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Coronavirus poses huge test for HR and business: eight steps to help you plan

As the COVID-19 virus spreads more widely, organisations should place the health and wellbeing of employees at the heart of their contingency planning while the virus could hasten the adoption of remote working


More than six million people, a fifth of the UK’s workforce, could be absent during peak periods of infection caused by the coronavirus, forecast the UK’s Government as cases across the world rose starkly.

“This is a national effort. We need everyone to listen to and act on the official medical advice, we need employers to prioritise the welfare of their staff,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons this week.

Meanwhile the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the COVID-19 outbreak a public health emergency of international concern and the Secretary for Health and Human Services in the US called it a public health emergency for the country. The virus has triggered the largest one-day fall on the US stock market since 2008.

Across the world business is jittery. Employment law is in the spotlight as questions over everything from statutory sick pay to caring for infected family members are raised. In the UK, the Government has announced statutory sick pay will start from day one to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

“Businesses and other organisations are going to be stretched in a variety of ways, including in terms of workforce planning. In these early stages, most employers have been taking a benevolent and socially responsible approach to low levels of COVID-19-related absence, such as self-isolation, treating it as exceptional and involuntary. However, employers may soon need to consider their longer-term approach to a number of people-related issues,” says Blair Adams, partner at legal firm Winckworth Sherwood.

Many companies are letting staff work from home or putting in travel bans, leading some to believe the virus could fast track the remote hiring trend. Earlier this week Twitter announced in a blog post that all employees are being "strongly encouraged" to work from home to lower the probability of the spread of COVID-19. "We are operating out of an abundance of caution and the utmost dedication to keeping our Tweeps healthy,” it said.

Facebook has temporarily ended social visits to its offices and is conducting candidate interviews via video conference where possible. 

But Adams warns: “Technology has a big part to play for businesses that can impose remote working or foreign travel bans but for many organisations remote working is impossible or only marginally significant. Businesses could potentially have to deal with mass sickness absences, potentially unsafe workplaces and employees who need time off because of school closures or who are unwilling to travel to work for fear of infection. These novel circumstances will bring to the fore legal issues that do not arise in business as usual operations.”

Virtual meeting rooms provider StarLeaf adds that businesses should review their remote working policies. William MacDonald, chief strategy officer, says: “Organisations will firstly need to establish their remote working policy, outlining what is expected when working outside the office. Depending on your culture, it might go into detail about all aspects of remote work, including expectations of working hours, legal rights, and privacy/security requirements.”

HR departments need to take every possible action to prevent the spread of the virus at work and to protect employees, says the UK’s professional body for HR and people development, CIPD.

Head of public policy Ben Willmott said the UK Government’s figures would be a “huge test of UK businesses on how agile they are, how equipped they are to enable staff to work from home and how they can keep their business running with fewer staff”.

The CIPD recommends that businesses are as generous with their sick pay and leave policies as possible, both to support staff health and wellbeing, and to minimise any impact on their pay. It has identified eight steps organisations should take as part of their contingency planning and response:

  1. Regularly communicate with their people on the steps they are taking to protect staff, as well as on their sick pay and leave policies
  2. Do the basics to protect staff such as ensuring they are aware of the latest public health advice, providing hand sanitisers and increasing the frequency and intensity of workplace cleaning
  3. Ensure they aware of individuals’ particular needs and concerns and how they can support them – this will be particularly important for people with underlying health issue and those with caring responsibilities
  4. Minimise or delay business travel to affected areas
  5. Maximise workforce flexibility for example, ensure everybody who can work from home can do so
  6. Harness technology: Increase the use of video-conferencing, remote working and in retail environments employers should optimise the use of customer self-service tills and stations and online services
  7. Identify business-critical services and functions and the minimum staffing levels required to keep operating
  8. Identify staff with transferable skills who can fill in temporarily for absent colleagues in key roles and, if necessary, train additional staff so they can step into these roles.

Further advice from the CIPD is available in a special factsheet.

Published 5 March 2020

Technology has a big part to play for businesses that can impose remote working or foreign travel bans but for many organisations remote working is impossible or only marginally significant

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