question “What next?” is a burning one. Thankfully, there is an answer: a “mesh” strategy.

But first, a look at the problem.

The ‘Cool’ Workplace Problem

For the longest time, having all employees gathered together in one place–sometimes in close quarters–was viewed as optimal. But thanks to the newfound threat of highly-communicable sicknesses, those days might be done.

The typical workforce for lots of venture capital companies and everything else would be a “cool” workplace. People having very social environments, the square footage for employees is quite low, there are shared desks, shared conference rooms and couches. In today’s world, germs, germs, germs would be all over the place.

Granted, most of the businesses inhabiting those clustered workplaces did anticipate some form of disruption. Hurricane Sandy made a number of office buildings in lower Manhattan inhabitable for an extended period of time, while the Northeast Blackout of 2003 taught everyone the importance of having backup servers for data and network preservation. For many companies, they have some plans for reasonable disruptions in place.

Unfortunately, a worldwide lockdown was never deemed a reasonable disruption. So what we’ve seen these last few weeks is that there are companies that pre-planned, and those that are handling things on the fly. Because as long as the disruption is localized, and people can still work from home, it’s a legitimate plan to have everyone take their laptops and work from home.

But what happens when the office is forced to close, and transitioning to a work-from-home posture isn’t enough?

When Working From Home Isn’t Enough

When the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and the Northeast Blackout of 2003 struck, large geographic areas were affected. Similar calamities befell the UK and the Philippines with erupting volcanoes – Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 and the Philippines’ Taal just last year. Clearly, there are events too grand and too large-scale for a simple work-from-home maneuver. And some companies, in recognizing this, incorporate a buffer of geography diversity.

In this above graphic, the fictional business in question has its home office in the Northeast, virtual offices scattered nearby, and satellite offices in Florida and Texas. As an added wrinkle of geographic diversity, there’s even a partner office in Asia.

This is a great start. But a little bit of diversity and a little bit of geography isn’t quite good enough for sure-fire insulation against continuity issues, because one cut of one key process can completely disrupt the business. And that cut can come in the form of many things.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the US and China were engaged in a simmering trade war, and overtures of that conflict still echo, with China threatening to restrict crucial pharmaceutical supply chains. What would a tightening grip on a supply chain or product pipeline do to a companies caught in the middle?

For companies that are location-based or product-based, it could mean a complete collapse of their business.

Mesh Strategy to the Rescue

No disaster recovery plan or backup system will ever be as effective as a business strategy that spreads technology and talent across the globe in multiple locations. Which is why I propose a “mesh” strategy.

What is the mesh strategy? Basically, what you have is multiple offices, multiple partners, and multiple geographies, with the capacity to go virtual across the whole network. And if you do lose something, you have the ability to still have plenty of strength to your web or your company.

(Visualize all the lines connecting the various offices and partners as one big mesh.)

Of course, a mesh strategy alone isn’t as strong as a strategy that lacks partners who can “flex up” when they’re needed, partners that can take up the slack if a certain supply chain or production pipeline is compromised.

The problem with flexing up is that if a business doesn’t have a partner in place ahead of time, and they try to build something up in the midst of disruption, the time lag time can often be too damaging. The obvious answer to that, though, is the answer to all problems businesses must solve when faced with disruption: A company must plan ahead.

 

Stay tuned for the second article based on our webinar “Beyond Working From Home: Strong Workforce Strategies for a Disrupted World“, which will focus on the four moves a business should make to combat disruption.

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