My client was facing a serious challenge and needed an immediate solution. Hundreds of employees working in a warehouse were refusing to handle products made, packaged and shipped from China, out of concern for contracting the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
It didn’t seem to matter that medical experts have said the likelihood for contracting COVID-19 from cardboard boxes that have been shipped from China is slim. Enflamed by erroneous information coursing through the Internet and social media, the warehouse workers were anxious and the company needed to allay their fears.
I immediately underscored the importance of clearly communicating with employees so that they understood exactly how viruses can be spread. And then I told the client to outfit every employee with medical-grade gloves.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. If you can’t catch COVID-19 from a box, then why go to the trouble and expense to give everyone gloves? In the face of a crisis, when panic is the order of the day, sometimes it’s better to give people some form of comfort than no comfort at all. In this case, people were so worried they could no longer hear the scientific facts about the virus. The gloves were an effective way to create safety and calm fears and anxiety.
This is a perfect example of the kind of challenges that employers are facing as the coronavirus edges closer to becoming a pandemic. It’s the top story everywhere in the world and it threatens to impact us in many ways.
Employers are particularly vulnerable to the panic and misinformation that can accompany a public health crisis. Fortunately, they are also uniquely positioned to be an antidote to that panic and misinformation. Working people spend at least as much time, if not more, with their employers and co-workers. That means many people will be looking to their organizational leaders for information and support as events unfold.
How prepared are leaders to play this role? Recently, I led a webinar for clients looking for advice on how to address the medical, economic and sociological consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak inside and outside China. Normally, we have between 70 and 80 companies dial in for a regular HR webinar series. For our webcast on COVID-19, we drew more than 180, or double our normal audience. That’s pretty clear evidence that organizations of all shapes and sizes are unsure about what they need to do, and they want to hear what other companies are doing.
The fact is that COVID-19 is already impacting all aspects of business, from people to supply chains to revenue. Some of the world’s biggest companies—including Google, Twitter, Amazon, Apple, LG and Ericsson—have suspended business travel, expanded work-from-home options and closed some offices in countries most affected by the virus. Nike closed both its head office in Oregon and its European headquarters in Amsterdam for what it termed “a deep clean.” One Nike employee in Amsterdam had, in fact, tested positive for COVID-19.
For other companies, the outbreak has meant a cessation or precipitous reduction in business operations.
Israeli airline El Al announced it was laying off more than 1,000 workers as it was forced to suspend routes to some of their more popular destinations like Italy, which has been hard hit by the virus. Labor officials in the Philippines believe that more than 7,000 workers in the tourism and hospitality industries could be out of work because of a decline in visitors.
It is impossible to predict the extent to which your business is going to be impacted by COVID-19. But you’ll want to act quickly and decisively on the issues you face today and to prepare for the potential for further disruption headed your way.
The challenges created by COVID-19 fall into two categories: the obvious ones you should deal with today and the future challenges you should start preparing for.
Depending on the size of your organization, you may have already dealt with issues such as mandatory exclusions from work and modifying your travel policy. Similarly, policies around holding or attending major meetings and conferences have already been affected.
Proactive strategies may include circulating information on how employees can protect themselves from contracting the virus and providing hand-sanitizing supplies.
However, that is the low-hanging fruit in this crisis. There are bigger, more systemic issues that will require you do to some concerted advance planning for what is undoubtedly to come. The following is a checklist that you can use to assess your organization’s level of preparedness. It is by no means comprehensive, but it does cover many of the major bases.
1. Do you have a team in place to coordinate the overall response and communicate with employees, customers and vendors?
This team should be tasked with quickly developing communications that will keep your people, your customers and your business partners informed about strategy, business continuity plans, health and safety protocols, and possible scenarios impacting the workplace. Poor internal communication can trigger speculation and lead to mistrust and fear.
2. Have you identified a trusted source of medical information to help inform your employees and a communications strategy to keep your employees informed?
The internet is full of misinformation so it would be beneficial for all organizations to decide where they will turn for the truth and keep up to date with daily changes. Some organizations will have corporate physicians to rely upon. Others may have to turn to the World Health Organization or national public health officers. Once you are tapped into the best information, be sure the information is easily accessible to employees and updated regularly. Don’t have everyone doing everything. Appoint one person who will be your single source of information.
