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A business continuity plan (BCP) is a comprehensive plan with contingencies for business processes, assets, human resources, and business partners in case of an emergency.

A business continuity plan (BCP) is a comprehensive plan with
contingencies for business processes, assets, human resources, and business
partners in case of an emergency. It defines steps that can be taken to
re-establish productivity, secure key assets, and continue operations despite
the disruptions. 

BCPs are a necessary tool in ensuring your business preparedness. They
build confidence, cultivate resilience, and provide valuable business data to
safeguard the business during challenging times. For your accounting practice,
they can help you continue providing services even during a time crunch (such
as tax season), as well as maintain client-facing operations.

Here’s how you can start building a BCP for your accounting practice if
you don’t have one yet. 


Establishing an effective
business continuity plan

A good BCP is one that’s effective in addressing the situation it’s
designed for. 

A BCP for a cyberattack, for example, should be able to secure your
digital infrastructure and protect sensitive data without having to pay the
requested ransom. A BCP for a health pandemic should ensure your employees’
safety while also keeping productivity stable. 

One thing to keep in mind is to avoid making a BCP more complicated than
it has to be. What matters is that it actually functions. 

Why are BCPs important? Threats to businesses are, on the whole,
increasing. 57% of organisations say it
now takes longer than before to resolve cyber incidents. In Singapore, businesses lose US$1 billion a year
to unplanned downtime — not to mention revenue and productivity loss, as well
as delays in product development.

Risk management is especially important for any business, including
accounting firms. A single catastrophe can destroy infrastructure or debilitate
your team, leaving you unable to recover.

Disasters can be hard to predict. Many things can go wrong, and
impromptu catastrophe management is difficult because you may miss important
details. So when developing a BCP, it’s good to follow a guide to ensure you’ve
covered all your bases. 

One simple guide is the 5W1H format answering the questions:  Why,
Who, What, When, Where, and How.


1. Explain why the
plan exists and what the objectives are

Anyone reading your BCP should be able to quickly grasp why it is
being carried out. Explain that BCP is a risk management strategy in the face
of an issue or crisis. Why is the plan necessary, and what is it designed to
accomplish? A plan that fails to clearly outline the ideal results cannot guide
you to safety. 

Make sure that everyone in your practice also understands why steps are
being taken. This helps you act swiftly and avoid staff resistance due to
misunderstandings. For instance, Alan Chang, the Managing Director of OA
International Holdings, has implemented workforce segregation amid
the recent health pandemic. This is for the safety of his staff and their
families. He shares, “We focus on buy-in from all the employees. The staff
understand that it is for their personal safety and wellbeing”.

On the other hand, failing to convey the objective of your BCP clearly
to all employees can lead to stunted, laggy implementation or objections from
team members. 


2. Determine who
will enact the plan, and who will be affected

A plan cannot be carried out successfully if you don’t know who
is in charge. When planning a BCP, you should also identify key departments and
people who will be responsible for each step. Nominate a champion or champions
who can lead the way for other employees.

Keep in mind that some issues or crises may result in leadership falling
ill or becoming unavailable. That means every BCP should have a plan for the
continuity of leadership in the absence of key decision-makers and managers.
The team should know their responsibilities and understand which decisions are
theirs to make. 

Analyse your practice to determine the critical functions that you need
to protect in the case of an emergency. Then, define who can carry out those
functions — your essential employees or team members who must be prioritised. 

OA’s plan to keep employees safe amid incidents involves assigning
people to specific tasks. One staff member may be placed in charge of closing
accounts at the end of each day in the case that leaders are not available;
another may be in charge of writing daily updates and tracking progress.

OA is also clear when it comes to determining which employees will be
prioritised in carrying out the plan. For the recent enforcement of BCP, Chang
shares that “staff who need additional support are provided with flexible or
remote working options”.

Clients might also be affected, so it’s important to keep them in mind
when crafting your BCP.


3. Explain what
steps your accounting practice needs to take

This aspect of your BCP should address what needs to be done to mitigate
risks. Essentially, these are the steps that you will follow when disaster or
crisis hits.

A BCP has to be tailored to each firm’s needs based on the services they
offer, their business/team model, company size, and more. In your accounting firm,
you may have staff already working at the clients’ premises, conducting audit
services. This means this part of your workforce is already segregated. You can
then put in place split team arrangements for the rest of your team based on
their roles. Staff in non-client-facing roles can be asked to work from
home. 

