How HR Can Prepare For COVID-19

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Mar 19, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

In late February, the Center for Disease Control warned businesses and employers to start planning for and responding to the spread of the coronavirus. With confirmed cases in 162 countries, this outbreak has already driven down stocks and put pressure on businesses — and is expected to have even bigger repercussions in the coming weeks.

While HR professionals may not have power over large economic forces — or the coronavirus itself — we can play a leading role in keeping our employees as safe and as healthy as possible while enabling the business to operate at the highest level circumstances allow. Here are six steps we can take to best prepare our people and our organizations.

1. Educate employees about the basics of coronavirus

Health experts say washing hands regularly and getting the flu shot are the two best preventative measures. In addition, employees’ non-essential business travel to areas where the coronavirus outbreak is deemed significant by the CDC should be limited as much as possible. Practices that don’t help: wearing face masks cannot protect you from contracting the virus, but they can prevent the spread of the virus if you’re already sick.  While limiting human contact can decrease your chances of exposure to any disease, specifically avoiding people from specific ethnic regions around the world, will not. Unfortunately, this belief has already resulted in reports of discrimination, and informing employees of this can help mitigate the risk of discriminatory acts and misinformation in the workplace. By clearly communicating this basic information—as well as the company’s more in-depth plans to respond should the outbreak become more severe—you’ll put employees at ease and reduce distraction in the workplace.

2. Update sick leave policies

The CDC’s top tip to businesses for managing the coronavirus outbreak is to actively encourage sick employees to stay at home. This can be a tough rule to follow in a country where 90% of employees report coming in to work sick. Why do they still trek to the office? The top three reasons are too much work, not wanting to use a sick day, and employer pressure. All of these issues can be addressed by encouraging employees to work at home if they are a bit sniffly but still able to work, provided they have the type of job that can be done through telecommuting. By making it clear that working from home will not reflect negatively on them, organizations can reduce the risk not just of the coronavirus but other common communicable illnesses.

Now is also a good time for HR professionals to review the amount of paid time off given to sick employees. Because federal law doesn’t require employers to offer sick leave, some companies don’t offer any paid sick days at all. This makes it financially impossible for some workers to stay at home when they fall ill, even though “flu rates would fall 5 percent if paid sick leave were universal,” according to The New York Times. The current outbreak creates an opportunity for HR professionals to get buy-in from leadership to institute or expand sick paid time off policies.

3. Create and activate remote work plans and policies

In addition to giving employees permission to telecommute, we need to create bigger plans to allow the majority — or all employees — to work remotely should conditions require it. To allow for a smooth transition, organizations need to have tech systems in place, encourage crosstraining for key tasks, and conduct training to allow teams to work well remotely. NOBL’s Going Remote Overnight plan is a helpful guide that outlines the essential steps to take.

4. Provide a channel for employee concerns

As the coronavirus spreads, employees will likely have specific questions or worries regarding their workplace or personal circumstances. One may want to know if they can take time off to care for a family member ill with the coronavirus. Another may wonder how to obtain software for telecommuting. To address such issues, select a person or team who can serve as the first point of contact to address all coronavirus-related issues, so employees don’t have to struggle to find answers.

5. Move recruiting online

Despite the recent stock market hits, the talent market remains tight. To continue recruiting activities while limiting time spent in public places where the coronavirus is more likely to spread, opt for virtual tools for recruitment marketing and outreach such as social media, email, and career sites instead of in-person job fairs. Conduct interviews using video conferencing and other technologies rather than bringing potentially sick job candidates into your office where they may inadvertently infect employees.

6. Prepare for potential workforce changes by updating severance policies

As the coronavirus continues to affect businesses, more companies’ workforces, supply chains, and customer bases will be affected. Some of these changes may require addressing layoffs. To prepare, HR professionals need to make sure their severance policies are up to date. In addition, organizations should consider offering career transition help to employees exiting the company. This will also help protect employer brand and retain positive relationships with affected employees who you may need to hire back once the outbreak is contained. Especially if your employees live in an area affected by the virus, opt for virtual outplacement that will allow them to access the services they need by video, phone, email, or text—without traveling to an office.

The spread of the coronavirus is an anxiety-provoking event for American businesses, but there are concrete steps we as HR practitioners can take to mitigate its effects. This moment is also a chance for HR to step up and lead organizations. We have an unexpected opportunity today: to shape our policies to better benefit our employees, and to improve our technological capabilities so our organizations can stay competitive in today’s hyperconnected business environment. Let’s seize that opportunity.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.
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