HR response plan to COVID-19

Written by: One Circle Consultants  created on: 13-03-2020


As HR experts and business leaders, we are very much at the front of the response to the virus, people look at us for answers. They look at us to understand our businesses, practices, and the way communicate to provide information. We have a duty to care for our people and keep them and their families well and protected.

These are very challenging times and at One Circle we want to make sure that we are doing all we can to provide you with support.

This includes how we think ahead and plan from a contingency and business continuity perspective. But as well how we are communicating and reassuring our people on how we are responding.

It's important that we are flexible and agile in those uncertain times. Undermining the current situation may have drastic impact on our people and business. The current situation is not only for government or health professionals to deal with, we need to step up as businesses to combat the spread of the virus. This is not a drill.

Addressing people needs and concerns is paramount. And supporting a more agile and flexible working in this fast-folding situation is no longer a luxury it’s a necessity. Watch out for us on social media as we share learnings from different organizations about their response to the situation.

You yourself can use our online communities to ask any questions, share practices and learn from each other. We do realize even though there are a lot of organizations out there sharing their response and sourcing their plans, for most of us in small businesses, we operate in a different way which makes it even more challenging.

One Circle consultants have put this document together to help you navigate through those uncertain times.

Please reach out to any of us on One Circle, we are happy to help.

In a recent interview with Michael Osterholm, the infection disease expert on CNN, he answers the interviewer on the following question: ‘We've had other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS, which, although highly problematic, didn't really kill very many people, relatively speaking. What's the difference between this coronavirus and those coronaviruses?’

OSTERHOLM: This is a very, very different coronavirus. Think of this as an influenza pandemic caused by a coronavirus and you're thinking about this in the right way.

SARS had close to 10% case fatality rate. MERS has a case fatality rate of 25% to 35%. The COVID-19 virus has a case fatality rate that is somewhere between seasonal flu in a bad year, which is 0.1%, and the 1918 pandemic, which, of course, preferentially killed young adults with a case fatality rate of 2.5% to 3%. So this is clearly in that range of what would be considered a severe influenza pandemic if this were the influenza virus.

When we think about infectious disease transmission, we refer to the concept of RO (a term that indicates how contagious an infectious disease is) or how many people on average an individual transmits the virus to. And what we see with coronavirus is it's probably about an RO of 2 to 2.5. It's surely dynamic. If we consider regular influenza, it's about 1.4. If you think about pandemic influenza, it tends to be about 1.8 people. So, this is quite different.

What's different here is the fact that in the cases of SARS and MERS -- and I was very involved with both outbreak investigations -- patients were most infectious on day 5 or later, and it allowed us the opportunity to identify these patients early in their illness and get them into appropriate isolation. Here, virus transmission is occurring early in illness, likely even before symptoms show up. It is very similar to influenza.

His answer to this question should make us think.

Undermining the current situation may have drastic impact on our people and the business. The current situation is not only for government or health professionals to deal with, we need to step up as businesses to combat the spread of the virus. This is not a drill. It is important that businesses are flexible and agile in such uncertain times.

As HR experts and business leaders, we are very much at the front of the response to the virus, people look at us for answers. They look at us to understand our businesses, practices, and the way communicate to provide information. We have a duty of care towards our people and must keep them and their families well, safe and protected.

There’s no doubt that office spaces are at high risk of contamination as employees come into contact with others on a regular basis. Transmission through droplets is after all mainly through face-to-face contact; and through touching of surfaces.

One thing is for sure, as the coronavirus crisis continues, your people will be turning to you for direction and support. This is your time to step up. Your actions should trigger trust, hope and confidence that you’ve got this under control. You care and you are taking care. You need to show leadership by implementing a quick HR response balancing a duty of care with business continuity. Wait and see is not good enough.

An HR response plan is a necessity. We put together few pointers to assist you as you put your plan together.

1. Scale your response

A clear plan of action depending on the escalation of the situation. This should be well communicated to everyone working on site or remotely. The CEO should plan communication according to the same pace as the situation unfolding. Nationwide, 6 to 13 may seem a spike but is important to treat in context, as nobody benefits from fearmongering. Therefore, you should ensure that communication scales as the need for it does, and each CEO appearance marks a milestone in this fast-evolving situation.

Having a clearly communicated scaled response plan in place also avoids having to bring out all the stops at once – which could induce unneeded panic in your workforce.

Yellow alert: Establish a base line of where we are now

  1. Wash hands frequently with soap and water; stop touching your face 

  2. Work from home if feeling “off”; see a doctor if a day of rest and hydration doesn’t improve your condition or if you have a fever and/or headache
  3. No non-essential international travel
  4. Enhance office cleaning schedules to be more frequent/in-depth, and especially keyboards and touchscreens must be disinfected regularly
  5. Limit office visitors to essential personnel only
  6. Ensure implementing a strict hygiene policy at the entry points to the office premises
  7. Activate your remote work policy for selected employees or get a remote work policy drafted for approval
  8. Test that your technology infrastructure supporting remote work (video conferencing, etc) is fully functional. There are so many free tools out there that you can use.
  9. No common use landline phones, desktops, laptops or other gadgets

Orange alert: If the virus hits a certain number of people in the area

  1. Stop all visitors to the office(s) OR institute a visitor health screening program 
  2. Stop meal services at the office
  3. Cut down on usage of breakout areas
  4. Plan commutes outside rush hours
  5. Broaden the remote work policy scope of employees to bring even less of your employees in direct close contact
  6. Conduct Video based virus management awareness sessions at regular intervals

Red alert: If the virus hits a higher number of people in the area

  1. Mandatory remote work for everyone

Coinbase has publicly released their communications outreach, including a clearly set-out plan for actions in response to specified triggers and benchmarks. Check it out.

