By Stephanie Palacios
The legendary comic book writer, Stan Lee once defined a superhero as, “That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do.”
COVID-19 put a spotlight on the selfless work of first responders, healthcare professionals, teachers, researchers, and grocery store workers. However, facility managers are often overlooked when naming the heroes of the pandemic. They, too, have been on the frontlines for companies around the world, tirelessly making sure employees stay safe and critical facilities are secure.
At Visa, facility managers played a vital role in keeping our business operational during the height of the pandemic and orchestrating on-site adjustments for more than 125 offices in 78 countries. They created a safe environment for essential workers whose jobs required them to be on-site. And now, as Visa prepares to welcome employees back to the office, they’re developing new processes and remodeling offices so employees feel safe when they return.
Valuable lessons were learned in the current crisis across Visa’s facilities team that can be valuable guides for future challenges. With this in mind, here are a few I’d like to share.
Making A Business (Continuity) Case
One of the most critical lessons from the pandemic is that facility managers must have a seat at the table at the start of business continuity planning for any potential crisis. They possess an invaluable perspective, including knowledge of individual buildings, floor plans, physical security teams and systems, suppliers, and other resources that are all part of maintaining a location. Facility managers also understand the unique needs of local employees because they work alongside them every day. These needs can vary depending on continent, countries, cities, and cultures. These perspectives are critical to informing operational protocols, human resource procedures, and employee and corporate communications.
Facility managers also serve as on-site commanders — individuals who are familiar with and ready to deploy business continuity plans. They are the boots on the ground who help solve logistical challenges, expedite response times and move the organization towards adapting to the crisis.
If your company doesn’t have facility management involved in business continuity planning, it is important to be at the table during planning and create an open forum where you and your team can work and speak directly to local business leaders to ensure visibility into the needs of a site.
Focus On The Essentials
When an unexpected event occurs, determining where to start and what to focus on, is the first hurdle. At Visa, our top priorities during the pandemic continue to be employees, clients, and local communities, especially small and micro businesses that are being hit particularly hard.
When focusing on employees, Visa had to determine who needed to be in the office to carry out critical business functions. Once this was established, facility managers helped develop procedures and guidelines for each individual office to ensure compliance with federal, state, and local health requirements.
The procedures and guidelines included keeping essential workers in the office socially distanced. This involved placing arrows and signage throughout offices to indicate traffic flow, creating schedules for deep cleaning, and marking off shared spaces to prevent close physical interaction. This was when local boots on the ground facility teams were essential due to their familiarity with office floor plans.
Expect The Unexpected
Most companies have site-specific emergency response plans to inform on-site preparations and responses, including scenarios where back-up locations are used to pick up operations and compensate for other locations that are temporarily closed or offline. However, COVID-19 made this plan inapplicable because it impacted major cities globally and simultaneously. Now, companies need to include measures that account for all offices to be closed.
Modern plans must account for the continuity of essential operations, even if employees are not allowed to enter all company facilities.
Collaboration Is Key
COVID-19 also demonstrated the value of cross-functional collaboration. Facilities managers during the pandemic worked in lock step with C-suite executives to implement pandemic responses. Frequent interaction during the height of the pandemic allowed all parties to better understand each other’s needs and work together to meet them.
For example, Visa frequently surveyed and gauged employee sentiment throughout the pandemic. People managers did the same with their teams to qualitatively assess their well-being. Together, these findings offered valuable insight into the readiness of employees to return to the office and their concerns about health and safety when they return. This helped inform discussions and decisions among business leaders and local facilities teams supporting offices around the world as they assessed potential changes to the office environment and re-examined return to work protocols to ensure employee concerns were met.
Adapt To Change
Facilities management in times of crisis will evolve, but COVID-19 proved flexibility among facility teams can help navigate unexpected challenges.
At Visa, it meant transitioning a large majority of 20,000 global employees to remote work, protecting essential in-office staff by following health and safety guidelines based on varying local health requirements in different markets, and troubleshooting any and all employee issues without any physical interaction. Today, it means preparing to re-open doors to the large majority of 20,000 employees returning to the office in some form later this year. These were not in the playbook, but they are now.
Visa continuously updated its business continuity plans throughout the past year with COVID-19 lessons and the revised plans have already paid off — leveraged when catastrophic weather events occurred in Austin, TX, in February 2021.
The next few months will be filled with a lot of unknowns as vaccination rates increase, businesses re-open, mask requirements lift, employees return to the office, but COVID-19 variants persist. Rather than try to predict the future, teams should trust in the lessons learned from the past year, revise their playbooks to integrate those learnings, and prepare to be flexible if the situation deviates from what was expected.
Palacios is Senior Vice President of Operational Resilience at Visa Inc., focusing on the company’s ability to withstand and recover from operational disruptions and business incidents of all kinds. Through leadership of the Crisis Management, Business Continuity, and Vendor Resilience teams and supporting functions of Governance and Technology Solutions, she is responsible for proactively identifying risks and ensuring strategies are in place to withstand and recover from business disrupting events.
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