Implementing Split Operations to Improve Resilience During a Disease Outbreak
Unlike other crises arising from a single point event—such as a typhoon or earthquake where communities quickly move to the recovery and restoration phase—the novel coronavirus has created a crisis that is global and enduring with consequences that remain unknown.
COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, has impacted the health of millions across the globe and—as a result—is significantly impacting businesses worldwide. The pandemic has created a business environment rife with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The ability to ensure business continuity relies on leading people through this and future disease outbreaks.
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Employees are businesses’ most valuable assets. There is no higher priority than the health, safety, and financial security of the workforce. Businesses that implement robust and sustainable strategies to take care of their people during this crisis will fare better than those that do not. Many organizations are already implementing risk mitigation measures to avoid further COVID-19 spread: temperature and symptom screening, use of face masks, signage, minimizing visitors, employee self-quarantine, physical distancing, travel restrictions, and working from home.
Daily COVID-19 updates require businesses to stay up to date on safe work practices that can be found in guidance from local public officials and the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One of the key recommendations from both institutions is to engage in large-scale testing and robust contact tracing.
But many countries lack the ability to carry these measures out. Coupled with the lack of human immunity and lack of a vaccine, the current most effective means to control the spread of COVID-19 is through social distancing. In the workplace, this takes the form of a split operation—a structured yet adaptable strategy that uses time and physical distance to reduce cross infection.
What is a Split Operation?
Also known as split working, a split operation is a business continuity strategy whereby businesses modify workforce distribution to meet emergency operations requirements. In a split operation, organizations divide business units (IT, legal, human resources, etc.) into two or more working groups. These groups are then separated from one another by time or distance—or a combination of both. Separating these groups allows business units to continue to operate if a working group becomes incapacitated.
In the case of COVID-19, split operations are used to reduce the risk of viral cross infection among and between business units. Reduced cross infection will keep employees healthy and business units viable. With all business units able to function collectively, operations are sustained, and overall business continuity is maintained.
Split operations are especially beneficial for businesses that require employees to be onsite such as customer-facing operations, critical infrastructure, defense organizations, and essential personnel—including grocery store workers, delivery personnel, and maintenance and cleaning personnel.
There are three approaches employers can take towards a split operation.
Time based. In this version of a split operation, each working group’s shift schedule varies from the other working groups. Within each group, employees arrive and leave work at the same time—once disinfecting procedures are completed—resulting in fewer people working in proximity. Shifts can also be shortened to reduce potential exposure duration. This is especially beneficial when an operation must be done onsite, but a business does not have a backup site for business continuity management. Customer-facing operations (retail stores, call center operations) and manufacturers usually adopt this type of method.
Physical distance based. To minimize physical contact among and between working group units, smaller working groups work on separate floors or in a separate building, back-up site, or remote location—such as at home. This approach is beneficial when an operation can be done across alternative locations.
Combination based. In some instances, businesses that require employees to perform both office and customer-facing duties can shorten on-site work shifts and direct employees to complete the remainder of their workday in a designated alternative location—on or off-site.
Planning to Implement a Split Operation
Businesses should use a standardized and disciplined lifecycle approach to developing and managing their split operation. This lifecycle is an iterative process for businesses to gather and analyze pertinent information to inform the design, execution, and monitoring of the modified operating model. For each step in the lifecycle (Identify, Analyze, Design, Execute, and Measure), split operation planners should incorporate objective measures of performance that enable monitoring and subsequent adaptation of operations, methods, and requirements as results indicate. The chief operating officer, chief information security officer, or business continuity manager should develop the methods and requirements of a split operation with business process owners.
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During a disease outbreak, such as COVID-19, the focus is on minimizing cross infection. In this type of event, split operation design fuses relevant parts of a business’s business continuity plan (BCP) with COVID-19 safe work practices to inform worksite and distancing methods (time and physical distance). The BCP includes information on mission critical operations and constraints; mission essential staff, skills, and functions; available communication technologies; delegated authorities; and customer requirements. Together with BCP information, planners design the split operation around three control points: access control, health and hygiene, and employee management.
