How to effectively conduct remote crisis simulation exercises

Photo by Jonny Clow on Unsplash

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic early last year, organisations around the world have had to rapidly orientate to a remote-only world. While the use of video conferencing software is now mainstream across organisations, there are still a host of organisations struggling with the transition of some activities to ‘remote only’. Crisis simulation exercises are one of these activities.

Even though we’re in the midst of a pandemic (and perhaps for exactly that reason), organisations cannot afford to stop their crisis response training and exercise programs.

I’ve been conducting online training and crisis simulation exercises over the past year. This article will summarise a few of my observations regarding conducting crisis simulation exercises via video conferencing applications. Specifically, I’ll provide actionable advice regarding different techniques you can apply in your own organisation, as well as a couple of interesting (and surprising) discoveries.

Hopefully these observations will be useful for those of you planning to conduct crisis simulations remotely using video conferencing applications in your own organisations.

Most of these observations will be written for the person in the ‘Exercise Coordinator’ role. This is the person who designs and delivers the exercise (perhaps this is you?).

For background and context, I’ve conducted well over a hundred crisis simulation exercises in over a dozen countries. Since 2020, my company has moved its simulation exercise format to 100% online (didn’t have much of a choice, really). It was a steep learning curve at the beginning, but now we see the utility of video conferencing applications not only for exercises, but also for actual crisis events.

The best place to start the discussion around video conferencing applications for crisis simulation exercise is at the beginning of the exercise process: exercise design.

Exercise Design

Exercise design is the first phase of any crisis simulation exercise. This stage is where you’ll model interactions, determine exercise difficulty, decide on a scenario, develop an exercise storyboard and write the exercise script.

Overall, the exercise design process doesn’t change when conducting an exercise remotely. It’s normal for us to conduct all exercise design remotely, as our clients are typically in a different country. We use in-house templates for interaction mapping and scenario comparison. We use Notion to build out the scenario, storyboard and script. We provide our client access to Notion so they can see us build out the exercise in real time. (Of course, the Crisis Team you are exercising shouldn’t have any access to this information–it’s a far better experience for the team if they come into the exercise with no knowledge of the scenario).

We will have the occasional check-in call with our client, but otherwise all work is done remotely using collaborative applications.

So, at least in our experience, there’s not much of a difference when it comes to how we approach exercise design remotely.

Conduct of preliminary briefings

We always conduct detailed briefings for the Crisis Team and for the role players before each exercise. These briefings are essential to set expectations, explain how the exercise will work, and to reduce the risk of safety breaches (discussed in more detail below).

When you’re conducting your exercise remotely, the exercise briefings have another key function: they are a technical dress rehearsal for the exercise. The procedures people follow for joining the online briefing–and the way the online session has been set up–should mirror the actual exercise. By taking this approach, you’ll reduce the risk of major screw ups and delays on the day of the exercise.

We typically conduct our exercise and role player briefings the day before the exercise to ensure physical separation from the actual start of the exercise (we like the start of the exercise to be as realistic as possible).

Getting the setup right

Leading on from the point above regarding the start of the exercise, an exercise that starts well will typically end well. We spend a lot of effort during the exercise design phase to ensure that the exercise start point is realistic and immediately engaging. By doing this, we set the scene for the exercise and immerse the team in the crisis environment.

Of course, if team members are unsure of how to join the virtual meeting room, the exercise start point will be all over the place, detracting from the exercise. First and foremost, get the invitations correct and practice joining the virtual meeting room during the preliminary briefings

Another key point is that all Crisis Team members should have their video function turned on, so they are visible to the group. While the idea of having everyone on video may be a little controversial for those working from home, a crisis is different from a normal business meeting. During a crisis, every team member will need to interact with their colleagues. Interaction will always be more effective when you can observe the facial expressions and body language of other team members.

