Keeping the lights burning bright during Omicron: Business continuity in the time of COVID-19

While it’s no surprise to most, Omicron’s arrival in Aotearoa is forcing engineering and professional service providers to consider how they protect their people while still delivering on their clients’ expectations. We speak to two ACE New Zealand members about the steps they are taking to mitigate the challenges coming their way in 2022. 

Ceinwen McNeil is Chief Executive at BVT, a boutique firm with 22 full-time staff in New Zealand and Australia.

Simonne Eldridge is Executive Leader - Clients + Brands and Technical Director of Environmental Engineering at Tonkin + Taylor Group, which employs 1,200 staff across New Zealand and Australia.  

What challenges are you currently facing, with regards to the impending spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant?

Simonne: The biggest challenge here and now is COVID-19 fatigue amongst our people. They are unsure of what’s coming next. For the incredibly smart people we work with – engineers, scientists and planners – that can be challenging. As natural planners, they are used to managing outcomes and with Omicron, the outcome is unknown, so that causes some apprehension.

Ceinwen: Although the change to red threw many of us momentarily, it didn’t catch us off guard. As a leader of a small business, I am thinking about what happens when members of the team get sick. The fact we are one of the last countries to go through this is both a blessing and curse. We have learnt many lessons from the past two years, and we are taking a proactive approach to safeguarding our staff, which equates to safeguarding the business.

Simonne Eldridge

Simonne Eldridge, Tonkin + Taylor 

Aside from the obvious physical toll this next wave of COVID-19 could take on staff, how are you helping your teams stay mentally well during this time?

Ceinwen: Helping protect our staff’s mental wellbeing during this potentially anxious time is really important. Alongside informal, frequent check-ins and a formal employee assistance programme, we are focussing on proactive measures though our corporate wellness programme. This provides guidance around sleep, nutrition and managing stress to avoid the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, so prevention rather than cure. In practical terms this also means saying “no” to potential clients who don’t share our values, to protect our team. If your workforce is going to potentially be reduced by a third due to illness, you want to be working with clients who know and trust you, who have confidence in your transparency and communication.

Simonne: Alongside normalising flexible working practices, and making people feel as comfortable as possible in this scenario, we are placing importance on building resilience within the organisation. We have proactively been moving our internal messaging from crisis response language to introducing the concept of “never normal”, where living with COVID-19 in a constantly changing world is the new normal. We are also ensuring care is in the hands of our people managers, rather than just coming from exec level, giving them the tools and messaging to ensure staff feel looked after and informed of what’s happening.

How are you planning to mitigate the issue of staff absence – not only due to sickness, but also extended periods of self-isolation?

Simonne: For those staff members who get sick, we’ll ensure they have the time, space and support to recover – as with any other illness. For those self-isolating due to being in close contact with a COVID-19 case, we have solid systems in place (dating back to pre-Covid times) to allow our people to work seamlessly from wherever they are isolating. From a business continuity perspective, we are also looking at creating cohorts and ensuring good communication between people and teams so projects can be picked up by others.

Ceinwen: In thinking how best to safeguard our people, we decided to create bubbles within the organisation, ensuring a mix of different demographics in each one. We have, perhaps controversially, asked people to come into the office on their “bubble days”. This is because we found not only did business productivity drop in previous lockdowns, but also people’s sense of isolation grew, and their mental health suffered. If staff are isolating due to sickness, we are looking into ways to support them by providing food deliveries from local businesses, dropping off medicine, and of course regularly checking in on them.

Ceinwen McNeil

Ceinwen McNeil, BVT

What steps should businesses take to minimise the impact of Omicron in the coming weeks?

Simonne: There are two ways I would recommend businesses go about planning for the coming wave. Firstly, by looking forward – scenario planning in advance to test multiple scenarios and the impact they might have on the business. Secondly, by looking back with a “lessons learned” exercise from previous lockdowns. Reflection is a very powerful tool and will help businesses be ready to go when we hit the next wave of COVID-19.

Ceinwen: For SMEs, consider hybrid working arrangements. Be flexible – not all office or all working from home. We are not in lockdown! Balance your planning for the physical illness with the mental impact the next months could have on your staff and their whānau. Support local businesses, with coffee orders, lunches, food deliveries. Think of break points to ensure business continuity. Most critically as leaders of small businesses: look after yourselves and activate your own support networks. You’ll be amplifying your communication and accessibility with staff, while juggling client demands with a potentially reduced workforce and burnout is a real risk.