Once the framework is designed, businesses then adapt existing processes and procedures to meet current conditions. These would include defining work objectives, work handover, and communication processes that ensure the best use of the available employees’ time. Split operations planners must also consider overall workload and other demands on existing business processes.
The split operation planning team should structure working groups such that employees with similar functions are divided equally amongst groups. Some cross training may be necessary to ensure a balance of working group capability. These smaller groups can maintain business unit continuity if another group becomes incapacitated due to illness. Within each working group, the business unit must identify working group team leaders and delegate supervisory authorities to each team lead to enable him or her or to make decisions and ensure compliance during shifts.
Along with compliance, communication is key. Split operation requirements and disease risk must be communicated early and frequently to all impacted employees and reviewed to ensure understanding. Businesses must establish or reinforce existing feedback loops that encourage and enable employee input as part of split operation monitoring and continuous improvement.
Split Operation Risks and Management
Split operations are not ideal but can be highly effective if carefully thought out, implemented, and adhered to. There are four major risk factors for split operations: key person risk, employee and visitor movement control, in-person meetings and face-to-face socialization, and complacency. In this rapidly evolving COVID-19 health emergency—and as businesses begin to reopen—businesses must be vigilant and ready to pivot as necessary to blunt any negative impacts.
Key person risk. Key person risk occurs when a business or business unit becomes heavily reliant on key individuals. Situations may exist where there is only one employee that has a critical skill that the rest of the team does not. When a business is running in split operation mode, the risk of a single point of failure—such as illness of a key person—can have devastating consequences, explains Anslee Wolfe in a Financial Management article.
“…when a business is running in split operation ode, relying on key individuals carries risks that may cripple profits, productivity, and confidence among remaining employees,” she writes.
Businesses should review key processes to ensure their design and implementation is effective in split operation mode. Once businesses have clearly defined split operation business processes and modifications, they can expand employee knowledge of key processes through cross training. This is best done prior to implementing a split operation to ensure all employees understand the key processes and responsibilities. The longevity of the COVID-19 emergency may allow for some expedited cross training as businesses move through the health crisis.
Employee and visitor movement control. A split operation is designed to control movement across and between floors and buildings. Working group team leaders must enforce split operation protocols, otherwise employees may become complacent and move around or across floors and buildings to return to their original seats. In this scenario, the effectiveness of a split operation can be significantly diminished.
Controlling the flow of employees and visitors in and around business facilities is crucial to maintaining a healthy work environment. Identify designated workstations for each employee, which includes working from home. All employees need to stay and work at their designated workstations; the team leader must strictly enforce adherence to designated work location assignments.
Team leaders should set work assignments for each working group on a weekly basis, with working groups coordinating closely with one another. Employee rotation between different working groups is not recommended. Any individual employee requests to move between different working groups must be carefully assessed and approved by the process owner or delegated authority. A team leader should not normally have the authority to approve such a rotation.
All business locations should increase availability of sanitizing stations, along with establishing building and floor access control to ensure employees follow floor plan instructions for building and floor entries, exits, lifts, escalators, stairs, and restrooms. Visitors should only access designated visitor areas. Signage should be readily visible throughout the workspace as a reminder to employees and visitors of the need to comply with movement restrictions and hygienic practices.
Symptom and temperature screening should be performed for each employee and visitor prior to office building entry. Businesses should also perform employee spot checks during each shift.
Employees or visitors should wear face masks when recommended by local public health officials or if worksite exposure risk warrants it. Employees and visitors who exhibit symptoms or have a temperature should not be allowed to enter the facility.
In-person meetings and face-to-face socialization. In-person meetings must be eliminated where feasible for split operations to be effectively sustained. During normal work conditions, employees often attend meetings and routinely collaborate proximity. This closeness significantly increases the likelihood of cross infection.
