Workplaces should be putting their coronavirus contingency plans in action

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If your employees can work from home, they probably already should be.

With coronavirus detected in more than a dozen U.S. states and the domestic death toll rising, sending workers home should be a logical next step, said Scott Ream, chair of the Association of Continuity Professionals, a 1,700-member organization of business professionals that advises companies on how to operate in a time of crisis.

“If an organization is able to have people work from home, then obviously that's the no-brainer,” said Ream, who also operates his own business-continuity company. “The ACP recommends that if you are able to execute a work-from-home contingency plan you should be, if not invoking it now, making sure that all the things that you will need to be in place to invoke it are ready to go.”

The novel virus outbreak has escalated in just a few days in the U.S. As more reported cases spread from Washington to New York and New Jersey, the question of whether and when to send workers home has become more urgent.

Companies in Washington state — the most hard-hit so far with 10 deaths from the virus in a long-term care facility — have already started to do so, responding to local health department recommendations. Seattle is home to Amazon.com, Microsoft and retailer Nordstrom, which all have encouraged office workers who have the ability to work from home or telecommute to do so.

Twitter and Alphabet’s Google, both based in California, have also told some employees to work remotely. JPMorgan Chase has tested its capacity to shift workers home and is sending hundreds of its New York and London sales and trading staff to backup locations to reduce disruptions. Experts have been urging populations to implement social-distancing measures to limit the spread of the highly contagious virus. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday that spread of the virus from person to person is likely to become more common.

Ream said workers who are already set up to work from home should be doing it right now, and companies that have workers who could work at home but aren’t yet set up, should be getting those capabilities in order quickly. For those workers who can’t work from home, companies need to be taking steps to limit risks from the virus in the workplace. The rule of thumb for a pandemic situation is to be prepared for as much as 60% of your staff to be impacted for up to six weeks, he said. Employees should have already tested whether their system can tolerate the available workforce operating remotely.

“The best practice is to have a work from home day, for everyone who is capable of it,” Ream said. “This is your stress test.”

At Ream’s own company, Virtual, all 22 employees work from home — and have always done so.

China, the epicenter of the virus, offers a blueprint for white-collar businesses’ ability to function with a remote workforce. With schools, stores and factories closed across the country, the virus forced the world’s largest work-from-home experience. In cities like Beijing, Hong Kong or Shanghai, some employees haven’t been at the office in weeks.

For a majority of workers, however, there is no work-from-home option. Nationwide, about 29% of the U.S. workforce, or about 42 million people, have a type of job that could be handled remotely, according to government estimates.

For employers of a trucking company or owners of factories, deciding when to send workers home is much more complicated, said John Bremen, a managing director for the human capital and benefits practice at consultant Willis Towers Watson. Shutting down an auto dealership or a factory making non-critical parts is an easier decision than closing the only grocery store in a town or a plant that makes a medicine that isn’t available elsewhere, he said.

A majority of companies have already stepped up communication with workers about ways to avoid getting sick or transmitting a disease, and about half have increased access to hand sanitizer, according to a Willis Towers Watson survey completed last week by 158 employers with more than 1.5 million employees, about two-thirds multinationals.

So far, 1% of companies reported closing worksites in North America because of the virus, the survey showed. In Wuhan and its Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak that has been under mandatory lockdown by Chinese authorities, 77% of companies that responded had closed sites, although 8% said last week they had started to re-open facilities.

Companies should be sure they have factual information to make decision and use common sense in how they react, Bremen said. But because this is a health crisis, not a natural disaster or economic crisis, companies will be better served to err on the side of prudence versus taking a risk.

“It is better to shut down for a short time, and protect the health and interests of your employees and their families in the community, than to not shut down, have a significant event, and then be out for a long time,” he said.

Bloomberg News
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