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The spread of the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease has reached a tipping point, escalating from an outbreak to a full-blown pandemic, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
As of WHO’s mid-March assessment, there were nearly 120,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 114 countries. Although the majority of people with the virus experience only mild symptoms, it has already caused nearly 5,000 deaths, including at least 40 people in the United States.
The ripple effect on the business community has been swift and far-reaching, with widespread cancelations of conferences, travel plans and voluntary or mandatory quarantining.
In an agile work environment where employees sit in close proximity and even share desk space, concerns about the new coronavirus are very real.
Workplace leaders should respond with empathy and take proactive measures to keep employees safe. Our workplace has been following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect our employees and taking additional precautions to ease their concerns.
Here are a few recommendations your organization may also want to consider.
Employees with symptoms of acute respiratory illness — including a fever and cough — should stay home and not return until they have been free of symptoms for at least 24 hours, according to the CDC. However, sick employees won’t voluntarily stay home if they believe their job is at risk. Your organization may need to revisit your sick leave policy to emphasize flexibility and personal responsibility while minimizing punitive consequences. Employees also need to be reassured they will not be penalized for taking time off to care for sick children or family members.
Those who are well enough to work but are experiencing mild symptoms, or those who believe they may have been exposed to the coronavirus through recent travel, should be encouraged or required to work remotely if possible.
Tech companies including Twitter, Google, Amazon and Apple are among those that have already asked employees to work from home as a precaution.
Having a remote work policy that clearly outlines expectations for employees and managers will ease concerns on both sides, particularly if your company has not encouraged widespread remote working in the past.
Allowing employees to work remotely has benefits beyond minimizing the spread of illness. Many employees who are given this option report greater productivity and higher levels of engagement. In fact, a two-year Stanford study found productivity among telecommuters increased to the equivalent of a full day's work. The remote employees who participated in the study also had 50 percent less turnover and fewer sick days.
Along with encouraging remote work, many companies are also re-evaluating events and travel plans. Facebook and Google are among the high-profile companies that canceled their conferences, while Amazon has asked all employees to avoid nonessential travel.
At this time, the U.S. government has imposed restrictions on travel to China, Iran and most of Europe. The government also advises caution when traveling to countries where the virus has been spreading, including Italy and Japan. Within the U.S., there have now been confirmed cases of COVID-19 in at least 46 states.
People at higher risk, including older adults and people with serious chronic medical conditions, should avoid nonessential travel as well. Check the CDC’s risk assessment by country as you consider business travel plans.
As you reconsider business travel, it’s also a good idea to revisit your company’s visitor policy. Your policy should specify when visitors are permitted and how they should be registered to be sure you are keeping track of everyone who walks through your doors. This includes maintaining a digital record of all visitors, their company and the purpose of their visit. This will ensure you are taking the proper precautions if you learn of an outbreak tied to a particular area or company.
You may also want to consider restricting nonessential visitors and hosting meetings remotely if possible.
One of the best preventive measures for the coronavirus or any type of infectious illness is to diligently practice basic hygiene.
Workplace leaders should encourage employees to wash their hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, in accordance with CDC recommendations, and avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth. They should remind employees to cover their mouth with their arm when coughing or sneezing.
Other proactive measures include adding alcohol-based hand sanitizer stations to the workplace and instituting no-handshake policies.
For many employees, working from home is simply not possible or preferable. Workplace leaders should make every effort to protect those employees by minimizing the spread of germs in the office.
The World Health Organization recommends employees maintain a distance of at least 3 feet from anyone who is coughing or sneezing. You may want to consider moving desks farther apart if possible or encouraging employees who sit close together to spread out if there are fewer employees in the workplace. When available, leveraging historical space utilization data can help you proactively designate or reassign workspaces to create appropriate social distancing.
If employees are sharing desks and monitors, remind them to wipe down those surfaces with disposable disinfectant wipes when they are done. Making it easy for employees to reserve desks or small, enclosed meeting rooms can also help them feel more comfortable working in the office.
Workplace leaders should also routinely sanitize all frequently touched surfaces, including desks, conference room technology and doorknobs. Space management tools can prove extremely effective in helping to adjust for the different office utilization patterns that occur during increased and extended remote work scenarios. Knowing which spaces are in frequent use can help them direct maintenance staff to high-traffic areas in most need of disinfecting.
In today’s 24-hour news cycle, employees constantly receive new information about the coronavirus and its impact. Under these circumstances, misinformation can spread as quickly as the virus itself.
Create a plan for managing internal communications so all employees can stay up to date on event cancellations, changes in workplace policies and any operational changes.
While email may be your go-to communication channel, consider other options. Digital signage and alerts through messaging platforms and employee mobile apps are good alternatives for quick updates, such as cancellations. Mobile apps can also help employees find their colleagues and stay connected to them if your workplace has become more geographically dispersed.
Although there are still fewer reported cases of the new coronavirus compared to the seasonal flu, it remains an unprecedented public health threat. The virus that causes COVID-19 has spread quickly, and there is no vaccine. Even in the best-case scenario, the business community will likely feel the effects for months to come.
While no one wants to create panic, workplace leaders need to take this threat seriously. By taking proactive steps to protect employees — including revisiting workplace policies and promoting basic hygiene — they can minimize the spread of the virus and ease concerns.
Tiffany covers leadership and marketing topics and enjoys learning about how technology shapes our industry. Before iOFFICE, she worked in local news but don't hold that against her.