We live in interesting times. If you would have told me 6 months ago that most businesses in the USA would be shutting down for two weeks, I would have laughed out loud; it would have been such a far-fetched notion. However, that is exactly what has happened with many “non-critical” businesses being forced to shut down by Government decree. I won’t go into the legality or constitutionality of those decisions but I do want to talk continuity of business and how to continue on in this new reality.
Unless you are a grocery store or supplier, you have likely felt the effects (or will shortly) of COVID-19 or “the coronavirus.” News about a pandemic can understandably be unsettling, but this kind of outbreak doesn’t need to induce panic. Panic is fed by lack of information or because we feel ill-prepared but it doesn’t have to be that way. The more correct information we arm ourselves with, the less fear we will have.
As a business leader or manager, you play a critical role in soothing your employees’ concerns and fears and should model the type of behaviors that will keep everyone healthy and business moving forward. If you have given your staff (or you yourself) a remote-work option, then those habits should extend to the home and family.
I ran across a great article on COVID-19 business preparedness from a blog I follow on Insperity.com. Much of my content for this article comes from their research, although I have utilized my own sources as well.
Because public health conditions can change rapidly, it’s critical for employers to know:
- How to help protect employees and customers
- How to continue business operations during a pandemic
- How to rely on official sources to stay informed
- How to manage and mitigate organizational risks
With those needs in mind, here’s what you need to know to plan, prepare and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. How to help protect employees and customers
During any crisis, including the COVID-19 pandemic, safety comes first.
While there’s no guarantee that your employees, customers and business will remain unharmed, there are simple safety measures you can enact to help keep everyone out of harm’s way.
The following strategies are good starting points.
Familiarize yourself with the latest understanding of the COVID-19 virus
In order to protect employees and customers, ensure that you understand the basics of how this virus is spread, some of the common symptoms and recommendations to avoid catching the virus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), COVID-19 is spread:
- Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).
- Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
- When these droplets land in the mouths or noses of nearby people — or when the droplets are inhaled into the lungs.
Also, according to the CDC, these common symptoms of COVID-19 typically appear 2-14 days after exposure:
- Shortness of breath
The CDC notes that individuals can be asymptomatic yet still carry and spread the virus.
Furthermore, in light of what is presently known about the disease, the CDC recommends the following to reduce the likelihood that you catch or spread the virus:
- Clean your hands often.
- Avoid close contact with others, particularly large groups – a practice commonly referred to as “social distancing.”
- Stay home if you’re sick.
- Cover coughs and sneezes.
- Wear a face mask if you’re sick.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces frequently.
For more information on how the disease is transmitted, symptoms and what to do if you’re sick, please monitor the CDC website.
Adapt your sick leave and other attendance policies
- If someone is sick, encourage them to stay home. Avoid the risk of spreading their illness, whether its COVID-19 or the common cold, to your workforce and customers. An abundance of caution may not only help contain the spread but also reassure everyone that you’re concerned about and committed to their safety.
- If your business is strict about requiring a doctor’s note to validate an employee’s condition or return to work, then temporarily disband that policy — particularly for employees suffering from acute respiratory illness.
This choice is as much about encouraging people to play it safe when sick by staying home as it is about being supportive of the local medical community. During a pandemic, hospitals and health care workers can become overwhelmed, making it difficult to obtain such documentation in a timely manner.
- If an employee’s family member is sick, allow the employee to stay home to provide continuous care. Employees who appear well but who live with a family member diagnosed with COVID-19 should notify their supervisor. (Refer to the CDC on how to conduct a risk assessment regarding potential exposure.)
- Consider creating a COVID-19 incubation leave policy to allow employees who are suspected of having the virus to take time off work and isolate themselves.
This is another example of how proactive, compassionate care may not only help protect against the spread between your employees and clients but also within the community (or communities) in which you do business.
Sanitation and hygiene
- Position messaging posters in the workplace where they’re likely to be seen to encourage employees to stay home when sick, teach proper cough and sneeze etiquette and reinforce the basics of hand hygiene.
- Provide sufficient soap and water, alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel, paper towels and other supplies as needed in the workplace to encourage hand hygiene.
- Regularly clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as desks, counter tops, handles and doorknobs. Provide disposable wipes so that employees can wipe commonly used surfaces before each use.
- Encourage everyone to refrain, as much as possible, from behaviors that may spread the virus in the workplace. For instance, eschew shaking hands in favor of a simple nod when greeting others. Minimize the sharing of cups, bowls and other items in common areas.
Travel and events
- Consider canceling non-essential business travel per CDC and Department of State travel guidance.
