How HR Should Handle Coronavirus Concerns

As COVID-19 has made its way to the U.S., businesses must analyze current policies in favor of smarter ways to prevent workplace contamination and calm employee anxiety

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Here's what you need to know:

  • Here’s how HR should handle coronavirus concerns:
  • Communicate to employees
  • Limit travel
  • Cancel face-to-face meetings
  • Make a pandemic plan
  • Ask sick employees to stay home
  • Reconsider leave policies
  • Place restrictions on returning to work
  • Seek legal advice
  • Consider remote work

The coronavirus continues to spread and HR departments everywhere are working to put together a comprehensive and people-first response to the outbreak, all while answering tough questions, limiting the disruptions to day-to-day operations, and quelling the fears of their nervous workforce.

But when fear and uncertainty abound, who better to handle the response than the “people center” of an organization?

A quick coronavirus refresher:

  • COVID-19 is the latest coronavirus to spread across the globe
  • The leading global public organizations including the WHO and CDC are working in tandem with governing bodies to slow the spread but have warned containment in certain countries is no longer possible
  • On March 11 the WHO said the coronavirus was a pandemic
  • The virus spreads through small drops of liquid that are expelled when an infected person coughs or sneezes
  • The most common symptoms are fever, cough, and shortness of breath
  • Most people show symptoms within 5 days

Coronavirus in the workplace

As COVID-19 has made its way to the U.S., businesses must analyze current policies in favor of smarter ways to prevent workplace contamination and calm employee anxiety.

Here’s how HR should handle coronavirus concerns.

Communicate to employees

Central to a strong leadership response is communication and decisive action, both to inform employees of changes in policies and to assuage fear and anxiety. Be prompt, accurate, and honest in your communications. Outline the measures you’re taking and why you’re taking them.

Be prompt, accurate, and honest in your communications.

Adopt a multi-pronged approach for communication on your HR team. Use electronic methods but adopt physical communication methods as well.

Send an email to reassure employees you’re paying close attention to the virus and it’s spread. Explain the precautions you’re taking to keep the workplace and your people safe, share reputable sources for information like the WHO and CDC, and designate a point of contact for COVID-19-related inquiries in the HR department.

Post notices around the workplace with the signs and symptoms to watch out for (fever, cough, and shortness of breath), and to remind employees of proper cough etiquette and hygiene.

Limit travel

Curb employee travel as much as possible. Cancel or postpone business trips to any of the countries that have been granted level-3 travel restriction by the CDC.

Trade show, conference, and event attendance should be reconsidered as well. The possibility for viral spread amongst large, international groups of people make these risky.

Cancel face-to-face meetings

Minimize person-to-person contact by canceling face-to-face meetings. We recognize it’s hard to replicate the rapport you can build in face-to-face meetings — especially with new clients or business partners — but keeping everyone safe and healthy is what’s most important right now. Go for video conferences or a good old fashion phone call.

This is the time when we’ll all find out which meetings could have been an email after all. Embrace it.

Make a pandemic plan

If your SMB doesn’t have a documented pandemic plan yet, now’s the time to make one. According to Gartner, you should be able to answer these 10 questions:

  • Can our company operate with 25% or greater absenteeism?
  • If illness causes high absenteeism, are employees cross-trained and able to perform multiple duties?
  • Can our employees work remotely?
  • What infrastructure support is needed to support a shift to an at-home workforce?
  • Will our company monitor, or even restrict, travel to high-risk regions?
  • What procedures do we have in place to decontaminate the facility and its heating, ventilation, air-conditioning systems, electronic equipment and soft materials (blankets, curtains, etc.)?
  • What assurances do we need to provide to the facility staff members so they feel safe at work?
  • How will traveling employees be brought home, particularly if they are sick?
  • Are there escalation procedures to get additional resources?
  • Is there a trained and representative crisis management team that includes on-call staff, and do those team members know what is expected of them?

Ask sick employees to stay home

Sick employees should stay home, point blank. Symptoms of a COVID-19 infection can be mild and take 5 days on average to show up, so employees who have been in contact with a sick person should also stay home. Ask employees who have had fevers to stay home for fourteen days to ensure they remain COVID-19-free.

Reconsider leave policies

But whether they’re dedicated employees who want to put in face time or individuals who have already used up their sick pay, employees can be hesitant to stay home when sick.

Not wanting to forgo a paycheck is a powerful motivator for coming into work, especially when you just have a sore throat and case of the sniffles — but this is particularly dangerous considering that symptoms for 80% of coronavirus patients are more cold-like than anything else.

If your SMB doesn’t have a documented pandemic plan yet, now’s the time to make one.

It’s up to HR departments and SBOs to remove any barriers to entry for employees who aren’t feeling well. Encourage sick employees to stay at home, no matter how “fine” they may feel by rethinking your leave and PTO policies. And while not every business can go as far as Apple in offering unlimited sick leave to retail employees, employers should analyze what leniency they can grant in regard to sick leave.

Place restrictions on returning to work

Workers coming back from countries experiencing major outbreaks should stay home from work. These countries currently include China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran, but more countries are quickly being added to the list.

A company-wide work from home arrangement is perhaps the best answer to stalling the spread of coronavirus in the workplace.

Some companies are going further than this. A recent Intel email asks that “anyone who recently returned from travel to mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Italy, Iran, Germany, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, the United States Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Norway, and Austria, or known to have been in close contact (within two meter for 30 minutes or more) with a confirmed case of the coronavirus should remain away from work for 14 days.”

Understanding your business’ legal obligations can be tricky in light of this unprecedented event. Rely on internal HR experts or seek legal advice to answer the following questions about your business.

  • Will we have to pay worker’s comp if an employee contracts COVID-19 on-premise or through a work-related event?
  • Does our benefits coverage require that we pay disability to employees on extended leave, such as is possible with COVID-19?
  • Do we have contracts or collective bargaining agreements with employees that say we must pay them for work-required leave?
  • Are we providing a workplace free of “recognized hazards” in relation to COVID-19, as required by OSHA?

Consider remote work

A company-wide work from home arrangement is perhaps the best answer to stalling the spread of coronavirus in the workplace. For some companies and roles, the transition is easier than others. Consider these scenarios.

When remote work’s not possible

Like in industries that rely on the presence of physical workers such as healthcare, hospitality, retail, and manufacturing, WFM isn’t always possible. In these cases the HR department and business owners have to answer difficult questions about how to protect workers, customers, and the workplace. This may mean operating with a reduced staff level — or even closing during peak absenteeism.

When remote work’s possible but not ideal

Sales and marketing roles still rely heavily on face-to-face contact and relationship building. Provide emotional and logistical support for the cultural changes this adjustment will entail.

When remote work’s highly possible

Developer teams and off-site contractors are already used to collaborating virtually across time zones and geographical lines. Encourage these people to stay home and continue to support them as usual.

Think long term

Remember that the outbreak will pass. How will your employees and customers remember your businesses’ response? Resilient, prepared, and people-first leadership will carry you through to the other side.

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