The Crisis Team will also need a set of rules to make the video format work well for them. Based on our experiences using Zoom, here’s a few of the rules we recommend teams adopt during remote exercises:

  • Ensure the session is secure. Use meeting passwords and waiting rooms to manage access (you may do this as the Exercise Coordinator if you set yourself up as the host).
  • Stay on mute when not talking. In an exercise setting, individuals should manage their mute button, not the host.
  • Use private chat for side discussions. Typically in a crisis, individual team members will need to engage with each other over minor issues that don’t need to be escalated to the group. For these side discussions, either use the private chat feature in the video conferencing application or use a different chat application (we use Signal or Wire for secure chat).
  • Use breakout rooms for task-focused sessions. For example, HR and Comms representatives may jump into a breakout room to work on the message for an employee communication.
  • Keep the group chat panel open. Each team member should keep the group chat panel open. Team members can add any significant points to the chat rather than interrupt the group. The log keeper can also use the chat to drop in key information on the situation.
  • Use the ‘raise hand’ feature for urgent information. If a team member has something urgent to say, for example, if a critical piece of information comes in, they can use the raise hand function to get everyone to stop talking. Use sparingly. This feature can also be used for voting, as discussed shortly.

Many of the points above apply during a normal crisis when the Crisis Team is together in the same room. If the team is in a meeting room, side discussions still need to be managed, break out rooms should be used for conversations and planning, and people who have urgent information to share should raise their hands.

In addition to these points, having good video and audio equipment makes the experience of video interactions significantly better. The cameras and microphones on most laptops are inadequate. Whenever possible, use a high-definition USB camera, an external microphone (we use the Deity V-Mic D3 Pro with windscreen), and a pair of comfortable headphones (we use Sony MDR-7506 headphones, which do the job nicely).

Sharing logs and information displays

The effective management of information is a key component in crisis exercises and in actual crisis events. Crisis Teams must be able to rapidly collect information, make sense of it, then use that information to make effective decisions. For this process to work, the team will need tools and procedures to enable them to effectively manage information. The most basic of these tools is the crisis log.

If your crisis log is not built on a distributed system (i.e. where each person can view and edit the log from their own computer), have one of the team members share the log on the screen at key times during the crisis. For example, it’s appropriate to share the log at the start of each operational cycle, when the team is re-orientating to the situation. At all other times, it’s better to see everyone’s faces rather than a shared screen. To be clear, the video conferencing application’s chat feature is not a crisis log. The team should have a separate file or record for their log.

In addition to the crisis log, at the start of each operational cycle it’s also useful to cycle through information displays (e.g., tasks lists, stakeholder engagement plans, missing persons lists etc).

If you want to experiment with using a picture-in-picture effect, you can try using OBS for this.

We continually stress the importance of using different tools to manage different types of information during our in-person crisis simulation exercises. These tools are essential to enable team members to make sense of complex crisis events. Information management tools are even more important when responding to a crisis remotely. These tools should be accessible to all team members, and should provide an at-a-glance view of the key aspects of the situation. Consider using tools like Notion to share log entries, news reports, maps of incident areas et cetera.

Role players

Role players are an essential component to any crisis simulation exercise. In addition to a realistic scenario and a good script, role players will give life to the exercise.

When we conduct exercises at a client’s workplace, we will use role players from their organisation. We group these role players in an Exercise Control Room and we appoint a Role Player Coordinator to manage the role players and the delivery of serials. During the exercise, these role players will introduce information to the Crisis Team through a range of interactive methods, including face-to-face (rarely), over the phone (most common), and by email or text message.

Aside from when engaging in face-to-face interactions, role players are always physically remote from the Crisis Team being exercised (they’ll be in a different room, often down the hall). The key challenge with an exercise conducted fully via a video conferencing application is how the role players are managed.

We’ve learned that remote exercises open up a host of new opportunities for role players. In fact, we’ve found that we have more options open to us. For example, while we traditionally source role players from the same workplace where we conduct the exercise, now we can gather role players from anywhere. We can also have some role players, such as senior managers who are playing themselves in the exercise, come in and out of the video conferencing application as needed. Both aspects provide a lot of flexibility when planning and coordinating the exercise. We can even use trained actors, which we normally wouldn’t be able to fly into a client location (as mentioned earlier, most of our exercises are conducted overseas).

