It’s safe to say the world wasn’t fully prepared for the spread of the coronavirus. The virus, SARS-CoV-2 – and the disease it causes, COVID-19, which originated in China’s Wuhan province at the end of 2019, was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization after impacting over 100 countries and killing thousands. As the virus continues to spread throughout the U.S, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization and our government are recommending swift and immediate action to slow the speed of infection. This is impacting schools, professional sports organizations, conferences and other large events, and, of course, businesses and their employees.
As HR directors and other key company leaders prepare for the possibility that the coronavirus infects their community, employees or family members, the pandemic serves as a reminder of the many emergencies a business may face. From natural disasters and pandemics to terrorist and cyber attacks, companies of all shapes and sizes need to be ready.
In this blog post, we provide three key reminders as you review existing emergency management policies to navigate this unsettling time.
Know the exact nature of every threat
It’s critical to understand the exact dangers your employees face in the wake of an emergency. You also must be sure to distribute the most accurate and up-to-date information about the situation to all employees. For example, with COVID-19, you’d want your workers to know that CDC experts believe the virus most readily spreads via contact with droplets from an infected individual’s cough or sneeze. The droplets land on nearby objects or surfaces and others can contract the virus by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth.
By contrast, if employees were returning to work after an earthquake, you would want to alert them to the dangers of inhaling dust and debris particles. Even when an earthquake and its aftershocks are over, dust, carbon monoxide or other dangerous chemicals may still be in the air. As such, you might recommend they use masks specifically designed to filter that sort of particulate matter. You also could implement a work from home policy until local authorities announce that local air quality has returned to a safe level.
Review current leave and WFH policies (and adjust accordingly)
According to Harvard Business Review, your next step should be to take a good hard look at your paid time off and sick leave policies and how they might apply in various emergencies. Do they include provisions for extended medical leave that is either fully or partially paid – up to and including paid family leave that would usually be earmarked for maternity and paternity? Can PTO days be turned into sick days? In the case of any emergency, what you need is flexibility.
Your existing time-off, leave and sick-day policies may be sufficient under normal, “business as usual” circumstances. But in unprecedented situations like coronavirus and COVID-19, being rigid about leave policies can demoralize employees and, ultimately, affect the company’s bottom-line considerably more than any short-term expense you may incur by temporarily expanding leave. You should also include provisions that allow you to make immediate changes to leave policies so can quickly react to the rapid and unpredictable change that is inevitable in emergency situations.
This is a great opportunity to revisit your work-from-home policy. Anyone who is capable of working from home should be encouraged – or even required – to do so based on the CDC and other health organization recommendations. This is applicable any time your employees are sick to prevent illness from running rampant through your organization. We live in a highly connected world and companies who have already established remote connectivity will experience less disruption to their operations when emergencies strike.
Establish clear protocol
HR – with direction and support from the executive team – must take the lead on developing, implementing and communicating crystal-clear procedures during and after crises like we face today. It is human nature to want to return to normal as quickly as possible, but it is important to have precautions in place before things can truly “go back to normal.”
In the case of the current pandemic, it is critical for all employees to observe more vigilant hygiene habits: regularly washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, using a high-alcohol hand sanitizer, covering coughs with a tissue (and immediately throwing them away) and keeping sick employees out of the office. Restricting business travel and canceling business conferences and other events in the immediate future may also be prudent.
Another area employers must keep in mind is providing support for employees to manage physical, emotional and financial stress or trauma. This is applicable in any emergency, including coronavirus as the economic impact is already being felt. In addition to providing more flexible leave options, offering on- or off-site counseling, behavioral health services and financial guidance will reinforce your concern for the physical and mental well-being of all employees.