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Why Your Organization Needs a Burning Water Plan

Workforce Institute executive director Chris Mullen talks with board member Mark Wales about his chapter in The Institute's most recently published book.

In support of our most recently published book, Being Present: A Practical Guide for Transforming the Employee Experience of Your Frontline Workforce, The Workforce Institute at UKG has recorded a number of podcasts with authors of various chapters to delve into the topics they wrote about and discuss them as the world around us has been transformed by a global pandemic.

Perhaps no chapter was as prescient as that of our board member, Mark Wales. Mark is a longtime veteran of the retail world with stints at many major retailers including Ralph Lauren and Starbucks. His chapter in the book, “Why Your Organization Needs a Burning Water Plan” was about the need for organizations to better plan for natural and unforeseen disasters…I know…you are wishing you read this one back in 2019 when it came out.

Below is a Q&A with Mark about what he was thinking about back when he wrote the chapter and how this thinking has evolved over the past several months.

Q: Re-reading your chapter, originally published in 2019 before anyone had heard of COVID-19 is almost eerie now, Mark. On page 1 of your chapter you talk about The California Camp fire which has since been eclipsed by even bigger, more devastating fires in California and Australia as well as a global pandemic that has ravaged and changed our world.

The question you ask at the outset of your chapter is, "Many of the themes and ideas in this book focus on how to create the right environment to do well by your employees...However, what happens when things are seemingly outside your control as we often find with a disaster situation? Your policies and practices may work for a normal situation but what should you do in a disaster? It is time we ask the hard questions of ourselves and our organizations to truly understand what support we should give our employees."

So, question 1 is: Did you have a crystal ball? Were you as surprised by this pandemic as many of us were?

A: I wish I did! But no, currently I am not in possession of such an item. When I wrote this chapter I definitely foresaw the continued need to be prepared for a wide variety of disasters, due to the sheer volume of natural disasters, and this has been sadly true again this year with both the storms and the fires. However, never could I have envisioned a disaster on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact is beyond my belief, but as many of the experts in the field of epidemiology have said, this should not have been unexpected and will not be the last time we face such a global disaster. A sobering thought.

Q: You write in your chapter that each organization needs a "Burning Water Policy" - can you describe this term and what it means in terms of a policy for an employer?

A: The term “burning water” comes from eyewitnesses to some of the horrific fires that have burned over the past several years. The lives of those impacted are turned upside down and the actual experience of seeing water burn (something that has a logical explanation due to fractured gas and water mains) is a visceral one that I think captures that idea of something outside your realm of belief or understanding happening.

The pandemic has shown us that every organization needs to have a policy in place to manage risk to its staff and their families in these “burning water” moments. Most organizations already do this for their accounting standards, data security, buildings, intellectual assets and any other part of an organization's core business operation. No organization can survive and succeed without ensuring that its people can work effectively and safely.

During this pandemic, most organizations stumbled over the scale of change needed to continue operating through COVID-19. It didn't matter the size or nature of the business - everyone was affected. Organizations were forced to pull together task forces to rethink either how people could work from home or how people could work at work. Many have still not returned to work and these task forces are still attempting to navigate the complex and ever-changing guidelines on how to achieve compliance with safety standards. Rules and safeguards around accounting, data security, buildings and such have been developed and refined over decades. Many of the same rules around staff are being developed and refined in weeks and months. It's a huge effort to create rules and playbooks that safeguard both the employees and the business.

Q: How does an organization go about creating such a policy?

A: The pandemic has shown that these policies are not the sole responsibility of any single part of the organization, they take a cross disciplinary task force to manage all aspects. For years, I have been coaching companies on the full lifecycle of workforce management. You have to look at your business goals and model, assess your financial model and budgeting, align with your recruitment and HR policies, schedule and deploy your staff, manage legal compliance and payment of your employees, and finally assess the effectiveness of execution against your business goals. Then, based on your level of success, you adjust across all of those stages of workforce management. A Burning Water Plan has to create a risk mitigation plan that looks at all of the stages of a disaster and outlines what would you do for any part of your organization impacted by a disaster. The sheer scale of the pandemic showed organizations that one event can impact everyone.

Q: You provide information on Phases of Response in your chapter - from Communication to Payment to Hardship Support - where do you think organizations have done well and where have they failed during the current pandemic?

A: I am so pleased to see that many organizations have stepped up to the plate - even if they've been forced to - and developed policies and procedures to deal with the impact of the pandemic. I hope that these will now be turned into formal risk mitigation plans, a.k.a Burning Water Plans, and be incorporated into organizations' formal risk management processes.

We have seen significant improvements in the ways that organizations communicate with employees, make allowances for the need to work from home, and balance the safety of employees and their families against the mission of the organization. We've also seen a rethink of policies and processes to catch up with technology and social needs. I hope and believe that a great many of these changes will endure long after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended.

However, equity will continue to be a big issue to address, for example:

  • How do you accommodate employees with children without giving unequal benefits to those without children?
  • How do you handle an organization where some people can work from home but others must be present to do their jobs?
  • How do you support those that can afford separate rooms as office space versus those that have to use bathrooms or closets?

Some tough challenges for organizations to navigate.

Q: What lasting change do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Burning Water policy making?

A: I think that there are genuine improvements in employee policy coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many aspects of how we work have changed and I do not foresee organizations going back to working in the same way. It may vary in degrees by organization but here are some key changes:

  1. Increased ability to work from home is being demanded and expected. I predict organizations will in some degree change their policies and operations to allow for this.
  2. Working from home has adjusted the relationship between work and families. There is a greater involvement and understanding of what people do at work as spouses, parents, and children see and hear the meetings, topics and sheer effort that go into everyday work. That will have a lasting impact that is currently undefined, but companies have to recognize that an employee often comes with dependents and policies have to take that into account.
  3. Home for many employees will change. Some are looking to move out of the urban centers to larger homes outside cities as they find they can work from home, but this will probably be a generational trend with younger workers initially wanting the office experience. Policies will need to adapt and recognize the varying needs of the workforce.
  4. Lastly, organizations will not always get all of this right the first time and situations will change. I heard an anecdote about one organization that asked its employees and customers for “grace and space”. It was a call for understanding and empathy. We all need to be committed to not pre-judging others or making assumptions. As with any policy, if you create the right culture, your chance of success is far greater than if you issue a bunch of prescriptive rules into a broken culture. Great culture will almost always lead to better decisions at every level.

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