Two companies share how they are adapting their workplace policies toÂ protect their employees and businesses from the impact of COVID-19.
By Simon Kent
The speed at which the coronavirus has moved aroundÂ the world means that for many HR teams, the work ofÂ creating an action plan to protect their people has shiftedÂ from the hypothetical to the top priority almost overnight.Â According to Julie Provino, international HR expert andÂ award-winning CEO and founder of HR consultancyÂ VeryHR, HR teams must now provide support, policies, andÂ frameworks to enable their organisations to act quickly,Â efficiently, and smoothlyâno matter what happens as theÂ situation evolves.
âFirst and foremost, even if our businesses remain widelyÂ non-affected, now is the time to plan and assess,â saysÂ Provino, advising the swift appointment of an executive orÂ committee to review, draft, and act as gatekeepers to theÂ rules governing the organisational response to the crisis.
International businesses require internationalÂ consideration, and Provino advises HR to identify the levelÂ of risk for each office location and implement specificÂ measures for each country. Based on this assessment,Â organisations can adopt different policies in response toÂ considerations like:
- When should an employee self-quarantine or be forcedÂ to go on quarantine?
- How will organisations remunerate quarantinedÂ employees?
- Where and when will employees be eligible to travel?
âPlanning and remaining educated as well as educatingÂ your workforce are key to ensuring that your workplaceÂ remains calm and consistent in delivering value to yourÂ customers,â Provino says.
Indeed, because pandemics can impact different regionsÂ rapidly and with varying severity, local HR teams shouldÂ be given an expanded role to respond to the crisis. ThisÂ includes the freedom to evaluate triggers for actionÂ and make time-sensitive, critical decisions, such as officeÂ closures.
Above this level, global HR should remain responsibleÂ for providing timely and accurate information to localÂ teams as well as keeping senior executives informed of theÂ companyâs response plan.
Communication has to be front and centre of HRâs workÂ in this scenario. âItâs important to remember that yourÂ employees will be worried about the virus,â says PaulÂ Holcroft, associate director at Croner. âIn addition toÂ having a duty of care to protect health and safety, you alsoÂ need to consider their well-being. Consider any well-beingÂ initiatives you have and remind employees of them, forÂ example, through your employee assistance programme.â
Holcroft highlights other workplace issues that mayÂ arise from discussion of the virus among employees.Â âCoronavirus is not a reason to treat employees differentlyÂ because of their nationality,â he points out. âYou shouldÂ be alert to banter and other instances of harassmentÂ between employees about the virus which relates toÂ someoneâs nationality or ethnicity and ensure that yourÂ zero-tolerance stance to harassment is maintained.â
Crisis Response in Action
At Unisys, the companyâs experience and crisis responseÂ in Asia has permeated their strategies in the west. MariaÂ Sitaramayya, vice president HR at Unisys Asia Pacific,Â says the pre-existence of crisis management policies andÂ business continuity plans in Asia meant the internationalÂ business did not have to create or write anything new,Â but instead could put into practice already agreed-uponÂ initiatives. âWe approached the coronavirus at two levels:Â safety of our employees and continuity of the services weÂ provide our clients,â she says.
Two-way communication has been key. âRather thanÂ send a barrage of emails, we use Yammer, a social mediaÂ platform for employees, which is updated with the latestÂ news, guidance, and documents,â says Sitaramayya. âItÂ also allows our people to ask questions and to give theirÂ âon the groundâ perspective.â
Earlier in the spread of the virus, Unisysâ APAC businessÂ continuity team met with their European colleagues toÂ share practical tips and learnings from their experience.Â âSimilarly, our internal and external communication teamsÂ and HR teams globally are sharing ideas and templates,âÂ says Sitaramayya. âAs our approach is aligned to the WorldÂ Health Organisation and local country travel restrictions, itÂ already applies at a global level.â
As the virus has spread, even small local businesses haveÂ had to consider how to respond to keep employees safe.Â âWeâre always conscious of how quickly germs can spreadÂ in a contact centre environment such as ours,â says GemmaÂ Banks, HR business partner at UK-based outsourcing callÂ centre provider Connect Assist. âTo try and stay on top ofÂ illness throughout the year, we provide hand sanitisers andÂ anti-bacterial wipes to all employees and have instructionsÂ on how to properly wash hands and prevent the spread ofÂ germs in all of our breakout rooms and toilets.â
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, hand sanitiserÂ has been provided on walls near the entrance to theÂ companyâs centres as well as other general office areas.Â This move was taken in part through the recommendationÂ of the employees themselves, and therefore demonstratedÂ the companyâs willingness to listen and respond to theirÂ concerns.
âAs weâre a 24/7, 365 contact centre business, we haveÂ a business continuity plan in place where all employeesÂ are provided with the necessary equipment to be able toÂ work from home as well as they can in the office,â addsÂ Banks. âThis allows any employee who has a need to self-quarantineÂ to continue to work if they feel well enough toÂ do so.â
Even in the face of adversity, Gartner believes thereÂ are learning points for businesses as they prepare forÂ the future. âIf the new coronavirus is contained andÂ suppressed in the coming weeks, it still provides anÂ opportunity to see where the company is exposed andÂ which business activities may not go as planned during theÂ spread of infectious disease,â says Gartner Vice PresidentÂ of HR Research and Advisory Aaron McEwan. âHR leadersÂ should work with employees, deploying targeted surveysÂ or focus groups to assess the effectiveness of the companyÂ response plan and any areas where employees wished theyÂ had more support.â