Employees assigned to different work groups must not have physical contact at or after work. Engaging in face-to-face social activities (dining, gathering, commuting, etc.) with colleagues on different floors, in different buildings, or while working at home can negate the positive impact of a split operation.
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To minimize physical contact, employees should make good use of standard communication tools. Employees can use phones and enterprise communication tools such as teleconferencing, direct messaging, and voice communication applications to maintain smooth communications and enhance productivity. But care must be taken not to overload employees with communication channel overuse. Additionally, hand-to-hand paper document exchanges should be replaced with digital channels to further reduce virus transmission.
Complacency. Adapting to dramatic changes in work and personal routines is not easy; successful adaptation to new policies, processes, and procedures requires practice—which takes time. With practice, what was once new can become routine.
In the current health emergency, businesses must provide structure and support to ensure employee and company viability. Lapses in attention to leadership, communication, working group management, employee wellness, and any number of scams can pose significant risks to employees and their families, customers, and the business itself.
To reduce complacency, executives must lead by example or risk eroding employee trust. Loss of trust could cause employees to reduce their compliance, endangering workforce health and destabilizing the business.
Maintaining compliance is essential. Chains of command must be clear. Businesses should designate an experienced team leader for each assigned working group—especially as split operations will likely have the greatest impact at the organizational level.
The team leader’s primary role is to guide his or her group through the split operation process while ensuring compliance. The ideal team leader is familiar with key processes, has good communication skills, has a strong sense of responsibility, and has earned the respect and trust of his or her peers. The team leader position may also provide qualified employees with an unexpected opportunity to lead. Business unit leaders can conduct regular team leader mentoring sessions that enable team leaders to better take care of their employees through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Businesses must communicate with employees early and frequently. Without thorough training, employees can become complacent as they fail to fully grasp the risk to their health; how the new operating environment supports health, safety, and financial security; and how a split operation works. Honest and frequent communication with employees to provide updates on health and operational challenges will reduce unfounded rumors and alleviate concern.
Businesses must establish clear, measurable, and objective timelines that are effectively communicated with each working group team leader and member. To keep employees engaged, businesses need to communicate expectations and the need to evolve as more data becomes available. Team leaders should host regular standing meetings at least once a week at the outset. These meetings should be held virtually and can be held more or less frequently based on operational or employee needs to connect, provide crisis management updates, review operating status, and identify and resolve operating issues.
Business leaders should also communicate the need for employees to remain vigilant to health and hygiene requirements. Employees should be provided with materials to frequently clean their workstation surfaces and appliances. They should also be told that if they feel unwell or display any symptoms of COVID-19, they should immediately inform management before going home. Colleagues should also be encouraged to report to a manager if they see a coworker displaying symptoms.
Leaders should also make sure that employee assistance programs (EAPs) are readily available to employees as the strain of the current reality can be daunting to manage. All employees need to be sensitive to signs that a colleague may be struggling mentally to cope with changes and the uncertain future.
Even the most stringent business continuity measures cannot entirely prevent COVID-19 cross infections. Along with established precautions, careful planning, and implementation of a split operation can reduce the likelihood of cross infection. Reduced cross infection infers reduced risk to employees and the overall business operation. COVID-19 is a clear and present danger to employee health, business continuity, and the global community. Businesses that design and implement a split operation may be better prepared for today’s and tomorrow’s emergencies.
Prometheus Yang is the former chairperson of ASIS Taiwan Chapter (2017-2019). He also serves on the ISACA Risk IT Advisory Working Group and CRISC Exam Item Development Working Group. The author has more than 20 years of experience in the information and cybersecurity management and enterprise risk management profession. He is currently serving as an information and cyber security risk officer at a global financial institution in the north Asia region.
Leslie Holland is a retired U.S. government executive who served in the headquarters of four globally dispersed, operational organizations. Holland is a Certified Industrial Hygienist and Certified Safety Practitioner with extensive experience in prevention of workforce and community exposures. She is currently an independent consultant.