- Cancel or postpone all non-essential work meetings and large gatherings. When meetings are essential, use technology as much as possible to provide virtual meeting spaces.
- Assess whether in-bound materials coming from an outbreak area should be quarantined to avoid surface transmission to employees.
- Insperity: Your 6-step emergency plan for traveling employees
- CDC: Coronavirus disease 2019 information for travel
- CDC: General travel health notices
- Department of State: COVID-19 information for travelers
2. How to continue business operations during a pandemic
No business leader wants to shut their business down if they don’t have to.
For certain industries, like professional sports or concerts, it’s in the public’s best interest to shutter immediately.
For many other types of companies, business can continue in some form, albeit with extra safety precautions.
Use these considerations to keep your business running during the COVID-19 pandemic:
1. Establish a reliable communication process.
It’s important to keep employees and business partners abreast of your infectious disease outbreak response plans and latest COVID-19 pandemic information.
Involve your employees in developing and updating your plan. Share it widely through email, posted notices and by allotting time in meetings to review plans.
Explain what human resources policies, workplace and leave flexibilities, and pay and benefits will be available or amended and for how long.
2. If possible, be flexible with how people work.
Allow employees to work remotely if your business can accommodate it. Or allow staggered shifts, to support social distancing strategies.
If the idea of remote employees is new to you, these resources might be helpful:
- How to prepare for remote employees
- How to manage remote employees successfully
- Why and how to allow employees to work flexible schedules
3. Create redundancy in critical operations.
The unfortunate reality is that a pandemic is unpredictable. It might not impact your business right away, or it might affect many of your employees in a sudden, dramatic fashion.
To protect your business optimally, create an action plan that addresses several scenarios. Central to that plan should be efforts to create redundancy in mission-critical operations.
The first step is to identify critical business functions and all the resources key to their success, including:
- Key personnel
- Related clients
- Supplies and materials required
Once you’ve identified these aspects, create contingency plans for each category.
Identify (and potentially train) backups for key persons. Prioritize your customers and create client communications in case you must temporarily suspend your service for any or all of them. Secure and stockpile extra supplies in the event of supply chain disruptions related to the virus itself or public panic.
Some helpful resources for this include:
- Forbes: Cross-training staff: Your Best Defense
- Ready.gov: Business continuity plan
- CDC: Interim guidance for businesses and employees
3. Rely on official sources to keep informed
The COVID-19 pandemic is a fluid situation. Thus, additional guidance, restrictions and best practices will evolve as the situation progresses. To best prioritize the safety of employees, customers and the broader public, it’s vital to stay up to date on the latest guidance.
The CDC is working with the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. government to coordinate U.S. public health response to this disease.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is also providing information that includes updates on conditions in countries around the world.
The following links can provide a starting point for staying current:
- CDC: COVID-19 official updates and announcements
- CDC: COVID-19 facts and information
- CDC: Printable COVID-19 fact sheets
- WHO: COVID-19 facts, information and news
- CDC: Information for travelers
- Ready.gov: Business continuity plan
- Fisher Phillips: Comprehensive FAQs for Employers on the COVID-19 Coronavirus
4. How to manage and mitigate organizational risks
During an unprecedented crisis of this magnitude – and in addition to monitoring the aforementioned websites, it’s vital that business leaders continuously assess risk and consider consulting legal counsel regarding every aspect of business operations.
This includes employee relations.
Employer decisions should always be based on non-discriminatory, objective standards and sources of information that can reasonably be relied upon. Amid a pandemic, these sources include federal, state and local entities as well as occupational health providers.
If your company is developing, for example, an incubation period leave policy, base your decisions on the most current data received from the CDC, WHO or other official sources. In other words, resist the temptation to make decisions based on rumors or remarks made by unvetted sources.
General guidelines for making risk management policies include the following core principles:
- Use only official sources of public health guidance to determine the risks of COVID-19 for your business.
- Don’t determine risk based on an employee’s race, country of origin or your direct observations of an employee’s health condition.
- Maintain the confidentiality of staff with confirmed COVID-19 and address it as you would any other confidential employee issue.
Remember: Certain employees may be more at risk. This subcategory includes employees who travel frequently, whose duties include public-facing contact and those with already vulnerable immune systems.
These are certainly uncertain times. That doesn’t mean we have to panic or feel ill-prepared. Arm yourself with facts and then create the best plan for you and your organization. I am confident we will weather the storm. We have the best doctors and health professionals in the World and they are all working tirelessly to solve this issue. We need to help them in anyway possible and that includes being prepared.
I’ll leave you with a quote I heard recently that I think is very poignant: “When the time for performance arrives, the time for preparation is over.” Let’s all pull together and do our best to be prepared for whatever might come our way.