A pandemic plan should prioritize worker safety and minimize business disruption
At the start of 2020, every business made ambitious plans for the year. Two months later, the new coronavirus, COVID-19, has plans of its own.
As this highly infectious disease continues to spread, and with no certain end to this pandemic in sight, HR departments around the world have the impossible task of balancing workforce safety concerns with maintaining business as usual. And they need to act fast—HR leaders can’t wait for a crisis to develop to start responding.
There’s a lot to take on, but we’re here to help. To ensure you’re prepared should COVID-19 strike your business, here are 10 questions, adapted from Gartner’s guidance on the subject, that you should answer to inform your coronavirus plan.
Ask these 10 questions when planning for the pandemic
1. Can our company operate with 25% or greater absenteeism?
COVID-19 is costly to businesses for two reasons. First, symptoms may take anywhere from two to 14 days after exposure to appear—opening the door for workers to spread the disease at your business quickly but unknowingly. Second, the average recovery time for people with COVID-19 is about two weeks.
In other words, businesses should plan to operate at less than 100% for some time. If you haven’t already, start identifying the critical business functions and teams you need to keep the lights on if a large chunk of employees can’t work. You should also bake in at least a 25% absenteeism rate in capacity planning and goal setting.
2. If illness causes high absenteeism, are employees cross-trained and able to perform multiple duties?
Do you have sales reps that can hop on to customer service? Can front-end developers support back-end needs to keep your website going? Once you’ve identified those critical business functions, you should ensure you have enough cross-trained talent to support them.
3. Can our employees work remotely?
Even companies vehemently against remote work are being forced to consider it right now. Keeping employees at home is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at your company.
Analyze the roles in your organization and separate them into three groups:
- Those who can’t work remotely (cashiers, assembly line workers)
- Those who can work remotely at great cost (sales teams)
- Those who can easily work remotely (knowledge workers)
You can use this analysis to inform your policy on who gets to work from home and when. Your policy may also want to include at-risk employees such as older adults and those with serious chronic medical conditions to avoid worst-case scenarios with infection.
4. What infrastructure support is needed for an at-home workforce?
According to a Gartner poll, 54% of HR leaders say that poor technology and infrastructure are the biggest barriers to effective remote work. Depending on the type of work being performed, your at-home workforce may need some or all of the following:
- A phone, laptop, and headset
- Internet access
- Viritual private network (VPN) software (to secure networks)
- Time tracking software (to pay people accurately)
- Video conferencing software (to hold virtual meetings)
- Collaboration tools (to bridge the communication gap)
You also need to update your technology and IT policies to account for at-home equipment rentals, security concerns, and technical support.
5. Will our company monitor, or even restrict, travel to high-risk regions?
Generally speaking, companies have three options when it comes to restricting travel:
- Ban non-essential travel
- Ban travel to high-risk regions
- Ban all travel outright
Regularly updated coronavirus trackers like this one from Johns Hopkins University and travel advisories from the government can help inform your decision. Whatever you decide, notify employees of the policy immediately, and ask them to try to recoup as much as they can from flights and hotels that have already been booked.
6. What procedures do we have in place to decontaminate the workplace?
COVID-19 can survive on surfaces for up to several days, depending on the material its on and the temperature of the environment. In addition to hiring a professional cleaning service to regularly decontaminate your workplace while COVID-19 is active, you should ensure everyone is following the proper procedures according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC):
- Use a detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection.
- Use diluted household bleach solutions, alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol, or EPA-registered household disinfectants.
- Wear disposable gloves and gowns for all tasks in the cleaning process, including handling trash.
- Remove gloves after cleaning a room and clean hands immediately using soap and water.
You should also discern what’s not effective at all. Those high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, for example? They won’t do anything against COVID-19.
7. What assurances do we need to provide employees so they feel safe at work?
This is a big one. Employees that aren’t cautious enough can cause harm, but overly cautious employees can fuel anxiety and panic.
In addition to rolling out a remote work policy to accommodate workers where possible, these steps can alleviate fears for people in the workplace:
- Post basic information about COVID-19, including how it’s transmitted and what the symptoms are.
- Place disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizers that contain at least 60% alcohol around the workplace.
- Remind workers and hang posters about proper hand-washing technique.
- Inform employees on which precautions are unnecessary (e.g., masks shouldn’t be worn if you aren’t sick) and how to avoid unnecessary contact with one another (e.g., no hand-shaking!)
- Update PTO policies as needed to accommodate sick workers and remind workers to use allotted sick days as soon as they feel symptoms.
All communication should lead with one concern in mind: the health and well-being of your workforce.
8. How will traveling employees be brought home, particularly if they are sick?
The recent 30-day ban on most travel from Europe to the U.S. highlights the need for businesses to have a plan if workers are stranded abroad. Before the unthinkable happens, put together an information package that can be emailed or uploaded to the company intranet.
The package should include the phone number and email address for someone at your company that workers can contact for help and a list of local organizations and credible resources they should consult, like the World Health Organization (WHO).
It should also inform employees of their options if they’re stuck abroad longer than expected, whether it be a flexible work arrangement, using PTO, using Family and Medical Leave (FMLA), or something else, like a sabbatical. Workers should figure out their solution with their manager.
As far as getting them home, if a worker has not tested positive for COVID-19, explore options for rebooking their travel. If they do have COVID-19, default to the procedures advised by the local government.
9. What are our escalation procedures?
Ambiguity is the enemy in any emergency situation, which is why you should put together a list of specific step-by-step instructions for workers to follow if they get diagnosed with COVID-19 or fear they’ve been in contact with someone who has COVID-19.
Instructions should include:
- Contacting managers to relay their recent whereabouts in the workplace
- Consulting the advice of your company’s health insurance provider
- Self-quarantining at home until symptoms subside
Your human resources information system (HRIS) can act as a makeshift case management tool to monitor the COVID-19 situation with your workforce over time. You and your managers can log details as they occur.
As for the escalation procedures of your business, call 311 to be connected to a health service provider that can provide guidance for your specific situation.
10. Is there a trained and representative crisis management team that includes on-call staff?
A crisis management team made up of leaders and rank-and-file workers from different departments can help your HR department quickly disperse information, ensure consistent administration of your coronavirus plan, and provide help in an emergency.
Besides being able to answer questions and point employees to the right resources, this team can be valuable in researching the latest advisory notices from health organizations and providing input on your plan if conditions worsen.
Stay tuned for more coronavirus resources
As I mentioned, there is no clear idea when the coronavirus pandemic will end. Businesses need to stay informed as the situation develops and be ready to act quickly.
See our resource page: “Ensuring Business Continuity During the Coronavirus Outbreak” for more information for businesses.