Crisis Management at the Time of COVID-19
Panchalee Thakur

Project management practices come to the fore as organizations rush to implement new, widespread measures to safeguard people against the deadly virus

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has impacted the world of business in ways that it has not experienced before. To counter the threat, organizations have put new strategies and plans in place within days, thereby testing their own capacity to effectively manage large scale disruption and mitigate risks.

In the past, disruptions have largely been of a local or regional nature, such as a natural disaster or civil unrest. Previous pandemics or public health emergencies, such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003 and the Ebola virus outbreak in 2013, were also not as threatening as the current COVID-19 outbreak.

In this special feature, Manage India reaches out to senior practitioners to find out how organizations are leveraging project and program management for an effective plan to tide over the crisis, and what lessons must practitioners draw from this experience.

The domain-agnostic framework of project management, as laid down by PMI, plays a pivotal role in managing global disasters like the current coronavirus pandemic. Key principles of this globally accepted framework are setting up a central project management office (PMO), laying down the objectives of control/recovery, defining the scope of management, executing a comprehensive and practical risk management plan, mentoring and motivating teams, and monitoring progress. Central to the project management framework is effective linking and collaboration of satellite projects and sectors. This helps in sharing resources, forecasting, funding and budgeting, communications, and the procurement of materials and services.
Healthcare organizations are following these principles to manage the pandemic.

• The task forces at the government level, and command and control centers at the hospital level, are functioning like a PMO. They are responsible for iterative planning, directing execution, tracking outcomes, course correcting responses, and dissipating authentic information to the stakeholders. The Government of India’s national task force is serving as a central PMO for the entire effort.

• Effective risk management strategies – identifying, qualifying/quantifying, and creating risk response plans with shared goals such as the creation of isolation facilities, closing national and state borders, acquiring testing kits and setting up testing centers, and pooling in additional resources.

• Financial preparedness – estimates being aggregated to assess funding/budget requirements. This is not only important for funding the ongoing services but also to get the industry and economy back on its feet later. States have released additional funds to cover for expenses towards treatment.

• Monitoring of project alignment to the objective -- the national task force, along with key bodies such as the Indian Council of Medical Research, is continually monitoring the situation and communicating the same to satellite centers for timely action. Research organizations across the world are working toward developing effective treatment and prevention (vaccine for COVID-19).

• Communication and stakeholder engagement – effective, simple, and timely messaging to ensure all stakeholders are aligned toward the overall goal, i.e. curtailing the spread of the virus. Political leaders, the media, and social media influencers are using various channels to spread the word among the general public. Communication also entails collaboration with authorities such as the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control to keep a tab on the global situation.

• Lessons learned and project documentation – documenting key lessons learned and sharing best practices, such as doctors in the forefront of fighting the disease in China sharing their learnings in medical journals for the benefit of doctors in other parts of the world.

The crisis has reinforced the importance of project management practices in healthcare. It shows the importance of defining and managing scope for better preparedness and response. There is also a need to implement business continuity plans in the industry to ensure the protection of critical resources and recovery strategies. Another critical learning has been on effective governance. Effective project governance helps in prioritizing activities at the time of a crisis. Healthcare organizations also need to relook at their existing systems to analyze, curate, and disseminate information to improve reporting and forecasting.

As a practitioner, I’d like to see PMI’s project management framework being leveraged for effective training on disaster management techniques. As a physician, I urge the public to abide by the government directives on prevention. This will ease the burden on the healthcare infrastructure, help treat and prevent the disease, and restore people’s health and the health of the nation.

COVID-19 has impaired business and economic activities, and restricted movements. Continuing project work has become challenging in such tough times and necessitates special measures.

Shutting down project offices and sites is the best way to contain the spread of the virus and safeguard people. But it is not always feasible.

Project teams must have their disaster management plan (DMP) ready. DMP lays down guidelines for collaboration among neighboring industries and other organizations and facilities e.g. the police and hospitals. Further, it generally envisages the formation of a cross-functional and empowered emergency response team that involves medical, security, safety, and HR personnel, and is headed by the site or project head. This team activates DMP and decides the actions to be taken to tackle any emergency. Some action may be pre-decided, and some may be situation specific.

As the government announces measures to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, emergency response teams are taking steps around the four pillars of communicate and educate, decongest, isolate and disinfect, and monitor.

Communicate and educate people
Project teams must have communication and emergency response plans in place. Those who have such plans are rolling them out with the help of communication and HR teams. Communication covers educating, guiding, encouraging, and assuring support to project people and many times, neighboring communities.

Decongest premises
To contain the infectious disease, decongestion of project sites and offices is a must. HR policies such as work from home and granting staff special leave have been activated in many organizations. Additional measures being considered or already put in place are the use of IT tools for conducting meetings, and suspending non-essential travels and regular site meetings (tool box meetings, etc.).

Isolate and disinfect
Isolation and disinfection of people and facilities is the key in breaking the chain of infection. Project medical teams are issuing guidelines on disinfecting tools, plants, machines, and spaces used by people. Teams must suspend induction of new team members during this period.

