Back to blog overview

Lessons Learned from COVID-19 for Business Contingency Planning 

by Miles Linsmith, Customer Success Manager at Widget Brain on Jun 24

As the challenges presented by COVID-19 continue to affect the workforce around the world, companies are finding new ways to prepare for the next unexpected crisis. The pandemic has highlighted how vitally important it is for businesses to be able to plan for anything and remain efficient, even when the next disruption hits.


Fortunately, various tech solutions provide the opportunity to do just that. In our eyes, one of the most important is automated scheduling, which enables companies to become optimally prepared for the future, whether another virus hits or another type of crisis occurs. 


Technology like this gives companies a solid contingency plan, helping them maintain business performance and safety standards while generating important cost-savings. This allows leadership to focus on the myriad of other strategic choices that come up when problems occur.


At Widget Brain, we have developed some key takeaways from this most recent crisis around scheduling and contingency planning, as we have worked with our clients to mitigate exactly these problems. In this post, we’ll take you through our top three learnings and experiences that we believe will help you with your contingency planning when times get uncertain.


1. Forecasting demand during a crisis requires different methods 

Demand has been thoroughly disrupted by the global health situation. Customers may face restrictions on how many times they can leave the house, meaning they visit supermarkets and shops significantly less than before. Restaurants and cafes have to operate on a delivery-only basis in many countries around the world. eCommerce, on the other hand, has experienced a real boost as people stuck at home browse and buy online. 


This means many businesses are unsure about the number of customers and sales that they’re due to see in the coming months. Businesses looking for that additional element of control may find it critical to discover their future demand patterns in order to continue running their business as efficiently as possible. 


But how do you predict demand when normal demand patterns have changed so significantly? Here are the top recommendations we’ve pulled together: 


  • Short-term demand forecasting: Businesses normally aim to forecast demand and schedule shifts at least 2 weeks in advance. However, big changes can happen between that first schedule release and the shift itself. For example, people unable to work or footfall significantly decreased, leading to less staff required. It’s therefore important to make forecasts based on the data leading up to the day of operations. This allows you to discover new trends that you may have never seen before.
  • Limiting the data scope: Normally, when it comes to forecasting, the more data the better! However, when disruption hits, historical data is not as relevant because the situation changes rapidly. Businesses therefore need to consider the most recent data in order to understand what will happen in the near future. The data that is most representative of the current trending situation can help achieve this.
  • Disruption events: In some cases, the disruption that a business is currently facing may have similar trends or a similar nature of a previous disruption the business has faced in the past. If this is the case, the events of the past can be used to predict demand in the immediate future. Businesses should look at their past data and decide what is most relevant to the current situation. 


These elements allow companies to act with their actual demand in mind. For example, restaurants in the recent health crisis may have experienced a quick and sharp reduction of customers in-store but an increased amount of home delivery orders. This changes who needs to be on-shift (restaurant floor staff vs. delivery drivers) and means that hours may be different, too. It is vital for companies to consider this and get the right staff working at the right time. 


2. Accounting for Extra Tasks and Changing Timelines

With any unprecedented challenge, businesses must develop new schedules that account for new tasks and changing timelines. This year, businesses had to install protective plastic between cashiers and customers, increase hygiene standards, and stagger the amount of people in-store. Dealing with these extra tasks changes the timeline of a usual working day. Technology can be used to help account for that. 


  • Adjusting Labor Standards: as the workday changes, that has knock-on effects on the way tasks are normally performed. For example, a store cashier may usually take 5 minutes to scan a customer’s items and process their payment. Now, they have to sterilize and wipe down their pay point and explain certain rules to customers, such as “no cash”. This may increase the time taken to complete their task to 10 minutes. Labor standards should therefore be adjusted accordingly when businesses are looking at the work achieved in a certain amount of time by staff.
  • Adjusting Store Hours: Stores may find themselves with new optimal opening and closing hours due to changes in customer behaviors caused by external disruption. For example, some supermarkets are usually open from 7 am – 11 pm, however, many could now find that 8 am – 8 pm is the optimal opening time for them. This means that businesses must forecast demand during these changed hours of operation as demand may differ greatly from hour to hour, and then generate shifts filled with the right levels of staff accordingly. Staff will have to be contacted to ensure they’re available at these new hours of operation.
  • Adjusting Schedules: Disruptions may also prevent people from being able to work. Take, for example, if someone is sick with COVID-19. Or, if someone needs to remain socially distant due to being at-risk. If employees need to cancel at the last minute, businesses must adapt quickly and create new schedules.


3. Planning for Staffing Level Changes

During challenging times, it’s also true that businesses may change in size; either growing rapidly or downsizing. In the pandemic, some businesses have seen a large rise in their demand, for example, e-commerce stores, that now have to hire more staff in order to fulfill the larger orders they’re seeing. 


Conversely, sometimes downsizing is the only viable option. Either way, companies must have a system in place to plan for changes to their labor, recruitment and HR efforts in situations like these. Here are a few ways to tackle that: 


  • Scenario planning: Companies should create different scenarios, showing that if certain situations were to occur (e.g. profits were down by x% or orders were increased by X%), then certain actions would have to be taken in terms of downsizing or increasing staffing volume
  • Skill inventory: Mapping out employee skills enables businesses to factor in how many employees, with which skills, would need to be retained in order to preserve the necessary institutional knowledge to continue running your business. Businesses should create hierarchical maps of their skilled workers, for an efficient downsizing or upsizing  approach. 


Overall, businesses need to ensure that they have updated contingency plans in place, by whatever means necessary. Widget Brain is able to support businesses in their planning for future contingencies, with our automated scheduling solutions. It makes difficult choices easier and this allows companies to focus on navigating your business through difficult times.