"Now is the time" for businesses to begin their preparation for the spread of COVID-19, or the new coronavirus, according to a Feb. 25 notice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
This preparation may need to include the expansion of employers' capacity to offer remote work. "Businesses can replace in-person meetings with video or telephone conferences and increase teleworking options," Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a conference call.
As the COVID-19 situation evolves with the U.S. and elsewhere, employers will need to keep a close eye on any developments, one source said.
At some point, these developments may prompt organizations to keep workers home, where they can continue working without spreading or contracting the virus. Employers will need a vetted plan to sustain operations with a dispersed workforce, however. As they prepare, businesses may look to organizations that have long had remote workforces. Paylocity, for instance, employs more than 3,000 workers, half of whom work remote full time, alongside another half working under flexible work arrangements.
'Keeping abreast of what's happening'
As the news surrounding COVID-19 develops, employers need to be "keeping abreast of what's happening and how to react from there," Envoy Global Head of Global Immigration Stephanie Lewin said.
As a part of the leadership team at Envoy Global, Lewin is involved in the organization's discussions of the virus, she said. "We have a diverse workforce across the globe. We're watching any sort of decision that each country is making," Lewin told HR Dive in an interview. The company has not needed to make any changes due to the virus, she noted, largely because the majority of Envoy's workforce is in the U.S.
Many companies have needed to take action, of course. "We have seen corporations for business continuity purposes take a very case-by-case basis of reaction to the coronavirus," she said. "Mostly what we've seen is companies take a very precautionary stance in Asia."
More specifically, some banned travel to Asia "in the early days of the virus," Lewin said. Others implemented remote work measures for workers in areas enduring outbreaks. As the disease has spread, some U.S. companies have taken further precautions. Twitter is "strongly encouraging" employees to work from home, for example, while Facebook has paused social visits to its offices and is conducting candidate interviews via video conference where possible.
As the situation evolves, organizations need to keep up with the news concerning the spread of COVID-19, as well as how government officials and agencies respond to any developments, Lewin said. Employers will want to take action based on information from both the federal government and local authorities, Lewin advised. They will need to pay attention to communications from the CDC and the World Health Organization.
A remote work policy: half tech, half 'norms'
To prepare for a period of mandated remote work, employers need to develop and test work-from-home policies before they're necessary, Paylocity CEO Steve Beauchamp told HR Dive.
Organizations can begin this process by identifying the roles that are most key to operations. "Think about the roles you would want up and running," he said. Then employers can take inventory of what those workers need to do their jobs away from the office.
Once the necessary supplies are distributed, employers can start a test period, sending people in those positions home to work in intervals of several hours to half a day to identify any problems. "Have tech support ready," Beauchamp said. With each test, the team leading the remote work charge must list every roadblock workers experience and find a solution. The team can then anticipate those problems for the next round of tests and implement solutions, Beauchamp said.
Employers can repeat this process throughout the entire organization, working through roles and departments according to their importance.
As the remote work task force inventories the supplies necessary for each role, some common needs may emerge, Beauchamp said. Most employees will need a laptop, for instance. And many will need phones, printers and other common office tools.
Depending on an organization's security needs, an employer may decide to distribute desktops instead of laptops, Beauchamp noted. This concern also may prompt employers to set up a VPN connection for private and confidential information.
But the right tech accounts for only half of remote work success, Beauchamp said. Companies must also communicate the "norms" and expectations of remote work to employees. Without this, organizations may encounter several challenges. When Beauchamp's workforce transitioned to remote work about seven years ago, Paylocity lacked a standard mode of communication. After all, before it moved operations online, workers simply talked to each other around the office.
To remedy this, workers turned to instant messaging platforms. The tech team used Slack. But another department used Skype. Without a unified use of one platform, communication became messy, Beauchamp said. The solution was simple; Paylocity sent out a written notice that the company would use one platform.
As employers develop these remote work policies, it will be crucial to write them down and distribute them to workers through email, the employee handbook, company intranet and wherever else the organization stores information. Leaders should also receive training on the subject, Beauchamp noted.
These "norms," as Beauchamp calls them, should inform workers' at-home habits. They should understand, for example, how to reach out to managers and how to behave in group meetings. They should know whether they're expected to have their cameras on or off in video meetings.
"If businesses haven't had a lot of people working from home, they need to think about these norms and expectations," Beauchamp said.