As noted above, the key challenge we face is managing the role players. We’ve found two ways to manage role players effectively when conducting an exercise using a video conferencing application. Here’s what we’ve learned:

  1. Bring the role players into the same meeting as the Crisis Team, but place them together in a breakout room along with the Role Player Coordinator. This approach has the advantage of allowing the Exercise Coordinator to jump into the breakout room to provide directions when required, without having to leave the session. The role players will need to join the meeting first, which doesn’t cause any problems because the role players need to prepare for the first round of serials anyway. As the role players will not be jumping into the main meeting, they will not be seen by members of the Crisis Team.
  2. Alternatively, set up a different meeting for the role players and Role Player Coordinator. If taking this approach, the Role Player Coordinator and Exercise Coordinator will need to establish a separate chat using a different application to keep in contact. This communication channel is essential for the two coordinators to be able to manage the sequence and flow of the exercise serials.

It’s worth experimenting with both of these options to see what works for you.

Stepping away for tasks and the risk of safety breaches

Typically, during a crisis there should be a stage in the team process where individuals step away from the group to complete tasks (e.g., make phone calls, develop communications messages, update managers etc). This stage should be at the end of the team’s operational cycle.

During an actual crisis, this would be the time where team members turn off audio and video, and perhaps leave the virtual session. In an exercise, if you allow team members to turn off audio and video or leave the session while they complete team-related tasks, you’re inviting a safety breach. (In this context, a safety breach is when a team member calls someone not briefed on the exercise, and speaks to them as though the exercise scenario is a real event. As you might expect, such an action can cause chaos).

Managing interactions with other parties outside the team (role players and other people briefed on the exercise) is perhaps the most complex aspect of any crisis simulation exercise. Our exercises enable two-way communications with minimal restrictions, but we set up safeguards to reduce the risk of a safety breach. Safety breaches are serious issues that can impact the credibility of the exercise program, not to mention the credibility of the Exercise Coordinator running the exercise.

How the role of the team leader changes

A remotely managed crisis places even more pressure on the leader of the Crisis Team. Our view in all contexts is that the primary role of the team leader is as an internal facilitor. They should not necessarily be the final arbiter for all decisions. Rather, their role is to get the most out of each functional representative on the team. To achieve this, every team member needs to have the opportunity to speak. Shared dialogue is hard enough when everyone is in the same room. It’s even harder when everyone is a small box on a computer screen.

The team leader should make a point to ensure that each functional member of the team has the opportunity to speak on key issues. As noted above, maximum use should be made of the application’s chat feature to relay basic information, as well as the use of the ‘raise hand’ feature to signal when someone has something urgent to share. The team leader can use simple techniques such as going around the room (screen) to ensure everyone has the opportunity to speak on a particular issue. The team leader can also leverage the ‘raise hand’ feature to enable team members to vote on key decisions. Voting is an excellent way to speed up decision-making during a crisis (there’s no requirement to record who votes for what option).

Observing team performance

As the Exercise Coordinator, you’ll typically be physically in the room with the Crisis Team. Your main role during the exercise is to observe performance and take notes for the exercise debriefing and exercise report.

In our experience, and counter to our expectations, it’s easier to observe individual and team performance in an online video format in comparison to having the team in the room. The reason for this is that the team is ‘2 dimensional’. Unlike sitting in a room where your vision can be constrained and you can only hear discussions close to you, in an online meeting room everyone is right there and can be easily observed and heard.

One other advantage of video conferencing applications is that you can record the session. As such, if you needed to, you could go back over the exercise as part of your performance analysis process. As the Exercise Coordinator, you’ll need to let everyone know at the start of the exercise that you’ll be recording the session.

As a final tip, as the Exercise Coordinator, you should keep your own microphone on mute when you’re not talking. It’s also good practice to turn off video, so that team members don’t engage with you as a member of the team.

There’s a lot more I could write on this topic, but I believe the points above cover some of the key insights we’ve learned over the past year.

Hopefully these observations and recommendations are useful for those of you planning to conduct crisis simulations remotely using video conferencing applications. In our view, many of these points apply not only for exercises, but also for responding to actual crisis events. It makes sense to optimise the technology available to us, and we see video conferencing software as improving coordination during a crisis, rather than detracting from it.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Happy to help out where I can.

Thanks for reading!

If you’re interested to learn more about crisis simulation exercises, we’ve just released a book on the topic. To our knowledge, this is the first book of its kind that goes into detail regarding the planning, design and delivery of crisis simulation exercises. It’s a technical reference for anyone wanting to design and deliver world-class crisis simulation exercises. You can learn more about the book here.

Founder, Spartan9.

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