The crisis needs monitoring, just like any project. Site teams are using thermal screening at entry points, appointing ‘health stewards,’ and using surveillance cameras round-the-clock to monitor the situation on a real-time basis and to provide on-the-spot counselling and assistance.

Frequent reviews of the effectiveness of measures being taken are extremely important as the situation is changing fast, and new directives and advisories are being issued regularly by the local administration.

Organizations that have made DMP an integrated part of their site management plan have been able to respond to the crisis in a well-organized manner and avoid possible chaos. This is a big learning for project teams. People working at both project sites and the office need to be educated and trained on DMP. It needs to be aligned with the company’s HR policies and regulatory policies and guidelines.

These steps not only help in managing crises but also boost the team’s confidence and readiness for such an eventuality. Disasters don’t fit into our plans, but our response to disasters can.

Though COVID-19 has impacted the IT industry globally, the industry in India is feeling the crisis to a greater degree since it is a primary hub for service delivery.

Most IT organizations practice Business Continuity Plan (BCP) to address crises of this nature, and that has certainly helped ease the business impact on their clients. However, the current situation is different from past experiences. In the past, BCPs were implemented during natural calamities or other disruptions that were restricted to certain geographical locations.

Organizations have taken a call to let employees work from home wherever possible. Some organizations have performed location-wise BCP tests to ensure that they are ready should the situation worsen and employees in large numbers need to work remotely. A few organizations that had a shortage of laptops have also planned to ship desktops to employees’ homes. In the case of people working on critical services who need to be present within the office premises, organizations have taken measures for their well-being.

Times like these put leadership to test. Project leaders need to ensure that remote teams deliver the goods with seamless coordination. Project manager's daily or frequent sync-up with team members is important to ensure the deliverables and releases are not impacted. This is a significant step in ensuring that the BCP implementation is successful. The use of interactive tools such as WebEx, White Boards, Skype, and Zoom is a boon to project teams.

A few organizations have tied up with local broadband service providers to provide high speed internet connections to make sure that work does not suffer during remote operations. Communications management is critical at a time like this. IT companies have been sending regular updates on the crisis and precautionary measures to be taken by their employees. They are also encouraging employees to report to their managers in the event of mild illness so that necessary steps can be taken immediately.

There are a few lessons that we must take away from this experience.

There was a delay in implementing work from home in the IT service sector (consulting) because clients needed to approve remote working for offshore team members. This was necessitated because of master service agreements (MSA) that govern the work of offshore locations. MSAs allow offshore team members to only work in a secure offshore delivery center..

IT companies must learn from this experience and introduce a clause in MSAs that allow for remote working in certain situations. Existing contracts must be amended and new contracts must include this clause before a project kicks off.

Remote working exposes an organization to additional security threats. Instead of scrambling to upgrade systems at the time of a crisis, organizations must proactively work towards securing their assets periodically. They must ensure that laptops and desktops have the latest protection such as anti-virus, and OS and security patches.

COVID-19 is testing the preparedness and the very way industries operate. Being in the petroleum value chain and a continuous process industry, our work falls within the purview of “essential commodities.”

Many critical, large capex projects are in progress in our refinery facilities across India. Since these operations cannot be scaled down, the organization has within a short time taken major steps to secure our sites.

  • • Switch to technology – For a highly critical project – the Kero Hydro Treater at the Mumbai refinery – we are now using tele-conferencing to review progress, discuss, and take decisions. On 16 March, we had scheduled a review of the 3D model of the plant’s layout and approved drawings for construction at our consultant’s office in Pune. But a ban on travel made it impossible for the team to reach Pune. Since postponing the review would have an impact on the project schedule, the team connected over WebEx to review it remotely.
    • • Some important steps that the organization has taken are:
    • • Graded communication to spread awareness across the teams in offices and project sites
    • • Immediate procurement with the least possible cycle time to ensure that the warehouses do not run out of masks and other personal protective equipment

    • • Formation of a task force at the organizational and refinery levels to align the thoughts and actions, and direct a concerted effort to handle the crisis
    • • Reviews at various levels to address issues arising on a day-to-day basis

  • • Large capex projects require a large number of workers who come from across the country. Their well-being is our top priority. When the media started reporting panic buying of sanitizers, our team procured raw material for sanitizers on “project mode” and started producing them in our own laboratory for our internal consumption.
  • • Various measures have been put in place at our project sites, such as sanitizing of the premises at regular intervals, sensitizing workers on the current situation, daily monitoring of workers’ health, and strict access control at project sites.

Even as organizations work towards containing the spread of COVID-19, they need to rethink their strategies based on the current experience. I urge project managers to dwell on these questions:
  • • How prepared were we for such a crisis?
  • • How will we support smaller suppliers and businesses who are critical stakeholders in projects?
  • • How do we identify unknown risks/crises in the future?
  • • How do we build more agility in project execution?
  • • How do we take care of daily wage and contract workers without compromising on contractual issues?
  • • How do we handle force majeure situations with minimum impact on project cost and time, and ensure buy-in of all stakeholders?

Answers to these questions will provide us direction for future unforeseen crises like COVID-19.