Using Tabletop Exercises to Improve Coming-back Plans

July 23, 2020

Critical takeaways:

  • Use tabletop exercises to explore specific what-if scenarios around your coming-back plan.
  • What you’re really looking for is, “Uh oh, that’s something we hadn’t thought about. How’s this going to change our planning?”
  • They’re also a tool for testing transformational ideas, including policies that would not have been considered before the pandemic.

Organizations and our clients with customer-facing operations – retail, hospitality, higher education – are bringing people back to work to restore storefront service and preparing for a larger reopening. While front line workers have largely returned to the workplace, many “back office” teams remain remote. 

What is it like to bring our workers back to the office? When and how do we come back? Do we come back? Teams are hard at work thinking, meeting, talking, Zooming and trying to work through the issues of coming back. Juggling HR policies, operational needs and executive expectations, while managing internal communications, is a challenge to say the least. 

Shutting down was easy. Coming back was always going to be hard. If you haven’t already, talk to your people and understand what plans need to be put in place. Not only to ensure their health and safety, but also to give them confidence in coming back. Not everyone will be ready, and that needs to be OK.

Exploring What-if Scenarios

As you’re doing this, we suggest using tabletop exercises to explore specific what-if scenarios. Tabletop exercises tests the things that you’ve already identified as potential problems with your plans. It also, by working through these scenarios and these what-if situations, identify the other gaps, things that you might not be looking at already. Tabletop exercises give you the opportunity to truly improve your plan and improve your thinking at the outset.

The steps are relatively straightforward for planning one of these exercises. Scheduling it is actually the greatest challenge! 

First of all, what’s your objective? What do you want to do? Do you want to test plans currently in place, or do you want to explore new ideas and new concepts that you’re just starting to think about? 

During our COVID-19 webinar series, we discussed a Coming Back Checklist: questions every organization looking at coming back should be asking themselves. They revolved around tactical, operational and transformational considerations. Each of these questions can be the basis of a tabletop exercise, but the one I particularly think is important is, “Why not?” Now is a time for innovation, creativity and trying new things.

Testing your current plans will focus mostly on tactical and operational aspects. Taking the opportunity to be truly transformational means exploring possibilities that would never have been considered six months ago. Table-top exercises let you play with those possibilities.

Once you have a clear objective, select one or more specific scenarios. For example, let’s say opening up your offices completely is your scenario. You can explore opening for certain workers on certain days, some sort of staggered, time-based approach, or a department-by-department approach. Whatever you’re thinking about doing, and whatever the alternatives are, let’s create one of those as the possible scenario.

Set the Room and the Scene

Then you need to determine who needs to be present at your tabletop exercise. We think it’s really important that the participants come from the various disciplines. Depending on the scenario, you may have executive management, internal communications, operations, HR and legal present. Consider adding other people who know your organizational culture well and understand the expectations of your stakeholders, primarily your employees. They will know the implications of the scenario and can ask the right questions.

Create a structured model. We use a baseball metaphor. We call it Crisis 90, where there’s a starting place, which is home base. Like a runner going around the diamond, each base is an inflection point where something happens – the what-if’s – and you work through the issue as a group. Once you work your way around the bases, come back to home plate at the conclusion. Three scenarios can be done in one large multi-hour meeting, or you could do them weekly, just as a quick checkpoint on your agenda for these planning coming back meetings. 

What you’re really looking for is, “Uh oh, that’s something we hadn’t thought about. How’s this going to change our planning?” Leave plenty of time for discussion and opportunity for your team to evaluate, have a conversation about what they’ve learned, what they missed. Identify the gaps in your current plans, and identify the gaps in your thinking. 

The most important thing that organizations need to do is provide an onramp of understanding for your team so that they know the expectations that the organization has of them and how they’re going to respond. Going through tabletop exercises means you’ve thought through these various what-if scenarios of different things that could happen, and, for transformational questions, you’ve imagined bigger.

Consider the Risks

As you’re considering these what-if scenarios, I think you need to think about them in our SPE Risk Framework as strategic risks. Bringing teams back is a risk, and it is something that we intended to do to meet a greater business objective. We knew that [insert problem here] could happen, and here’s how planned for it and we’re managing it. Tabletop exercises can also help identify preventable risks – things that simply shouldn’t happen – and then external risks, which are threats coming from completely outside the workplace.

Someone coming into your office with a positive diagnosis for COVID-19 is something that’s strategic. That’s possible. How are you going to manage it? How are you going to respond to that? Think through what are the risks that you’re undertaking, factor those into the scenarios that you want to test and see how that changes or identifies the gaps that you’re working on. 

Tabletop exercises are also an opportunity for honest, candid feedback from the very teams you’re considering bringing back to the office. Some of the things on their minds may be things your organization hasn’t thought about, and that’s truly one of the best things that arise from these tabletop exercises. They’re a way to identify problems before they happen, and those are always the best problems to have.

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Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.