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Apr 24, 2020 | Risk Management

Business Continuity during COVID-19: it’s business but not as usual

Today, almost the only topic of conversation is COVID-19. How to weather a storm in your business is the key to survival. Businesses now face many challenges from moving customer contacts online to keeping the systems and employees ready for business. With so much reliance on tech to keep businesses running, tech support is critical. This is why we think about business continuity planning (BCP) so much these days, which thankfully has become embedded in the structure of most large companies across the world.

By Justin Simon-Shore, Western Union Business Solutions Counsel, UK and Europe

BCP helps to ensure that a business can continue in the face of any kind of threat, whether a terrorist attack, cybercrime, extreme weather event, fire, famine or even plague. With a robust, well-thought-out plan, it shouldn’t matter what the incident is. While a pandemic is very different from a fire or a cyber threat, it is only the detail of the plan that may need to be changed. Whereas a fire might mean the need for alternative premises, this pandemic has meant that, in many cases, staff were divided between sites, and then ultimately dispatched to work from home. With so many working from home, data usage braces for overload and systems are pushed to fuller capacity.

Adapting to the new world of COVID-19

COVID-19 has presented a challenge like no other. Even so, there has been a varying degree of success for businesses trying to cope with the situation.

There are of course some factors that are impossible to change. Some industry types are not able to function at all in current circumstances – such as barbers or manicurists. But for the majority, the ability to adapt is dependent on factors they can influence.

  • Planning and preparation. The more rigorous the BCP process was followed before the crisis occurred, the easier it has been to put the right measures in place.  Businesses that invested in BCP and engaged in regular testing are now probably reaping the benefits. For licensed Financial Services companies in Europe, such as Western Union, BCP, as part of a wider crisis management resource, is law and therefore must be present and sufficiently robust. BCP is not just about company staff and continuity of operations but helping to ensure the minimal disruptions to the end clients.  Businesses and regulators alike generally want clients to continue to use financial services even during periods of crisis to help support the economy and financial markets. Regulators generally put more emphasis on senior managers to take key decisions and lead in times of crisis. At large, the pandemic has clearly demonstrated a strong interest from regulators to make sure BCP is working efficiently and operational stability is maintained.
  • Investment. Larger companies generally have an advantage as they are able to more heavily invest in technology and infrastructure to support remote working. Laptops and screens for staff are one example, but networks have needed to be increased to cope with the increased load, while some companies are spending upwards of a million minutes on Zoom a day to keep their communications working. With technology, of course, always comes the threat of hacking or fraud. Businesses should make clients aware of these risks and have systems and controls in place to help detect incidents. Regulatory changes like GDPR required firms to place more protections in place when handling data.
  • Lateral thinking. If your customers can’t leave home, you need to find a way of getting your goods or services to them, or reinventing your business so that you have a product or service that can be delivered rather than one that cannot. This could mean some creative thinking and even some risk-taking. A leap into the unknown. As a payments provider, Western Union Business Solutions is mainly in the business of delivering digital financial services. That said, of course there are processes which require manual or face to face validation.

    In terms of KYC procedures, there is no doubt that work from home requirements imposed by COVID-19 have altered several due diligence procedures. Quick solutions have been required to troubleshoot everyday problems to support customers amid the crisis while still maintaining the appropriate levels of systems and controls to help keep the business and customers better protected. For instance, the growing difficulties in completing the usual onboarding/ reaccreditation processes without printing and scanning equipment has required tweaks to usual bank processes. The wet signatures have been replaced, where essential, by digital ones, while temporary reliefs have been utilized on a country-to-country basis regarding the acceptance of expired ID’s responsively to the government regulations.  We have all had to adapt to change to continue serving our customers.

  • Communication. In a crisis, people are hungry for information. Staff and customers need to know how it is going to affect them, and open, honest communication is key. Even when the message is that you don’t have the answers yet, a clear, regular flow of information is essential. If you are slow to open communication lines, misinformation will quickly fill the void. For Western Union, our key focus in this area is not only to live up to the regulatory requirements in communicating to customers, but also being a store of knowledge to help keep clients informed and in control. It is very easy to get lost in the news, especially when the information about the crisis is constant.

    Companies should also be communicating emerging fraud risks and associated scams that are closely related to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is evidence of businesses and individuals being deluged by related fraud and associated scams such as fake fundraising campaigns, malicious emails, or sales of fake goods to mention a few. Unfortunately, fraudsters are more likely to succeed when people are vulnerable, and many are now advertising fake goods hoping to snare desperate and unprepared victims.

    Businesses should be alert to increased fraud risk and seek to better protect their staff and assets. They should continue practicing due diligence, especially with a new customer/supplier. They should recognise the red flags associated with such scams, like the excuses for beneficiary bank changes or the seller pushing medical products before they sell out.  Using only trusted vendors should reduce risk. Maintaining trusted procedures and checks should help prevent you from being a victim of this type of fraud.

    As for Western Union, we remain vigilant in monitoring transactions and paying special attention to any uncommon or suspicious patterns in the behaviours or financial flows of our customers. It is therefore important that every team member remain mindful of the emerging COVID-19 related fraud risks and do their best to ensure ongoing compliance.

The long-term effects.
We are far from out of the woods with the current crisis. At the time of writing, hospital admissions are still high in many other countries around the world. All businesses are still having to think and act quickly as events unfold around us. For some, it’s a case of fighting to survive. One thing is for sure, the world will not be the same post-COVID-19. Many changed working practises may never be reversed, especially where digital processes have replaced long-standing manual ones. The investments made in technology to support remote working will need to be recouped – and many companies will have realised how well they can run with fewer staff physically in the workplace. The workers themselves may have seen how more productive they are when freed from twice-daily commutes. As with any crisis, stories have emerged of great heroism and of shameful opportunism. There is no doubt that COVID-19 has brought great hardship to many, as well as the tragedy of lives lost. The way in which businesses navigate their way through this – how they communicate with customers and staff, and whether they prioritise people or profit – may affect their brand and its relationship with the world for years to come.

One thing is for sure, as a sense of normality returns, any sensible business owner will be thoroughly reviewing their business continuity plans and updating them with the lessons learnt when they were so thoroughly put to the test.

As clients and the markets judge the commercial winners and losers after this is all over, it seems clear that preparedness for crisis and agility to change plans and products in the face of crisis will be critical. Undoubtedly, governments and regulators will reflect, as they did after the financial crisis, and aim to introduce new measures to help keep the lights on all throughout the economy.