The World Health Organization recently announced that Coronavirus presents a bigger threat to our world than terrorism and should therefore be treated as “public enemy number one”.
Despite all the fatalities being reported, the pathogen causing the disease isn’t as virulent as SARS, MERS or Ebola. (But the fact that such outbreaks keep happening is a major cause for concern.) At the time of writing, the Coronavirus fatality rate was 2%, and most of those are vulnerable people, which means they’re already ill, they have damaged immune systems, or they’re elderly.
However, with an increasing number of infections around the world, there’s growing concern that Coronavirus could soon become a global pandemic, although most organisations still appear to be adopting a business-as-usual approach.
While there’s no need to panic – that will only serve to worsen the situation – you must devise a comprehensive and workable plan of action to minimise the potentially devastating impact that Coronavirus could have on your business.
Currently, most companies have banned travel to affected zones, and are enforcing self-quarantining for any employees that have travelled to affected zones or had exposure to individuals who have travelled to affected zones.
This is a stark contrast to the restrictions currently enforced in China, where, for example, a colleague of mine who has been under house arrest for the last month is unable to deliver any work until the end of February, and is seldom allowed out – even to buy the necessities for everyday life!
So, it’s time to accept that such a scenario could soon be plausible anywhere in the world. How would this potentially affect your immediate business, your supply chains, your customers and ultimately your employees?
Now is the time for HR teams, in collaboration with executives, to start investigating the impact Coronavirus could have on their businesses, and to decide on the appropriate policies and measures to apply. You’ll also need to review your insurance policies and consult with your insurance providers. Think about the costs that would be incurred if you were forced to close your workplace. Then there are all the addition deep cleaning expenses to factor in.
Being unable to receive goods and services from suppliers can potentially be the make or break of a business – some international organisations are already reporting losses amounting to billions of US dollars. Would your business survive? Is your company insured for such eventualities? Is the Coronavirus to be treated as an act of God?
In terms of planning, depending on the size of your business, you may choose to elect one executive or a group to discuss potential challenges and draft appropriate policies to protect your business and minimise the threat from Coronavirus.
At this point it’s worth noting that it’s vital for your organisation to communicate regularly, clearly and consistently with all employees, at all levels – ensuring all communications are clear and easy to understand for everyone. Consider using your internal social media to inform staff about your Coronavirus policies or send messages directly to employees’ phones if required. You should also make it a priority to double-check everyone’s emergency contact details. Are all your records up to date?
Within the global HR community, the following measures are being proposed depending on the three severity levels outlined here:
Level 1 – Low risk
Business travel to affected areas will be limited or prohibited.
If an individual has been in contact with potentially affected people, that person must report the exposure to the business, and he/she will undergo a period of self-quarantine. In such cases, would you allow the individual to work from home, or, if this arrangement isn’t feasible, would you enforce a period of holiday, sickness or unpaid leave? Such measures must be discussed internally and applied consistently across the business.
Your organisation also needs to revise policies concerning meetings and travel. Many HR departments are currently taking stock of travel plans over the coming months – not only on a business level but from a personal perspective too (employees travelling abroad on holiday and so forth). You’ll need to be able to react quickly and efficiently should the unthinkable happen, and you’ll need to consider all eventualities. For instance, are your employees covered if they fall sick while travelling? What if they are quarantined in a different country? Who would incur those costs?
Level 2 – Medium risk
At this level, let’s assume a small number of your employees have been exposed to the virus, and one of your employees has tested positive.
Essentially, your entire workforce needs to be informed of these developments. You will need to step up the level of protection that your organisation has in place. Is it reasonable to close the affected office? Or would you opt for a deep clean?
Also, what if an employee fails to disclose that they have (potentially) been exposed to the virus? Will you invoke a disciplinary procedure in line with your Coronavirus preventative strategy? Would such behaviour be cause for a warning or instant dismissal?
If you were to shut down the site in question, how will staff be managed, and remunerated. How will you keep track of who is ill and who is healthy?
In addition, if one of your employees is affected, do you have a successor in place? Imagine for a moment that one of your key leaders is affected by the virus and cannot move the business forward. That’s why contingency plans, especially for C-level employees, are vital.
Level 3 – High risk
At this stage, there will be no doubt that your workplace will need to close and enforced quarantining will take place for most, if not all, of your employees.
How long will your business be able to continue delivering products and/or services?
There’s also a likelihood that employee morale will decrease significantly – your workforce will no doubt be subject to high levels of stress in the event of a Coronavirus outbreak – so if you have a Wellness Officer, they will play a key role in helping staff to feel supported by the business.
If the Coronavirus outbreak does have an impact on your organisation, you’ll face a broad range of challenges. These challenges all have one thing in common: they are best considered now, rather than at the last minute. It’s worth reiterating that effectively communicating with employees and keeping everyone informed of all developments is essential. If necessary, use mobile technologies to reach your entire workforce – wherever they’re located.
Finally, don’t think of the Coronavirus as a one-off. With other viral out-breaks highly likely to occur in the near-future, planning for them becomes a business priority.