There are fears that the UK Coronavirus crisis could last until spring 2021 and result in up to 7.9 million people being hospitalised, according to Public Health England.
This comes as millions across the USA face massive state-wide shutdowns to curb the spread of the disease. Meanwhile, Italy has extended its emergency Coronavirus measures, which include travel restrictions and a ban on public gatherings, to the entire country in a bid to quell the high death toll there. Millions are also confined to homes in Spain and France after both countries imposed Coronavirus lockdowns.
In the UK the threat of school closures appears imminent, while airlines are grounding fleets, rush hour traffic is depleted and people with a high temperature or cough are being told to self-isolate for a week.
As stock markets plunge, supply chains break down and cases surge, owners of small and medium-sized businesses are either closing office operations entirely or making contingency plans in the event that they do have to shut down in the encroaching days or weeks.
The good news is that it is not too late for businesses to set up remote workforces, communicate with staff to alleviate any concerns and generally prepare for a worsening outbreak.
This is our advice to help your business cope with an office closure with minimal disruption, all while maintaining productivity and protecting your bottom line.
Communicate with employees
One of the most important things you can do is open up the lines of communication with your employees. Many are likely to be concerned about their health, their families and how they can continue working as more daily facets of life get shut down. Instant messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Slack or Google Hangouts enable key updates and notifications to be effortlessly shared and allow workers to share their own thoughts, paving the way for transparent, multi-way dialogue. These platforms can also help eliminate endless chain emails and allow decisions to be made faster, especially if a senior manager is involved. Even a casual, non-business related chat with colleagues over instant message can help alleviate feelings of isolation, which are common when working from home.
Invest in work from home technology
While most people are likely to have a phone, computer and internet access, some may not have enough bandwidth or cloud-based software to do the kind of work they do at the office at home. Some companies may also not be set up with the right collaboration tools, such as internal communications programs or secure Wi-Fi networks to allow for remote working. It might be the case that new accounts or passwords are required to access online management systems or shared files. For jobs which rely on private or sensitive information, it might be necessary to set up a virtual private network (VPN) to allow secure, remote access. To send sensitive information back and forth, encryption services could also be vital.
Microsoft Teams is a collaboration program which allows people to video chat and work on Word files together, wherever they may be. Google’s G Suite, which comes with collaborative software like Google Docs, Sheets and Slides, is another useful alternative.
Arrange regular check-ins
In the office, it’s normal to have at least one or two times a week when a line manager or a senior staff member is in direct contact with their employees. When working from home, the danger is workers could start to feel less accountable and managers less in control. To solve the issue, arrange times to FaceTime or phone your staff a couple of times a week, and request a written update at the end of each week explaining what has been achieved or anything which needs flagging for the week ahead. If senior teams or board-level staff are used to holding regular meetings, try and keep to the schedule by setting up weekly dial-in conferences using services such as Cisco's Webex or Skype calls.
When working from home, it is tempting for people to extend their hours to get things done, especially when they are saving time on the daily commute. But health professionals advise this is not always good for mental health. With that in mind, try setting some reasonable boundaries for your workers. Allow them to put their email on an auto-response around the normal finishing time.
Create a disaster prevention framework
The majority of companies will not have planned for a crisis on this scale, but many are finding out now that they desperately need one. A good policy will cover a number of factors, including procedures around remote working. It should spell out how people should work from home and what tools they will need to get the job done, how to handle travel and what to do about meetings.
It is also important to include information around insurance coverage for business closures or trip cancellations, how to get financing when no one is investing, what lines of credit are in place and supply chain alternatives.
While service businesses may be able to continue operating in some way, other companies, such as restaurants, will have to think hard about how to manage staff and cash flows as and when people stop going out.
All of this should be documented for future use, as it helpfully shows people what could happen in a worst-case scenario, while acting as an easy-to-reference guide on what to do, how to communicate and how to keep businesses running during difficult times.
As Coronavirus evolves, it is understandable that people will become increasingly anxious both from a health and economical perspective. It is very important that we pay heed to the advice issued by the Government and Public Health England in finding the balance between protecting health and minimising disruption.
Please make sure that you read and listen to NHS guidelines, the World Health Organisation and Government advice. It is easy to read and be misled by newsfeeds and social media giving false or elaborated information.
At MERJE, we will continue to monitor the Government’s advice and recently put out this update about how we are supporting our Clients, Candidates and staff. Meanwhile, it is business as usual for our team.