As of Wednesday, March 11 the Coronavirus (COVID-19) was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization(WHO), acknowledging that the virus will likely spread to all countries on the globe, with leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkle predicting that 60 to 70% of the German population will be infected and Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard University epidemiologist, projecting that between 40 to 70% of the world’s population will be infected. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is encouraging government and businesses alike to create a pandemic preparedness plan.
With the last time the WHO declared a pandemic in 2009 with the outbreak of H1N1, this may be the first time many business leaders are faced with creating a crisis management plan such as this.
Whether you are concerned about the virus impacting your business or not, the unfortunate fact is that crisis management is not a one-off challenge. Leaders should be utilizing this time to create standard operating procedures to not only prepare for the coming impact of COVID-19, but future crises, as well.
Recognition of the crisis’ impact on both the operations of a business and the personal lives of individuals is essential to mitigate potential consequences. Before addressing employees or other stakeholders, gather all the most up-to-date facts and consult a small group of trusted advisors how to proceed. You will need to create policies to both protect employees and protect the business looking ahead at potential impacts as consequences unfold.
First focus on the physical safety of employees before addressing collateral damage. Remain ahead of the curve and address employees directly with empathy for the physical and emotional stress the crisis is maybe causing them. While interrupting operations to directly address employees may seem like a disruption, addressing employees with honesty and vulnerability can help overcome some of the uncertainty that causes workplace distractions.
Addressing the physical safety of employees is also crucial. CDC recommends canceling all non-essential travel, large conferences or events, mandating new sick leave policies and moving partial or entire offices remote. Depending on your industry and the roles of employees, consider creating a plan for managing virtually, and move all meetings and conferences online. In your communication of these policies, display empathy for the impact the crisis is having on the lives of employees and the global community. Provide reassurance that while some emergency procedures may not be necessary, your organization has preemptively prepared for every situation. Lead with vulnerability and provide a disclaimer that the ways in which circumstances will unfold is still unknown.
Additional information and new recommendations from the CDC and government authorities will continue to be released as the pandemic will likely increase in severity before improving, so flexibility should be expected. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has outlined several recommendations for maintaining business operations during a pandemic. This includes (but is not limited to):
- Assure timely and accurate communication with employees and customers to decrease fear or worry
- Assist employees in managing additional stressors related to the pandemic and provide opportunities for counseling and mental health support
- Develop a sick leave policy that does not penalize sick employees, encouraging employees who have influenza-related symptoms (e.g., fever, headache, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, or upset stomach) to stay home so that they do not infect other employees
- Provide training, education and informational material about business-essential job functions and employee health and safety, including proper hygiene practices
- Provide easy access to infection control supplies, such as soap, hand sanitizers, tissues, and office cleaning supplies
- Allow employees to work from home or to stagger their work shifts
- Enhance technology and communications equipment as needed if your employees would work from home
- Work with your insurance companies to provide information to employees and customers about medical care
- Anticipate scenarios in which there could be either a surge or decline in demand for your services
Crisis requires leaders to be both proactive and reactive to a rapidly changing circumstance. Remain informed to reframe your understanding of what is happening with up-to-date information both within your organization and at a larger scale. We should expect COVID-19 to change businesses and society in significant ways in the coming months and preemptively prepare for potential challenges that arise.
For more information regarding Coronavirus and its impact on the workplace, click here.