by Chuck Chapman, Content Strategy Coordinator
This week, in response to the threat posed by the coronavirus outbreak, the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said that it’s more a matter of “when” rather than “if” Americans would be dealing with the virus.
The CDC’s announcement had an immediate negative impact on the stock market. The outbreak has already caused widespread business shutdowns in China, which have an indirect impact on the supply chains of many US and Western-based companies. The thought that the virus could directly affect the American workforce has people on edge.
According to Dr. Nancy Messonier of the CDC, “Now is the time for businesses, hospitals, communities, schools and everyday people to begin preparing…I understand this whole situation may seem overwhelming and that disruption to everyday life may be severe. But these are things that people need to start thinking about now.”
Part of that preparation, Messonier says, involves implementing remote work systems to mitigate any downtime that might result from any quarantines imposed by the outbreak. “Business may need to use video or telephone conferences and increase teleworking options.”
I had a chance to talk with Wayne Turmel, leader of The Remote Leadership Institute and co-author of Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership to get his thoughts on what companies can do to prepare for “emergency” remote work.
Q: Has anything like this ever happened before?
As a matter of fact, this is very similar to similar challenges like SARS, Bird Flu, and a couple of other pandemics that have threatened us. They tend to be intense and (blessedly) short. The less people travel and congregate, the faster the threat dissipates.
Many parts of the United States already have dealt with this on a smaller scale because of weather-related emergencies. Think about the hurricane that hit Houston or some of the multi-day snowstorms that have impacted the Northeast. In those cases either the office wasn’t available or accessible. Companies enacted remote working contingencies and were able to continue doing business.
Q: What can companies be doing now to make preparations for potential workplace disruptions?
The worst thing that can happen is for there to be an emergency and THEN the organization thinks about a plan. The best thing they can do is have an existing policy for telework that includes what jobs can be done remotely, what information can be shared beyond the company’s firewall, and what technology is needed.
They should also be prepared to increase the amount of video traffic. Webcam conversations should take the place of some phone calls to keep the work as close to an office environment as possible.
Q: Is it possible that companies could remain productive in the face of such a massive societal disruption?
They can absolutely remain productive, although if the company is a brick and mortar, traditional, workplace it’s reasonable to expect some bumps along the way. The more the organization becomes fluent in remote work, even on a part-time telework basis, the less disruptive the emergency will be to your organization.
In general, if the company already allows telework or remote offices, those functions should run pretty well in the short term.
Q: What social or “non-business” issues should companies be prepared to deal with?
In terms of massive social disruption, organizations will vary in their responses. A big piece of a successful long-term response will depend on how individual people adjust to those changes. We don’t like to think about it, but in cases like these, actual lives might be at stake. If there are multiple deaths, for example, or a level of the organization is disproportionately impacted, there could be significant upheaval, not to mention the emotional toll that’s taken. Companies would be wise to have employee-assistance, counseling or other services in place and help people know how to find the resources they need.
And remember, in tough times it’s more important to over-communicate. Don’t allow your company’s communication team to handle everything. People want to hear from the people who impact their lives the most. Managers will spend a lot of time checking in with people and listening.
If there are other questions you might have about how your company can develop a remote work contingency plan, let us know how we can help. We’d love to speak with you.