​The importance of keeping your frontline staff engaged in business continuity

Blog post   •   Aug 11, 2015 13:16 BST

During my annual leave this month, my partner and I visited a well-known tourist attraction in South West England. It was quite a nice day, thankfully, as we had pre-booked online and hoped for the best with the weather. We jumped on the bus awaiting us at the car park, and enjoyed a short easy comfy ride to the venue.

Having pre-booked our tickets, it meant we not only received a discount but were also able to skip the queues waiting to get through the main entrance and walk through to the pre-booked ticket section. We walked through to see three tills with customers being served at each but no queues for any of the tills – bliss!

We took our place behind one of the tills with our printed e-ticket and waited patiently to be scanned in and allowed through to the park. The customers waiting at the tills were there a while though, and then I noticed that the staff at those tills weren’t actually doing anything. The IT system had failed.

The problem was, as customers, we had to piece that information together by listening in on the conversations of the staff behind the till. Nothing was happening, and the empty room that we entered was now getting quite full as more and more people joined the queue. The people in the queue behind us were getting frustrated too; it wasn’t the lack of movement that seemed to be their main gripe but the lack of information coming from the staff (the staff at this point were avoiding eye contact with customers and had stepped back from the tills).

It took about 15 minutes (although it felt like longer) before a member of staff shouted to customers that the IT system had failed and instructed us on how to get seen quickly, with e-tickets waiting to see the team at the tills, and anyone using vouchers to see him the other side of the room. For us, this meant we could easily step forward to the till, hand over our printed ticket, get a sticker and continue with our day. For those using the vouchers, there was a mob of people surrounding this staff member having all flocked from wherever they were in the queue – it must have been infuriating for customers who had been at the front of the queue waiting all that time to then be stuck at the back of the mob.

The whole time we were stuck waiting, as a business continuity professional, I was thinking about when their contingencies would kick in. The first 15 minutes after the system went down, I gathered they were either waiting in hope that it would kick back into gear or they were awaiting permission from someone senior to move to the paper contingency. Their contingency should have started straight away though with communication. This was the first opportunity for their customers to be served by the company, and in this instance the customers were being ignored and kept in the dark – first impressions are everything.

On paper, their contingency worked. It is likely that if it was tested, it was tested by those who aren’t stood at the tills every day or tested behind closed doors without an ever growing queue of impatient customers. Not only was there no communication, but the crowding of customers after splitting them from their queues caused some havoc. Given the e-tickets just needed taking in and a sticker given out, the contingency should have been introduced a lot swifter to avoid the queues in the first place.

When I was a teenager I had a weekend job in a department store where I worked primarily behind the till, I knew where the paper form was to ring purchases through if the IT failed, but I had no idea how to actually fill it in properly as I was never trained for it. I feel the same happened in this instance, the staff at the till needed instruction on what to do and there was a contingency written by someone in their organisation, but they were not aware of it. It reminded me how important it is to include frontline staff in your planning, as they are your organisation’s representatives to the public. Had the staff at the tills known the contingency, they probably would have been more vocal and I wouldn’t be writing this now.

Going forward, for me taking the experience back to my organisation, I know our patient-facing staff are good at getting messages across to patients about potential delays and issues. It has left me thinking though about how often we include them in the planning and training of contingencies that affect them, and how we can improve that in the future so that they are comfortable in the knowledge of what they need to do and that we can offer a seamless change to contingency arrangements so far as the patient is concerned.

I’m sure if the venue has a BC professional, they have looked into the issue and I hope they’ve gained a lot of learning from it. I hear about the importance of ‘buy-in’ from the top often when discussing BC, but I think this is a reminder that we shouldn’t forget about the bottom either.

Greg Surtees MRes AMBCI is the Resilience Manager at Homerton University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust