What can firms do now in the midst of a pandemic?

While US business owners may feel anxious or unsure amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they should resist institutional paralysis and use this time to prioritize operations, protect the health and mental wellbeing of employees, and plan for recovery, experts say.

"Businesses can prioritize the services they provide if they are short-staffed or do not have all the supplies needed and identify alternative suppliers, if feasible," said Lisa Koonin, DrPH, MN, MPH, senior advisor to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) pandemic response team and founder of Health Preparedness Partners in Atlanta. She said that planning for COVID-19 is "very similar" to planning for an influenza pandemic.

Russell Price, chairman of the Continuity Forum in London, England, said businesses could take advantage of the pause to tackle projects they've never had time for. "Review the business and try to see how you could 'bounce forward' to become stronger and more resilient in the future," he said.

Price recommends that businesses actively manage their finances, conserving cash where possible. "Speak to suppliers and service providers and look to reschedule payments where you can to improve cash flow," he said.

David Gregory, senior director with Gartner Security & Risk Management, in Cambridge, UK, said that firms can motivate, engage, and retain employees through constant open and transparent communications. "Communications through line managers, virtual team meetings, giving any people working in the field an opportunity to express any concerns they may have will ultimately be the glue that holds the crisis management together," he said.

Get familiar with labor laws

Employers need to brush up on applicable state and federal labor laws when working to keep the business running and employees healthy, according to Amber Clayton, director of the Knowledge Center at the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Virginia. For example, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires covered employers to provide family and medical leave and paid sick time to eligible employees.

Company leaders should also review guidance from federal agencies such as the CDC and US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which may be different in a pandemic, Clayton said. "While the CDC did not classify this as a pandemic, the World Health Organization did, so there is a strong case for an employer to follow the EEOC guidance specific to pandemics," she said.

The EEOC enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits employers from asking disability-related questions, but interprets this differently in a pandemic, she said. For example, EEOC pandemic guidance says that an employer can send home an employee showing signs of influenza-like illness, take their temperature, and ask employees who report feeling ill or call in sick whether they have a fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, or sore throat.

While the CDC has urged employers not to require a positive COVID-19 test result or doctor's note if they call in sick because healthcare providers are very busy amid the crisis, employers can still require one, Clayton said.

Protect employee health and well-being

Koonin urges businesses that don't routinely grant sick leave to consider implementing and communicating emergency sick leave policies. "Employers should also maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member or mind children if schools close," she said.

In lieu of in-person meetings, organizations should opt to use a conferencing service such as WebEx, Price said. "It might bring other business benefits as well, like saving on the costs of travel," he said. "You won't be able to shake hands in person, but you wouldn't anyway in a pandemic." Collaboration tools such as WhatsApp or Slack might be helpful, too, he added.

Businesses able to have employees work from home using a VPN or cloud connection should test their technology to ensure that it can support the extra load and that they can reach employees quickly, said Daniella Miller, senior consultant in organizational resilience at Mazars in New York City. "Test how you communicate, test how you share information, and test how you work from home," she said.

Businesses that provide critical services should consider promoting proper handwashing, the use of hand sanitizer, and good sneeze and cough etiquette and making shift changes by forming employee teams, keeping them separate, and cleaning thoroughly between shifts, Price suggested.

"This could be done through working from separate areas of a building and creating different shifts to reduce cross-infection and build resilience, keeping the business going should one of the teams see cases emerge," he said.  

Communicate openly, honestly, and often with employees, reminding them that the pandemic will pass and that you intend to resume operations as soon as possible, Price said. "Stress that managing the recovery will be dependent on the staff," Price said. "People have long memories, so be compassionate where you can, because small acts of kindness are remembered."

To help protect employee mental health, firms should understand the pressures that staff may face while at home, including those who may lack an office. "They may be on the sofa with children running around them and their laptop on their knees," Gregory said. "People will have personal issues, worries, concerns that they're dealing with, so a certain flexibility around productivity would certainly be important."

Virtual team meetings are a good way to foster a sense of connection. "Constant contact and communication, allowing people to voice and express any concerns, are vitally important," he said.

If layoffs are a possibility and employees are anxious, Gregory advises sending honest messages about how, while layoffs can't be ruled out, the company is doing everything possible to prevent them and that they will be a last resort. "I've always been of an opinion that organizations need to be open and transparent," he said. "People can see what's going on and will have concerns about that."

Protect customers, shore up supply chains

Koonin suggests protecting customers by considering alternative ways of delivering goods and services, creating ways to minimize close contact between employees and customers, and using signage to educate them, while Price says use of the company website and pickups or deliveries are good options.

Price recommends continually reviewing supply chains, understanding supply chain dependencies, and mitigating areas of risk, perhaps by increasing order volumes, placing orders elsewhere, and putting other manufacturers on notice in case you need them or select replacement products. Still, supply chain failures will occur if they haven't already and should be expected, he added.

Other realities that should be planned for are that, in the months of a pandemic, companies may lose market share because they're not able to meet production and may have to borrow to make payroll, said Eric Holdeman, director of the Center for Regional Disaster Resilience in Seattle.

Monitor conditions for return to work, look for opportunities

Companies should engage with the local community in every business location, Koonin said. "Outbreaks do not affect all communities at the same time and with the same intensity, so it is important to be aware of local and state public health recommendations and have a source of reliable local information," she said.

The trigger to return the company to more usual on-site work is a judgment call that will depend on the dynamics of the pandemic, but it may be after about 10 days of stable new case numbers, Gregory said. "We would need to be in a situation in which we've had a sustained period in which [case] numbers wouldn't have grown," he said.

Or, companies could track employees who have had symptoms of COVID-19 or who were diagnosed with the virus and later recovered, presuming that recovered people are immune. "You'd be looking at the people who have had it and looking at their skill sets," he said.

After business resumes, hold a debriefing session with employees, Gregory said. "Engage everybody in a lessons-learned approach where people express any concerns about what worked for them, what didn't work for them," he said. "It's an important part of helping people find closure and getting back to a new-normality phase."

Firms might assess their business model and whether it could better use resources and position people with different skill sets. "Organizations should be looking at their way of working and it could be that the staff could be doing their jobs differently in the future," Gregory said.

Companies should not let their guard down in terms of risks other than the coronavirus (eg, phishing schemes), noting that he is seeing a trend of cyberattacks related to COVID-19. Likewise, they should plan for a second wave of infections. "If we follow a pandemic pattern, we may well get a second wave in the autumn, so make sure you're implementing good business continuity procedures, Gregory said.

Price offered a message of hope, urging businesses to be ready to get back to business as soon as possible and look for future opportunities. "Prepare for the recovery," he said. "The timing and pace of the recovery will likely vary for different sectors, but you must look for the future opportunities that will present themselves."

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