Working remotely is a key part of OA’s BCP in the event of disasters and
crises. Chang shares, “In terms of business continuity practices, each
department is divided into two teams. One team works from the office, and the
other team works from the client’s place or home.” 

Different steps will have to be taken in suspected vs. confirmed cases
of an emergency.  To protect employees who are coming in to work during
this period, Chang introduced additional precautionary measures, such as
stricter sanitation and hygiene standards. You may also introduce travel
restrictions and provide other means of support for staff, such as ensuring
they have the right tools and technology to maintain productivity while working
remotely.


4. Discuss the timeline of
your business continuity plan

Every BCP should include a timeframe. It’s like fighting a fire. You
need to deal with the emergency as quickly and efficiently as possible to
reduce your losses and minimise damage. 

This includes a timeframe for evaluating the success of the BCP after
the incident has passed, and for re-establishing your normal routine.

In the case of a health emergency, you can rely on the national DORSCON level as a
reference. The ‘Disease Outbreak Response System Condition’ (DORSCON) is a
colour-coded framework that shows the current disease situation. This lets you
know what needs to be done to reduce the impact of outbreaks. The DORSCON
level, which indicates the severity of a crisis, will also help you decide how
long you need to implement your BCP. It also informs you on when you can begin
transitioning back to your regular routine. 


5. Consider the physical
premises that will be affected, and identify back-ups

Businesses today must consider their digital assets and ‘locations’ in
addition to their physical offices. This includes identifying where the weakest
links are — entry points that could introduce risk. 

For example, in the event of a health pandemic, physical proximity and
person-to-person contact need to be reduced or, if possible, avoided to prevent
a single sick employee from infecting the entire office. 

In the case of a health emergency, companies might shut down physical
offices that are within the radius of the pandemic. Instead, they could request
that employees come to work virtually. Ideally, companies should already be
using cloud tools and a virtual
communications platform to ensure that employees can flexibly and smoothly
transition from offline to online processes.

During a cybersecurity breach, on the other hand, the weakest link might
be a physical room on a server, or an end-user’s e-mail. Consider these things:
Where are your sensitive documents kept? Where is the user information
stored? 

You should identify the most important virtual locations long before the
actual catastrophe happens, so that in the case of a breach, all you need to do
is follow the process. 


6. Address how you
will implement the plan

Addressing the how of your BCP involves defining the tools you
will use to carry out each step of the process. It also includes estimating the
financial and HR costs and means to successfully complete the plan. Consider
your firm’s technology infrastructure and access to sensitive data. Does your
accounting software allow you to both enable and restrict remote access for
specific users?

As many modern accounting processes rely on the cloud, it’s also
important to think about data backups, how they will be maintained, who can
access them.

Consider how you can continue communicating with your clients and share
documents with them. It’s important to assure clients that their financial data
remains private and secure even when your team becomes distributed
geographically.

For example, during the current health pandemic, Chang immediately
implemented business continuity practices to reduce the number of employees
going to work in the office. Their remote work is made possible with the help
of cloud accounting software and online communication platforms that facilitate
seamless real-time collaboration. 

“We use Xero to keep our finances running, and we are also using Zave
for corporate secretarial work, and Singtax and Caseware for audits,” he says.
“The office can access the server remotely via VPN so all documents are shared
and stored in the server”. 

All of OA’s departments are on software or cloud tools, so there were no
issues with assigning teams to work in the office or at home. 

The same goes for their clients. Chang shared that clients wishing to
avoid face-to-face meetings would grant them access to documents stored in the
cloud. Any correspondence would take place via email, phone calls, and
messaging platforms like WhatsApp.

Communication is another thing you need to define. After all, no matter
how good a BCP is, it won’t work if communication fails. 

“OA requires staff working from home to report on their daily work and
fill out timesheets. This provides updates on projects’ progress as well
as  determine where they can help each other out. The management also
needs to express support for team members,” says Chang.


Always be prepared

Chang has three tips for accounting practices to weather unexpected
events.

Firstly, have a work-life programme in place. This will not only
increase staff morale and retention, but also prepare you for situations which
demand mass work from home arrangements. 

For instance, OA’s work-life programme includes days for remote working.
This ensures that the employees are ready to work from home, as needed. 

Secondly, adopt cloud-based technology, such as software and
storage. 

And lastly, if you’re concerned about keeping your personal phone number
private, divert your office line to your handphone. The point is to be
contactable by your team and clients alike.  

These may sound quite specific, but that’s the point — to be prepared
for different scenarios. You can do this with a BCP, and as a result, keep both
your team and your clients satisfied when crisis strikes.