Coronavirus: Challenges of a Temporary Remote Workforce and Ensuring Business Continuity

Not long after fears relating to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) reached a fever pitch, companies around the globe began taking action to protect employees, customers, the public and themselves.

But it wasn’t just the big companies that moved to offer employees options—or sometimes mandates—to work from home.

Companies Take Action: Employees Share Concerns

On March 11, Blind, an online community, created a crowdsourced study to find out how companies were responding to the crisis. In less than 12 hours, 600 companies responded from around the world and Blind created a spreadsheet to share information on the responses various organizations were taking in response to the crisis.

It also turned to users of its platform to gauge the extent to which they were concerned about job security and the impact of the crisis on their income. From the 7000+ responses they received, Blind found that:

  • 53.8% of respondents were concerned about job security—tech and finance professionals were most concerned; and
  • 62.2% felt that their income would be negatively affected

These numbers are likely to also be indicative of the concerns your own employees might have as they see and hear ongoing news reports of the impact COVID-19 is having around the world.

Ensuring Business Continuity

One of the immediate concerns that all businesses will have is ensuring business continuity:

  • Can they continue operations?
  • What will be required to continue operations?
  • What are the impacts on employees, customers and the community?
  • What are the risks of continuing business as usual?

These are the questions that companies of all sizes are grappling with as they weigh the pros and cons of the various alternatives they face, ranging from shutting down operations or cancelling or postponing events (as organizations as wide ranging as SXSW, the major professional sports leagues and Disneyworld have done), to maintaining the status quo, to allowing—or even requiring—employees to work from home.

Heidi Wysocki is a security consultant with First Defense Solutions, a company that offers business continuity management services. There are plenty of companies, especially small to mid-sized businesses, says Wysocki, that are “creating policies on the fly.” That’s a dangerous situation, she warns, for local economies and businesses themselves.

What companies should be doing, Wysocki advises, is beginning with “an understanding of your critical operations, the minimum amount of productivity your business can tolerate and the minimum number of employees you need to do the work.” From there, she says, they should “get policies in place and understand the financial, logistical, personnel and other considerations and risks” they may face.

Employers also need to consider whether their infrastructure will be sufficient to support remote work, says Heather Becker, an employment attorney and partner with Laner Muchin.

“Questions that should be answered include whether the volume of employees logging on to a network remotely will overwhelm the network, and whether the employees have the necessary tools to perform the work that is being asked of them—such as computers, telephones, etc.” Employers also need to ensure that a communication system is in place so that employees have ready access to information and their colleagues.

Best Practices for Addressing the Challenges of a Temporary Remote Workforce

Start with managers first. Before making an announcement to staff about offering remote work, or requiring it, make sure supervisors and managers have been thoroughly briefed and are prepared to communicate with their teams, advises Mikaela Kiner, an executive coach with 15 years of HR leadership at Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, PopCap Games and Redfin.

That’s an often-overlooked step, and it can put managers in an awkward position if they don’t have the information or answers that employees may be coming to them with. In addition, management staff have their own personal concerns.

“Give them time, even if it’s just a couple hours, to internalize how this impacts them before they need to roll out changes to team members,” Kiner recommends. “It’s human nature to first process ‘how does this affect me’ before thinking about the impact on others.

Kiner recommends putting together FAQs for managers that they can add to as they get new questions. “One of the worst experiences as a manager is not having all the answers, so provide as much information as possible,” Kiner advises. But, also make sure managers understand that it’s okay to say: “I don’t know. Let me check on that and get back to you.”

Employers need to be very clear and specific about expectations for remote staff, Becker says.

  • Should employees be available and working during their regularly scheduled hours or will they only be called up from home as needed?
  • What kind of response time is expected?
  • Are there non-essential projects that can be put on hold until things get back to normal?
  • How should they track time worked?
  • How will overtime be handled?

Tracking time also has implications for the use of PTO. If employees are working, they should not be required to use PTO time. There is additional guidance for employers on the wage and hour implications of responses to the coronavirus, including compensation for employees who are quarantined or furloughed and predictive scheduling laws.

Tighten Up Your Policies—or Create Them

Companies should already have policies addressing how they will handle communicable illnesses, says David Reischer, an attorney and CEO of Companies that don’t, he says, “could be exposed to legal liability.” OSHA provides protections to employees in the US, Reischer notes.

“If an employee become infected at work, it is quite conceivable that the employer would face financial penalties,” he says. “An employer with no communicable-illness policy in a time of the clear and self-evident rising risk of exposure to the coronavirus could be subject to lawsuits related to workers’ compensation, unfair labor practice and negligence,” he says.

In addition, he recommends: “Your company must pay attention to healthcare news and alerts. Defying local government healthcare regulations could be seen as prima facia evidence of a breach of a duty of care.”

Companies around the world are making tough decisions about how they will respond to the threat of the coronavirus—decisions that will impact employees, their families, customers and the community at large. It’s important to think through these implications thoroughly, both in terms of deciding to carry on business as usual and when allowing, or requiring, employees to work remotely, or shutting down operations entirely.

There are no easy answers. Employers need to make the best decisions based on their unique circumstances—and check with legal counsel to ensure that their decisions are appropriate and compliant with the wide array of laws, rules and regulations impacting them.

A new XpertHR podcast, “How Employers Should Handle Coronavirus Concerns” also looks at the many issues affecting companies on a daily basis during this crisis.


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