Over the past few months, the coronavirus has quickly spread from Wuhan, China to nearly every region of the globe. At the time of this writing, the virus had infecting over 300,000 people and resulting in over 14,000 deaths and U.S. cases surpassing 30,000. As a result, President Trump declared a national emergency, freeing up additional funding that will allow the government to address the effects of the pandemic. Amid a sweeping 30 day travel ban, plunging stock markets, falling oil prices, stifled supply chains, skittish customers, and mounting concerns about a possible economic fallout, companies are left to try to grapple with how to keep their staff safe and plan for disruption to business operations.
The coronavirus has caused widespread social, political, and economic disruption around the world. Stifled supply chains, travel restrictions, school closings, canceled events, and an endangered workforce are top of mind for employers as they navigate this rapidly changing situation. While estimates of the pandemic’s long-term impact on the global economy are largely educated guesses, companies can take immediate action steps to minimize effects from disruption.
Develop a Response Plan Have regularly-updated and evaluated business continuity plans in place to ensure a smooth response to a potential pandemic. Create a team within the company, chaired by a senior staff member, who can make quick executive decisions for the organization in response to any coronavirus-related impacts to the business and prepare decision-making processes for future incidents. Response plans should break down levels of impact—from light to severe—and the accompanying actions they will trigger, such as allowing working from home, increasing office cleanings, and implementing travel restrictions.
Identify Vulnerabilities in the Supply Chain Look not only at first-tier suppliers, but also second-and third-tier suppliers to find out if there are any single points of failure where you can trace back your entire supply chain to one plant or one region of the world. Preemptively develop mitigation approaches and continuously monitor risk.
Review Contracts If you have contractual commitments that depend on foreign-sourced goods, review those contracts to identify any rights and requirements under those contracts.
Communicate Businesses of all sizes should have a solid crisis communication plan in place that outlines procedures for the coordination of internal and external communications in the event of a crisis situation. Understanding the audiences that a business needs to reach during an emergency is one of the first steps in the development of a crisis communications plan. You will also need to identify who within the business is best able to communicate with that audience. As the situation unfolds, coordinate the release of messages to the different audiences. Messages should be scripted to address the specific needs of each audience, while ensuring the core of each message is consistent with one another.
Protect Your Talent Communication and Education: Make the safety and well-being of your employees a top priority. Monitor updates from public health officials and keep employees informed. Educate employees on the virus itself and connect employees with appropriate government agencies, health organizations, and other resources to learn more about the virus. Employees are going to have questions so it’s important to be as proactive and open as possible.
Reinforce Sick Leave Policies: Encourage employees to review company sick leave and paid time off policies, and remind employees to stay home if they are feeling ill. Train managers and supervisors to send employees home if they are sick.
Prepare for Remote Working and Staggered Shifts: Develop plans to implement flexible working conditions for a larger percentage for your workforce. Remember to take into account infrastructure needs such as bandwidth and capacity issues for remote access to work servers, conference lines, and other necessities. Another idea to consider is to have teams work “half on/half off” where a team that normally is co-located would have a rotation with half the team expected in the office for a period of time while the other half works remotely.
Prepare Flexible Leave Policies: In some communities, early childhood programs and K-12 schools may close in response to the outbreak. Determine how you will operate if absenteeism spikes from those who may stay home to watch their children. Prepare flexible workplace and leave policies for these employees so you can implement these changes swiftly.
Plan for the Worst-Case Scenario Work with a team of experts to identify specific trigger points, potential scenarios, and impacts on people and operations. Scenario planning should identify “levers” that can be pulled and their anticipated impacts so that IF the worst happens, you will be well prepared to take concrete steps that will support the health of the firm. For steps on how to prepare for economic downtown, check out our article “Lessons Learned: How to Prepare for the Next Recession.”
How Leading Employers are Putting Best Practices to Use
Businesses across industries are facing challenges tied to corporate, government, and consumer response to the virus. They must continue to produce or provide their services, but with consideration of the health context. Here’s a look at how leading companies are working to minimize disruption to business operations while protecting their workers.
Walmart, the nation's private largest employer, announced that it will provide up to two weeks' pay for workers who are quarantined or if one of its locations falls under a mandatory quarantine. If a Walmart worker is diagnosed with coronavirus, the company will offer two weeks' pay and additional pay replacement for up to 26 weeks.
Cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase had originally asked that several types of workers, including people with compromised immune systems, those who are “at risk because of age,” or people for whom getting sick would be especially problematic, to start working from home. About 200 out of 1,000 employees globally fell into that original group, including single parents and pregnant employees. More recently, the company has suggested that all employees begin working from home if they can.
San-Diego-based StickerJunkie has its contingency plans in place. There are backup plans for who would fill in if critical employees get sick. In addition, one-third of the company’s staff has been told to work from home. Therefore, if employees remaining in the company’s production facility, including machine operators and workers in charge of shipping orders, fall ill, those working from home will swap in for them after the location has been disinfected.
Limeade, a Seattle-based employee engagement software company, has created an internal “care and crisis” communications channel. CEO Henry Albrecht uses it to provide updates on the virus itself, travel plans, and ideas on how to work effectively from home. Employees can also post their own messages, allowing for two-way communication.
Nationwide, companies are implementing policies to address the emerging coronavirus pandemic. While not every industry can change its business model, businesses should try to provide as much flexibility as possible, taking into account the desire to reduce the chance of community spread of infection, and the need for certain roles to be in the office to maintain operations and continue to serve customers.
In our increasingly VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous), pandemics are predicted to be a greater feature of the global economy as supply chains are more dispersed and as climate change impacts the migration and movement of people and animals. Thus, organizations should take the time to preview their resilience and crisis response strategies. By hoping for the best, and preparing for the worst, businesses will be in a better position to handle potential prolonged impacts on staff welfare, supply chains, and the broader economy.