How to get the best from virtual crisis simulation exercises

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The COVID-19 emergency is forcing many teams to quickly rethink how they conduct day-to-day operations and to implement processes to enable their people to work remotely as a means of halting the spread of the virus.

We’re finding that a number of our clients are opting for virtual deliveries of crisis simulations and training to reduce the risk of transporting teams to one location, and enable them to test how effectively they can mobilize their teams and manage a crisis response remotely. Because, pandemic or no pandemic, the chances are the first stages of a crisis will be managed remotely rather than conveniently around a conference table.

Mobilizing a remote team is getting easier

Plenty of teams work from home some or all of the time, and travel regularly for work. So it’s increasingly rare for designated crisis responders to find themselves in the same country – let alone the same room – when a crisis strikes. How well you can put your crisis plan into action over conference calls, collaborative online documents and team chat?

Although some have equipped a single ‘war room’ equipped with screens and white boards for displaying and capturing information during an incident, you need a contingency plan in case you’re unable to convene in the same physical location when the time comes, or to get the response moving before you’re able to co-locate.

How can you get the best from your virtual exercises? Here’s our top five tips:

1. Brief participants clearly ahead of the exercise to avoid confusion

You need to pre-brief participants to ensure they’re clear on everything required of them.

As part of the preparations for an annual full-scale exercise we deliver for a Canadian airport, the exercise facilitation team runs a detailed participant pre-briefing session using video conferencing software around one week out from the exercise covering:

  • session timings
  • contact details for conference calls and exercise participants/facilitators
  • the tools, templates and systems they will be expected to use to enact their response – this includes briefing the teams on how to use our Social Simulator platform
  • guidelines for the exercise (e.g. starting any calls with “Exercise, Exercise”) and details of how to get help during the exercise (e.g. email/phone details) 

2. Test remote mobilization with alerts and conference calls

Crises don’t all strike between the hours of 9 and 5, so remote exercises provide a valuable means for testing how quickly and smoothly crisis teams can convene and organize themselves, and whether messaging and alerting systems work in practise.

In a recent exercise we delivered for a global travel firm, we tested how quickly crisis teams in Europe and US were able to mobilize and coordinate across time zones. A call was put into one team member, who then mobilized teams on either side of the Atlantic using the company’s alert system, which included details of the secure conference line that all participants were required to dial into to conduct their first virtual team meeting.

3. Switch to collaboration software to draft and approve messaging promptly

Being in one room certainly makes it easier to discuss and draft messaging for review and approval by team leaders to ensure that they can be posted on public-facing channels promptly. How well can your team use collaborative live-editing tools like Office 365, Dropbox or Google Docs to prepare messaging together when they’re not able to look over a colleague’s shoulder?

Recent exercises we supported with Vancouver Airport and The City Of Redmond involved mobilizing virtual Joint Information Centers (JICs) to oversee the communication and public information response. Likewise, a Middle Eastern client used Google Docs to live translate messaging between English and Arabic so no time was lost getting messaging onto appropriate channels.

4. Use audio calls or video conferencing in place of physical team meetings and timeouts

Establishing a regular rhythm of meetings and timeouts is an essential way for crisis teams to ensure they:

  • Agree team priorities and check the status of priority actions
  • Verify latest known information to ensure a common operating picture is being used to inform decision-making and the development of communications materials
  • Identify areas for improvement and ‘course correct’ as appropriate
  • Assess the current team resource/responsibilities allocation and reallocate as needed
  • Handover to other teams 

In a virtual exercise, this rhythm needs to be maintained. We recently supported crisis training involving seven offices across India for an energy company, using an open Skype for Business call to bridge the teams and discuss approaches and give feedback while they worked through a scenario on our Crisis90 tool.

However, it’s important that exercises don’t become one drawn-out conference call. Once information has been shared and priority actions and deadlines agreed, allow team members to get to work and set a time for the next meeting/timeout.

Video conferencing software such as Google Hangouts, Zoom or Microsoft Teams bring people together but can prove quite distracting for larger teams and make team members feel self-conscious. A regularly scheduled audio conference call can work as well as anything, and provides an invaluable means for team activity to remain coordinated and for important information to be shared.

5. Debrief remote participants with an online survey alongside the conference call

After any exercise it’s important to debrief participants of their experiences of what worked well and to help highlight areas for improvement.

During a recent virtual exercise for a financial client, we circulated an online survey to capture feedback. We found that participants seemed more free to share more honest feedback than they might have if based in the same location in front of senior colleagues – helping unearth and address potentially significant issues.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash