In looking back at the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, the one major lesson that we learned was the importance of planning to protect your organization’s greatest asset—its people.

 

Make the Workplace Safe

From your organization’s perspective, the pandemic represents a readiness issue—the availability of your workforce—not a medical problem. To ensure you have the maximum workforce available, first make the workplace as safe as possible. Vaccines and anti-viral medications will not be available for some time, so classical, non-medical public health measures will offer the most significant security. To ensure a healthier workspace do the following:

  • Emphasize basic personal hygiene practices, such as hand washing.
  • Disinfect and sterilize work surfaces.
  • Rearrange the workspace to place distance between people.
  • Restrict or limit movement, activities, and gatherings.

Additional measures that will add to workplace safety preparedness include:

  • Use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers (not to be confused with anti-bacterial soap).
  • Ensuring an ample supply of tissues and disposal receptacles.
  • Moving to a “paperless” society—avoiding the circulation of unnecessary documents.
  • Designating home and remote work locations (telecommuting).
  • Inserting “infectious disease control” clauses in contracts—ensuring that those with whom you do business have tight controls to prevent the spread of disease (particularly crucial for companies serving multiple buildings, such as contract cleaning crews).

 

Manage your Workforce

Managing the available workforce poses tremendous challenges due to the following three psychological responses:

  1. Fear. Everyone will have a level of anxiety and fear about contracting the disease.
  2. Discrimination. There will be blatant and subtle discrimination against groups who are thought of as spreading the disease, i.e., Chinese, Asians, and foreigners.
  3. Psychological trauma from hearing or reading about Covid-19 incidents.

At the group level, various “tipping points” may be reached, such as loss of faith in leaders and the belief that available assets are not being distributed fairly which could significantly influence group behavior. Right now, gun sales are through the roof as people are concern that those without jobs will come and take their “Stuff.” Identify informal group leaders to help keep the workforce organized, and those leaders may serve as trusted sources of information. Consider establishing helplines and providing grief counselors to give the employees assistance through this time.

 

Communicate with the Workforce

As I have written about elsewhere, the most important is the style of communication to the workforce and external constituents. Excellent communication involves four very sophisticated steps:

  1. Avoid errors in decisions and messages.
  2. Maintain trust in the sources of information.
  3. Avoid amplifying the risk.
  4. Encourage individuals, communities, and families to use coping mechanisms.

By keeping your workforce well informed, you will help to reduce the level of anxiety and fear. Thus, how you handle risk communication is critical. Risk communication, as I mentioned before, is not just telling people the “facts;” it is about the “Plan,” the prospect of loss, and about relationships. 

 

Establish a Covid-19 “War Room” Team

Appoint a senior, entirely dedicated COVID-19 “War Room” team, to focus on this all day, every day. As CEO, you must be out in front with a planned cascade of possible actions based on which scenarios unfold. These scenarios need to be more aggressive than your team can imagine right now.

 

You NEED a Plan

A pandemic is not a terrorist or natural catastrophe, and those plans cannot be adapted to fit the flu. Natural disasters, i.e., Hurricanes and floods, are usually characterized by being isolated in time and space, with extensive infrastructure damage. However, the Covid-19 is worldwide and will last longer lasting than a natural disaster. The 1918 pandemic lasted 18 months, with three distinct peaks of increased morbidity and mortality. Current estimates by Imperial College show that by “Flattening the Curve,” the healthcare systems will not be overwhelmed. Still, it will take about 18 months to achieve protection for a vaccine or herd immunity. Thus, your response to the Coronavirus will be distinctly different from the response to a singular, catastrophic event.

While the Federal Government is behind on this issue, States and cities have stepped up and started implementing their plans for Coronavirus. These plans call for all sectors of their societies to prepare. Specifically:

  • Individuals Must Actively Participate. Simple infection-control measures, including handwashing and staying home when ill, are critical. Individuals should actively participate in their communities’ responses.

