According to the World Health Organization, there are now more new coronavirus infections outside of China than inside. Companies are taking note, as evidenced by the fact that warnings about the virus’s potential business impact came up in 27 earnings calls just this week, according to CNBC. From Olympic uncertainty to conference and event cancelations, the question is not if coronavirus will disrupt business, but when and how.
While there are practical steps individuals can take, preparing a company’s workforce is much more complex. The World Health Organization recently hosted a live Q&A on Periscope on COVID-19 in the workplace as 30,000 viewers streamed live looking for answers.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been having lots of conversations with other HR leaders about how to best prepare. Some are already beginning to restrict employee travel, canceling sales meetings and retreats, and updating their preparedness and response plans. Others are watching the numbers and locations closely, and holding out to see how this plays out over the coming weeks.
If you’re considering what route your company might take—or if you’re an employee trying to predict how your employer might respond to a potential escalation of the virus—here are some specific resources and steps other companies are taking:
Sharing plans publicly
Coinbase, a cryptocurrency company based in San Francisco, recently open-sourced their Coronavirus response plan. It breaks down levels of impact—from light to severe—and the accompanying actions they will trigger, including allowing working from home, increasing office cleanings, and curbing travel.
It also includes employee communications that convey more details about COVID-19, how it’s transmitted, what they’re doing about it, employee FAQs, and links to resources with more information. If you’re building your own internal response plan, this might be a helpful starting point to model.
Philip Martin, Coinbase chief information security officer, says that Coinbase has opened up their response plans in order to help other businesses, in addition to their own employees. “By sharing our plans around COVID-2019, we hope to help other companies that are trying to navigate this situation and to encourage a calm, rational approach,” he says. “Part of the goal is to also help our employees feel confident and knowledgeable, so they can make educated decisions on how to prepare, as the situation continues to evolve.”
Another general resource for responses can be found on the Society of Human Resources website. It includes a dedicated “Communicable Diseases” section with resources (currently restricted to members) and articles around managing through flu and other epidemics in the workplace.
Reevaluating remote-work policies
Many companies are reconsidering their work-from-home policies in preparation for what may come if the virus’s impact is widespread and prolonged. Schools and daycare may be impacted, preventing employees with children from coming into the office.
One thing to keep in mind is the dynamics for 100% remote companies are very different from hybrid-remote companies—or situationally remote, in this case. Steady lines of communication are crucial to keeping all employees aligned and informed on what these plans mean for them.
As you prepare your employees for remote work, particularly those who typically come into the office, you’ll want to check in on them to help them navigate the shift, especially in the early days. Consider creating support groups with experienced remote-work employees and sharing practices that will help them assimilate to the new work structure. Empathy counts here, as your employees are navigating parallel stresses of remote work, as well as family adjustments (if schools or eldercare is impacted), and the general stress and uncertainty these circumstances carries.
Many companies with operations in China have been limiting travel since the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan province. The CDC issued a Level 3 warning on January 27 recommending all nonessential travel to China be avoided. The U.S. state department followed a day later recommending no travel at all to Hubei, the province where Wuhan is located.
Soon after these warnings, Facebook became one of the first large US firms to restrict employee travel to China, per the BBC. Apple soon followed suit and began checking employees in the Wuhan area for flu symptoms. The CDC travel notices have now expanded to include Hong Kong, Italy, and Iran, as those countries experience a spike in confirmed cases.
Conferences are also bracing for impact as companies restrict employee travel. Verizon, IBM, AT&T, and 11 other companies withdrew from one of the largest security conferences (RSA) this week in San Francisco. Other conferences are feeling the effects of global uncertainty, as Mobile World Congress, Facebook F8, and other events cancel or postpone their conferences.
As the virus continues to spread beyond China, companies are beginning to take broader steps to limit nonessential travel, particularly to countries most impacted by the current outbreak. Others are canceling employee off-sites and meetings.
Providing employee support
Employees are going to have questions. If you’re an HR leader, it’s important to be as proactive and open as possible so they can understand your company’s plans. Consider creating a FAQ document that proactively address questions. Ensure that your people teams are all fully informed of your plans so that they can communicate with employees. (If you don’t have any crisis communication plans in place, here are some resources that might be helpful: Communicating with Employees During a Crisis; Hubspot’s 6 Crisis Communication Plan Examples;Ready.gov Crisis Communications Plan.)
Now would also be a good time to evaluate your sick and employee leave policies, including considering extended sick day allowances for employees. You don’t want ill employees coming to work. Maintaining traditional caps on sick days might force them to come into the office. If working from home is not an option, consider developing a plan to waive or extend sick day caps, so that employees can stay home.
From an HR perspective, you may also want to proactively consider how you will address racist tropes that may occur in the workplace. As xenophobia and racist incidents against Asians are on the rise, companies must remain vigilant about harassment in the workplace. The World Health Organization has a guide for addressing stigma with examples and tips on actions to counter these attitudes.
This is a dynamic and fluid situation. Employees will be looking to employers for guidance and direction. Having a plan in place will help ensure you can proactively address some of their concerns and uncertainty as the event unfolds over the coming months.