Coronavirus: Essential Information for Employers & HR Managers

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The current Wuhan novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak raises a number of issues for UK employers. These include implications for business travel and supply lines, quarantine procedures for staff returning from affected areas, and the need for contingency planning to ensure your organisation is adequately prepared for threat escalation.

Here’s a rundown of what employers should do to stay informed and the steps to take to protect your business and workforce.

How to stay informed

With so many Coronavirus-related stories dominating the headlines, it may sometimes be difficult to isolate the latest workable information from general noise. For an accurate picture, it’s advisable to bookmark and regularly check the following key sources of official advice:

For general updates

Coronavirus (COVID-19): latest information and advice (UK Government).

Frequently updated with information from the Department of Health & Social Care and Public Health England, this site provides up-to-date information on the situation in the UK, the current risk level, advice for returning and prospective travellers, and information about the virus itself.

Travel

Travel advice: coronavirus (COVID-19) (Foreign & Commonwealth Office).

Official guidance for British people travelling and living overseas in light of the outbreak. This includes information on FCO warnings against travelling to specific areas.

Foreign travel advice (general) (Foreign & Commonwealth Office)

A searchable database of the latest foreign travel advice relating to 225 countries or territories. This is a useful resource for checking whether action needs to be taken in the event of members of staff travelling to or returning from specific countries and regions.

Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19): General Advice for Travellers (The National Travel Health Network and Centre)

Potentially useful for distributing to travelling members of staff, NaTHNaC has produced general advice on preparing for travel and how individuals can reduce the spread of respiratory viruses.

Business practice/HR

COVID-19: Guidance for employers and businesses (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and Public Health England)

This includes information designed to assist employers and businesses in providing advice to staff on spread prevention. It also provides advice on what to do in the event of suspected cases of exposure or infection, quarantining and decontamination.

Coronavirus: advice for employers and employees (Acas)

Advice for employers on workplace policies in light of the outbreak, including instances of illness, employees who do not want to come into work because of exposure concerns, sick leave policies and matters to consider in case of temporary shutdowns.

Risk mitigation and contingency planning

The official advice may shift over time, which means businesses need to keep fully updated on the latest information concerning the outbreak, particularly with regard to travel recommendations/restrictions and best practices for quarantine. Areas to focus on include the following:

Educating staff

The emphasis should be on educating staff without causing panic. Consider displaying information on ‘cough etiquette’ and respiratory hygiene based on NHS best practice (do’s and don’ts are provided on the NHS website).

Health and safety essentials

This includes providing tissues and hand sanitiser and encouraging regular usage. Ensure there are areas for employees to wash hands regularly with hot water and soap. You may also want to review your cleaning procedures, especially for frequently touched communal areas (hotdesk keyboards, for instance).

Absence policies

Some general points regarding workplace absence:

  • If someone is absent and ill with coronavirus, your usual contractual sick leave and pay entitlements apply.
  • Be aware that if an employee is not sick but their employer instructs them not to come to work, they are generally entitled to their normal pay.
  • If someone has been advised by a clinician to self-isolate or has had to go into quarantine, these situations may not be covered in the employee’s contract. Even if there is no contractual right to pay, Acas recommends treating it as sick leave and compensating the employee accordingly.

It’s good practice to clarify your policy on sick pay – including provisions for self-isolation on medical advice – and communicate these with staff. Otherwise there is a risk of employees coming back to work too early simply to avoid loss of pay.

Review your business travel priorities

Keep Foreign Office guidance relating to travel to specific countries and regions under review. The recent lockdown of a number of towns in northern Italy should serve as a reminder that the situation on travel can shift rapidly and unexpectedly. As such, it may be worth reviewing ways to temporarily work-related travel across the board. For instance, is there scope for greater use of videoconferencing in place of in-the-flesh meetings?

Supply chain risks

You should review the likely implications of disruption to your supply chain in the event that the outbreak picks up increased traction. Areas to consider include the following:

Resources. Problems may include short supplies of materials or finished items originating from or routed through impacted areas. Labour availability at various points in the chain may also be affected by quarantine and movement restrictions.

Transit delays. Enhanced screenings at ports of entry may result in cargo logjams.

Sourcing. It may be prudent to expand your network of suppliers and partners in a range of locations. This increases your chances of having a plan B to fall back on in the event that your primary suppliers or logistics partners are impacted.

Contractual obligations. Do your customer and/or supplier contracts carry penalties for late delivery? What do the relief and force majeure provisions state?

Customer behaviour. Purchasing habits may alter due to fears about potential exposure. Let’s say for instance that your existing customers shift from purchasing at physical outlets to your online channels, you need to ensure that your logistics networks are prepared.

Equipping your staff for remote working

In normal times, working from home is usually more a matter of convenience than necessity. If, however, one of your branches is impacted by restrictions on movement, remote working might just be crucial to ensuring business continuity.

What’s more, even in the absence of any significant outbreak escalation, being able to offer the option of remote working may be a useful workaround option from a HR perspective: particularly when it comes to meeting the needs of vulnerable staff (those with pre-existing medical conditions, for instance).

To facilitate it, bear in mind the following:

Procurement. As lockdowns in China took effect, second-hand laptop and tablet sales rocketed. To avoid a last minute scramble to buy portable devices for staff use, now is a good time to carry out an inventory of your kit.

Software and platforms. Some of your staff love Slack, while others use Trello. A few may never even have used a collaboration app before. Especially if your organisation is new to distributed team working, you need to ensure that everyone is on the same page. This involves ensuring that the right people have access to the right systems. A single, approved collaboration platform is advisable, too.

Procedures. Rather than packing employees off with their laptops and expecting them to get on with it, it can be useful (and reassuring to staff) to maintain a degree of structure to workflows. Even something as simple as a departmental audio/video meeting each morning could make all the difference in maintaining a sense of ‘business as usual’.

Asking “What if?” – and getting a workable answer

What impact would a temporary supplier outage have on lead times? What are the profit implications of a proposed change to transit routes? At what stage is a fall-off in productivity likely to be felt in cash flow?

When the unexpected hits, the ability to make timely, evidence-based decisions becomes all the more crucial. Fortunately, Millennium Consulting has over two decades’ experience in helping organisations in this area. Through the deployment of best-in-class ERP technology, it becomes possible to test the future rather than merely guessing its impact. For more information about managing uncertainty through scenario planning, speak to Millennium Consulting today.