  • State and Local Governments Must Prepare. State and local governments to varying degrees implementing community-wide measures, such as school closures and suspension of public gatherings, to halt the spread of disease.

  • The Private Sector Must Prepare. The private sector must develop plans to provide essential services, even in the face of sustained and significant absenteeism. Businesses also should integrate their planning into their communities’ planning.

Once your organization has written its Coronavirus plan, you must test it. Simple “tabletop” exercises are an excellent way to look for points of “friction.” Several tabletop exercises may be necessary, using the employees who wrote the plan to role-play more senior officials, until they determine it is ready. Once the plan is prepared, a tabletop exercises including senior-level players, preferably your fully dedicated COVID-19 “war room” team, is required.

 

Additional Considerations

There is a multitude of other considerations, and your organization will have its unique challenges. However, things to consider include:

The Workload

Determine the tasks required for your organization to continue operating and prioritize them. Ensure that “mission essential” tasks can be met, even with only half your staff. Cross-train employees so that everyone is familiar with the mission-essential tasks and can perform them.

Proportionate Absenteeism

If your organization can perform remotely, then office absenteeism does not necessarily mean that an employee’s absenteeism will cost eight hours of work. While some workers will be ill at home and unavailable for work, others will be well, but needed at home to care for those who are sick. Depending upon the circumstances, (i) severity of illness, and (ii) the number of infected people at home, an absent employee may be able to complete a few hours of work during a day. Other workers who are well may be unavailable because they need to care for children out of school. However, they may still be available for a full or partial day’s work.

24-Hours a Day

If possible, establish a 24-hour work cycle. By moving to eight-hour shifts, you reduce the number of people at your workplace by two thirds, significantly aiding the effort to establish social distancing.

Establish Helplines

Dedicate phone lines and numbers as employee helplines. Identify individuals to man the hotlines and train them now. Establish hotlines at the lowest possible level, i.e., each distinct group within your organization would have a specific number to call, and the group members would know the person answering the phone.

Review of Personnel Policies

Check there are no legal or regulatory implications to your plan. Also, make sure your workforces fully understand the policies on leave and telecommuting.

The Golden Egg

The U.S. public and private sectors spent an estimated $114 billion preparing for Y2K, and some estimates are that worldwide Y2K expenditures may have exceeded $600 billion. As companies corrected their computer code to avoid the Y2K problem, they found and eliminated unnecessary code, resulting in substantial savings in data storage and processing costs. As Y2K preparation resulted in unexpected benefits for corporate America, there may be an upside to the preparation for Covid-19. Revisit all your processes and ask the following questions:

  • “If we didn’t do it this way already, how would we do it?”

  • “If you had to do what you do a budget = 50% of the current budget, how would you do it?”

  • “Where can we cut waste?” Look at Toyota’s Seven Wastes for an understanding of where there is waste in your organization

While the instinctive reaction of most employees is to say, “Not possible,” I ask you to think of Apollo 13 when they had to restart the command module. There was no easy way, but they worked a team and figured it out. That is what is required now!

Preparing the workplace for telecommuting may require additional expenses on IT upgrades that will eventually result in increased productivity. You may need all employees to have high-speed Internet connections, and improvements in web-based applications may improve usage and performance.

Getting Started

Prepare for the worst and be thankful if it doesn’t eventuate; “A Wait and See” approach is a non-starter. YOU DO NOT HAVE THE LUXURY OF WAITING.

Several websites provide plans for specific organizations. It is doubtful that any of these plans will meet your organization’s needs. However, plagiarism is not a crime in this instance! Use the smorgasbord approach, pick to choose form what looks applicable to create something you can use. 

Tabletop Exercises

Several websites provide tabletop exercises that can be adapted to fit your organization’s particular needs.

Organizational Tabletop Top Exercises – Customizable Hazard Specific Scenarios

Tabletop exercise template By the Editorial Staff of SearchDisasterRecovery

Tabletop Exercises – Some thoughts from DHS

Designing, conducting, and evaluating tabletop exercises: A primer on optimizing this important planning tool

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