3. Do you have policies in place for a quarantine duration, the frequency of testing and other mandatory health and safety practices during the outbreak?
You will need up-to-date medical information on all these practices to determine what, if any, need to be implemented in your organization. For example, most organizations are already prescribing a 14-day quarantine period for any employee who has been to an affected region. Some have opted for a 21-day period. Your medical advisors will help you find the right solution. Also, set a clear policy on the circumstances under which you will continue salary and benefits across your organization’s global footprint.
4. If you have operations in multiple countries, do you know the legal requirements that might affect layoffs, quarantined employees or the decision to shut down an entire office?
If you do business in the United States, it may not be that difficult to initiate a furlough or to radically change working practices if business operations have been affected by the outbreak. In some European countries, however, the employee relations, legal and political hurdles are considerably bigger and take longer. Task senior HR leaders in all the countries in which you operate to identify any issues that might prevent you from making quick decisions on adverse workplace measures.
5. Are assurances in place to maintain a safe workplace?
Employers are required to provide a safe and healthy workplace. In many countries, employees can refuse to work in an unsafe workplace. Be prepared to deal with refusals to work in particular areas, with certain goods, to visit certain locations or work with certain people. Consider how you can minimize large numbers of people coming together in close proximity, postpone planned events like town hall meetings, and possibly reorganize or stagger access to workplace commissaries. Make sure advisory notices are posted in the workplace, on company intranets and shared via email. Ensure hand sanitizers are in prominent view. Use clear and simple instructions like “Wash your hands frequently,” “Avoid touching your face with your hands,” and “Stay home if you have flu-like symptoms.”
6. Do you have protocols and tools in place to allow employees to work from home?
If your company makes automobiles, you can’t send your assembly line employees home to work. But in other types of companies, remote work will be an effective option to help avoid the spread of the virus. To do this, you will need to know if your employees have the tools necessary to work from home. Do they have computers and if so, do you have a secure VPN in place? Do you have access to solutions to allow your people to hold virtual meetings? Do you have a SaaS solution that includes office applications, email and collaboration tools? If you do not have these tools in place, contingency plans will need to be developed.
7. If travel is going to be restricted, do you have a business continuity plan in place to ensure you can cover all key business activities?
Many businesses still rely on in-person sales and support functions. If you cannot send your people out to meet clients, or if they refuse to travel, how will they continue to support your products or services? When devising strategies, remember that your clients are also looking for ways to connect remotely. Be sure you are prepared with a plan to sustain critical business relationships.
8. Have you offered your leaders guidance and support to help them quell anxiety and deal effectively with any instances of bias or discrimination?
Unfortunately, with uncertainty and disruption comes a variety of unsavory consequences like bias, discrimination and even violence. Stories from around the world confirm that people of Asian descent are being treated unfairly because COVID-19 originated in China. A virus knows no border or nationality and it’s important for your leaders to be prepared with messages that stress the need to avoid persecution of anyone from any group. Your frontline leaders will be particularly important, and they will need to deliver a consistent and positive message. Remember, the anxiety your people are feeling may manifest as gossip or online social comment. Be vigilant.
9. Do you have complete personal contact information for all your employees?
It may seem a simple enough question, but you’d be surprised how many organizations don’t have adequate contact information for their employees. The COVID-19 outbreak poses a threat that requires all employers to gather as much basic information as possible about their employees and to be able to contact them quickly when they are not in the workplace. This will help you keep in contact with employees if they cannot or will not come into the workplace or you’ve established a remote work plan for them.
In the crisis-management field, it’s often said that if you wait until a problem arises to address it, then you’ve waited too long. Go over the checklist and if you find your answer to any of the questions is “no,” get to work and lay in the plans to help you deal with the outbreak.
About the Author
Alan Wild is a recognized world expert in Global Employee Relations. He works for the Washington-based HR Policy Association as Global Affairs Director—a membership organization of more than 350 CHROs in the world's leading companies. He conducts consulting business through Aritake-Wild LLC and is an Executive Consultant with Lee Hecht Harrison (LHH). Alan is a Fellow at the School of Labor Relations at Rutgers University.