One day before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Google parent company Alphabet asked all of its North American employees to work from home. The tech titan may have been among the first to issue such a sweeping edict, but it’s far from the only one implementing policies to safeguard employees. According to a survey by global advisory firm Willis Towers Watson, as of mid-February, 46% of employers had started encouraging staff to work remotely, while 55% were holding virtual meetings in an effort to reduce the need for business travel.
Of the 158 U.S. companies surveyed, 38% reported that their human resources departments had been reviewing or revising their procedures to better protect their workforces. For those still in the process of doing so, here are eight ways that employers can protect their employees from the coronavirus.
1. Disinfect the workplace
“The number one thing is keeping people safe when they’re at their worksite, and that really has to be priority No. 1,” says Jeff Levin-Scherz, co-leader of Willis Towers Watson’s North American Health Management Practice. In addition to making hand sanitizer and handwashing facilities readily available, which 44% of businesses have done, organizations should also increase the frequency at which they clean common areas and surfaces. At the time the survey was conducted, 25% of companies said they were disinfecting worksites.
2. Ask sick employees to stay home
Managers should encourage employees who are sick or may have been exposed to the virus to work from home, the latter for a period of 14 days. But Levin-Scherz cautions against making any judgements based on race or ethnicity, as doing so can create social stigma.
3. Encourage employees to work remotely and have virtual meetings
“As this virus is transmitted in more communities, social distancing is important,” Levin-Scherz says. “If you could achieve a business goal by having a telephone call or having a video conference to be face-to-face, that’s a way to decrease transmission and decrease risk.” Some 46% of organizations are offering telecommuting options, and 55% are encouraging employees to have virtual meetings. If in-person meetings are necessary, establish a no-handshake policy.
4. Communicate contingency plans to employees
“Epidemic preparedness should be part of the business continuity plan and the plan should be periodically reviewed,” Levin-Scherz says. Thankfully, 71% of employers have an emergency response plan in place. But it’s not enough to just develop a plan—leaders must be able to effectively communicate it, too. “Companies should have good ways to communicate with all their workers, whether they're on site or remote,” he says. “Be sure to let them know of potential exposures and any changes in company policies.”
5. Prepare for worksite closures
If a worksite needs to be temporarily closed, take care to ensure employees understand corporate policies surrounding pay and benefits. Doing so can make all the difference for workers concerned about their job and financial security, and according to Willis Towers Watson’s survey, just 28% of employers have taken this step.
6. Revise corporate travel policies
Many employers have encouraged employees to suspend non essential business travel, with 63% of organizations have canceled corporate trips to high-risk countries. When revising such policies, Levin-Scherz suggests referring to the advisories on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and State Department websites.
7. Evaluate plans to host conferences
From South by Southwest to Google I/O, conferences around the world are being rescheduled or canceled, with 47% of respondents reporting having canceled events of their own. Stay in touch with local health departments and have a backup plan in place. If the show does go on as scheduled, provide attendees with hand sanitizer and hand washing facilities, and implement a no-handshake policy.
8. Train supervisors
Above all, ensure supervisors are equipped with the resources they need to not only answer employees’ questions, but escalate concerns up the chain of command. A plan for quickly reporting any potential coronavirus exposures to the local health department, for example, is critical to have in place. To find your local health department, search for “local health department,” followed by the postal code, city or county name.