Business as usual is anything but.
As coronavirus cases grow around the world, companies are scrambling to put plans of action in place to contain the spread and to reassure their employees and customers.
Across the country — especially in areas that have had several cases of coronavirus, including the Washington D.C. area, California and Washington state — companies are implementing official policies to address employee concerns about exposure and offer contingencies in case the crisis worsens.
“This is probably … proving to be the biggest experiment in work from home in history,” said Ronni Zehavi, the founder and CEO of HR technology platform Hibob.
San Francisco-based cryptocurrency startup Coinbase, for example, released a comprehensive response plan to its blog on Medium. The plan urged all employees to work from home (though it remains optional) and restricted all non-essential business travel. The company also banned travel to China, Hong Kong, Japan, Italy and South Korea, and encouraged employees to limit other in-person visits and interviews.
“Our philosophy is that crises do not need to be emergencies,” a Coinbase spokesperson said via email. “Stress and overreactions can be avoided if we take a calm and rational approach and plan ahead. Employees have been very receptive to our communications and planning, and they appreciate this level of detail so they can better plan for themselves and their families.”
IBM also has made changes to its business practices by limiting business travel and urging virtual meetings and conferences. This included moving its Think 2020 developer conference to a “digital-first” model although some in-person components will still take place in early May.
“IBM has a management structure and emergency planning process to deal with events that potentially impact our business or our clients, and we closely monitor the evolving global status of COVID-19 with the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations,” said Edward Barbini, an IBM spokesman. Barbini added that the company would re-evaluate its policy at the end of March.
The coronavirus cases come on top of an intense flu season, in which the CDC estimates that 20,000 to 52,000 have died in the U.S., and are testing companies’ ability to maintain existing marketing and customer practices.
Starbucks announced earlier this month that it was ceasing the use of customers’ reusable and “for-here” cups due to the outbreak, although the coffee franchise says it will still honor the discounts associated with bringing those cups in.
According to a Starbucks spokesperson, “The policy applies to U.S. and Canada stores, and we will continue to stay close to our partners and local health officials and are optimistic this will be a temporary situation.”
Southwest Airlines sent an email to customers letting them know that its aircraft-cleaning procedures are being enhanced with hospital-grade disinfectant throughout its planes and that customers always can change or cancel flights without incurring a fee. Airfare can be used for future travel if the reservation is canceled at least 10 minutes before the scheduled departure.
Nordstrom also sent an email to customers that outlined its procedures for thoroughly cleaning its 380 stores each night and said it is providing hand sanitizer throughout its stores.
Costco, which has seen hordes of shoppers stocking up on supplies amid coronavirus fears, has halted food samples at its location in China and many locations in the U.S. due to health concerns, Business Insider reports.
Zehavi said companies across the board should use this time, while the infection numbers are still relatively low, to test out their emergency practices for working from home, social events and office visits, as well as international travel and meetings.
“They need to be very clear on those policies and make sure that when they get the policy it is well-communicated to the employees in different sites, not only in their headquarters,” he said.
For companies that implement a work-from-home policy, Zehavi said C-suite leaders and HR teams need to be certain that the equipment, communication and accountability measures are in place to ensure that employees remain productive, even when they aren’t in-office.
“Everything is doable. It’s just a matter of paying attention and being ready. … We strongly recommend (that) companies do kind of a dry run, make a day … (and) say, ‘People, this day, everybody’s working from home,’ and just try and make sure that you iron out any problems that occur in this dry run,” he said.
Zehavi also said that during this time in which securing the health and safety of all employees is a priority, companies should be more generous with policies around paid time off vs. sick time.
“It’s a force majeure and you cannot throw it on the backs of the employees,” he said.
Beyond company policies making it easier for employees to take care of their health, workers should also make sure they’re doing all they can to avoid illness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website notes that people should avoid close contact with those who are ill and exercise common sense hygiene practices, including hand washing with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds, wiping down frequently used surfaces, covering coughs and sneezes and staying home if they’re sick. The CDC also says that face masks are only necessary for people who are ill or those who work in close proximity with sick individuals.
If you do get sick with a virus, proper rest, nutrition and hydration are ways to bounce back faster.
As companies test their ability to remain productive while acknowledging and managing employee anxieties around illness, another question remains. What happens once the coronavirus threat ends and companies return to normal?
“If I was (away from the office) for three weeks … or two months … who will give me the green light to get back to the office? Do I need to get a health certificate that I have no viruses? All of those unclear situations have to be addressed by companies, specifically by HR leaders,” Zehavi said.
“We’re only seeing the first chapter.”