How Can Managers Steer Employees Through the Coronavirus Crisis—and Still Maintain Productivity?

Employers must show employees they’re on their side when sickness breaks out

By Brian O'Connell March 5, 2020

​With the coronavirus creeping across the globe, workplace managers may have to deal with the threat of a serious illness, along with the seasonal cold and flu, keeping staffers out of the workplace.

Some managers are already on the job.

Talent Plus, a corporate recruitment firm, has had an office in Singapore for more than 10 years, in addition to its corporate offices in Lincoln, Neb. When the novel coronavirus outbreak resulted in an orange-level alert issued by the government in Singapore—which means the outbreak was deemed to have moderate to high public health impact—Talent Plus implemented precautions for its workers there:

  • A partial work-from-home scenario for employees.
  • A "split team" scenario for staffers in which team members alternated coming into the office and working from home.
  • Checking workers' temperatures as they entered and left the building, buying more hand sanitizers and educating the team on homeopathic suggestions. 
  • Reminding team members to keep their laptops and other equipment sanitary and secure.
  • Many of Talent Plus' clients have stopped face-to-face meetings, and the company's workers have followed suit. "Unless a meeting is mission critical, we will meet our clients via [phone or video] conference as often as possible," said Stephen Wang, managing director of Talent Plus in its Singapore office.

Taking the Temperature of the Workplace

Other managers say that dealing with the coronavirus is akin to dealing with any severe virus that's easily transmitted between humans. The key is to be ready when the storm hits.
"The best way to manage a team when it's decimated by a flu bug depends on two primary factors: how incapacitated the team members are and the level of urgency of the team's tasks," said Joan Rennekamp, a client human resources consultant at Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie in Colorado Springs, Colo.

If a team member can work offsite, or if the project can be postponed, many scheduling problems can be solved quite easily. But with the threat of a global pandemic "lurking in the background, it is important that employers don't wait until an illness is upon them to make a statement to employees" about the company's action plan, she added.

At Rennekamp's firm, that plan—for the coronavirus and any other severe virus that affects the workplace—includes:

  • Educating employees about the symptoms of the coronavirus. "Don't avoid the topic," Rennekamp said. "Symptoms begin with a fever and then move to a dry cough followed by shortness of breath." 
  • Communicating that, deadlines notwithstanding, you'll support an employee's decision to stay home if any of those symptoms are present, as long as they can show that they have consulted a physician promptly. "This support should come from senior management as well as first-line supervisors," she said.
  • Encouraging employees who notice these symptoms in another employee to mention it to human resources, the employee nurse or another appropriate manager. "Support staff should not be required to put their own health in jeopardy because the boss insists on coming to work despite clear symptoms," Rennekamp noted. "Senior management should give full support to any department or department manager who decides to send someone home, [even] against their will, even if it is the boss herself."
  • Being ready to access talent from outside the department. "You may be in a situation in which other departments can pitch in if you have urgent deadlines, or you may be able to use temporary services to provide the people power to address some tasks," Rennekamp added. "In any event, require department heads to have a plan ready in case of widespread illness."

More Virus Defense Tips for Managers

A 2019 study from Accountemps showed that 90 percent of respondents have gone to work with virus symptoms, and, of that percentage, 33 percent "always" go to work "when they're under the weather."

"Whether it's due to large workloads, pressure from the boss or because they can't afford to take time off, it's all too common for employees to come to the [workplace] feeling sick when they really should be resting," said Michael Steinitz, senior executive director of Accountemps, a division of Robert Half.

Managers can view widespread flu and other viruses as an opportunity to show how much they value the people who work for them.

"An employer who encourages employees to go home at the first sign of a fever will be viewed as an employer who cares about employees' welfare," Rennekamp said. "An employer that takes proactive steps to prevent the spread of disease will be viewed as an employer that has its act together."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, PA. 


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