The COVID-19 Challenge: We're All in This Together

March 17, 2020 John Rossheim

4-minute read

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With public health officials’ warnings about the COVID-19 pandemic growing more urgent by the day, and with countless Americans heading home to telecommute, it’s difficult for all of us to maintain equilibrium in our professional and personal lives. But it’s critical to stay focused and keep working together to maintain cohesion, even from a constellation of improvised home offices.

Brian McPherson, a labor and employment attorney at Gunster, says the business clients who are coming to him about the COVID-19 pandemic are concerned and fearful. They’re worried about business interruption, “but at the forefront is, ‘How do I let employees know we’re looking at this seriously?’ ”

Let’s take that as our starting point for a discussion about how to keep your workforce calm and collaborative in the midst of a global health crisis.

Communicate to maintain trust and cohesion

“Trust boils down to competence and ethics. It’s about how you make people feel,” says Megan Paquin, a vice president at Poston Communications and an expert in crisis communications. “You can build trust among employees by telling them what you’re doing about it.”

You win the confidence of your employees by being forthcoming, even when the truth is bad news for your business. But uncertainty makes trust even harder to achieve. That’s all the more reason to “communicate about what you do know,” she says.

“Employees should know how the company is responding to the situation and get updated day to day,” says John Hollwitz, a professor of psychology and rhetoric at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business.

Citing trusted sources such as the CDC’s COVID-19 Situation Summary can bolster your communications. “When employers can include information from the government or a credible organization, that helps build trust,” says Brian. “And communication should not be a one-off; ongoing communication shows the employer is taking the situation seriously.”

Optimize remote work arrangements

How can organizations continue to collaborate effectively when, perhaps for the first time, they’re not spending most days in a common workplace? That’s the question raised by countless businesses’ decision to ask millions of white-collar employees to work from home every day for the foreseeable future.

Telecommuting can be an effective way to slow the spread of a virus. “It needs to be an option, and you can’t wait weeks to figure out if your people are able to work from home,” says James Philips, founder of recruiting, search, and human capital consulting firms, including JMJ Phillip Group.

Even if everyone has a laptop and a corporate network login, mass telecommuting requires communication and, wherever possible, planning. “Make sure your company has a notification process in place,” says Megan. Review expectations with respect to work hours, frequency of response to online and phone communication, and so on. Be fair; allow employees to take undisturbed breaks from work at home just as they would in the office.

Telecommuting raises many issues, including protecting private data and guarding against ransomware attacks, Brian says. “If a company isn’t already designed to do telecommuting, PTO is probably the first choice.”

Review your paid time off (PTO) policy

If government hasn’t yet implemented an effective program to compensate employees who would lose pay or time off if they stayed home sick, it’s incumbent upon employers to neutralize any perverse incentive to come to work symptomatic.

“A lot of people will work when they’re not feeling well because they don’t want to burn through vacation time,” says James. “Companies have to be more flexible during the outbreak. Otherwise your staff is not going to tell you about where they travel, or that they feel a little bit off, because they don’t want to burn up all their vacation time.”

For employers currently outside a hot zone, face the fact that new cases will be reported each day, and you may be next. So review your PTO policy now, consider how you might change it, and solicit input from employees at all levels.

Brian adds: “Your PTO policy should have provisions to prevent abuse.” But at least as long as COVID-19 tests are hard to come by, that may be impossible to enforce.

Moreover, right now it’s better to err on the side of trusting your employees. Your people will long remember how you treated them in these trying times, for better or worse.

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About the Author

John Rossheim

John Rossheim writes about healthcare, diversity, recruiting and human resources.

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