2. Review your sick leave, work from home, data privacy and other policies

Work from home policy and guidelines – Working from home may not be a offered by your business. Now is the time to reconsider this. Our consultants can easily help you with developing a good practical guideline based on your brief.

It is important to provide clear guidance to employees about work-at-home expectations when “not unwell” and expectations for the use of paid leave when not able to work. Determine how pay will be handled for absences of employees who are not able to perform work from home. 

Sick leave policy and guidelines – Now might be the right time to re-evaluate your sick leave policies.

A lack of paid sick days as part of a reward package contributed to an additional 5 million cases of influenza-like illness during the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, according to a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Consider whether extended sick leave days, in addition to any mandated days, while maintaining traditional caps may force unwell people to come into the office. You may want to reconsider sick leave note requirements with a healthy dose of pragmatism. There will be cases where your people need to stay home when not feeling well but are not sick enough to warrant going to the doctor. Yes this can happen on a Monday and a Friday (or Sunday and Thursday, too.) You do not want them in clinics and hospitals in such cases, places that are high risk, when they are weak and their immunity levels are down. Remember, this is a dynamic and fluid situation. Employees will be looking to YOU for guidance and direction. Have a plan in place to help ensure you can proactively address some of their concerns and uncertainty as the event unfolds over the coming months.

Twitter and Square – among many others – are doing it already. A widely circulated memo from Microsoft has set out clear guidelines for working from home along with other essential information:

Flexibility is advised to ensure prevention of the spread of germs. This means allowing employees to work from home or utilize sick days as needed and in a manner that will maintain the health and level headedness of your people is required.

You should communicate that you recognize that employees with ill family members may need to stay home to care for them. Here are some adjustments to internal policies that you may need to consider:

  • Increase the threshold of absent days, or allowing employees to pool sick, vacation and personal days.
  • Start a “shared sick leave” program to allow some workers to share their paid time off with co-workers.
  • Encourage employees to get the appropriate checks when deemed necessary and determine whether the company will subsidize the costs.
  • Provide options for emergency child-care assistance.
  • Have employees update personal and emergency contact information in the company’s HRIS system.
  • Assure employees of their continued job security.

Use of technology and tools policy and guidelines – Certain collaboration tools, (MS Teams / Dropbox / Skype for Business), allow employees to connect and share documentation from any location. Should these systems not be in place already, how quickly can they be purchased, installed or rolled out? Financial implications need to be considered in this regard.

Review the company policy on providing laptops or tablets. Most companies have an internal policy that restricts laptops or tablets and access through a mobile device to sales force or outlook by employee level. The business needs to decide whether they will provide those tools to employees.

Data privacy and security policy – HR and Legal need to review existing policies and applicability in this context.

An additional element would be to communicate all changes in policies and make this communication available to everyone. Assigning a focal point to answer queries would be advisable.

3. Provide a framework within which remote work will be managed

This includes setting clear standards on performance outputs that can be measured and realistic enough that it can be performed from remote. Focus should mainly be on quality of the work, timeliness and level of professionalism in operating remotely.

4. Reduce or eliminate travel

Understandable anxiety around business-trip planning could be distrating and stressful. Make it easy for your people to make a decision. Communicate your approach on this as per your escalation plan. Don’t put your people in the difficult position of having to make that decision for themselves. Put in a clear policy with clear black-and-white decision-making protocols and stick to it.

We would suggest you give them examples to make it easier for them to decide.

  • You just came back from a business trip
  • You are planning a trip to one of the high alert countries for important business meetings
  • Your partner is coming back from an international trip
  • You booked an annual holiday, now what?

A potential answer to any of these scenarios could be: “Contact your manager and be prepared to work from home for two full weeks on return. No entry to our offices or meeting with colleagues in person until after that.” You’ll also want to include information about absolutely necessary travel tips that apply regardless of whether the trip is for business or pleasure.

5. Provide your people with the tools

It is impossible to expect that all businesses in traditional offices will have this level of expertise to work virtually or that they can acquire it at short notice. So, if asked to close offices and your team has to suddenly all work from home at short notice it’s important to focus on the basics and keep things really simple.

  1. Do an immediate audit of the team's internet availability at their homes. What is their internet connection like? Is there a connection at all? Also think of subsiding their data usage during the period they will be working from home. Factor in countries with erratic power supply.

  2. Decide on an online space that everyone can log into from anywhere in order to be visible to each other. Don't rely on email for this! There are several software solutions available to choose from eg. Microsoft Teams; Facebook Workplace, Slack, Sococo etc. All these tools allow team members to be present and be able to communicate with each other using text, audio, video and images. Appoint a virtual Office Manager to ensure everything flows and communication happens in the correct groups etc.

  3. Decide on a video communication platform to use for 1-on-1 check-ins and team meetings. Video communication is crucial for maintaining relationships and team cohesion when separated by distance. Here your choices could be Zoom, Blue Jeans or Skype for example.

This may also be a good time to consider putting an action plan in place to design and develop a fully functional "office in the cloud" so that future events such as these don't cause any disruption. It may also be time for your business to become one of the 1,000's of companies who have workplaces that allow for flexible and remote working and that are less reliant on physical offices. Should you require guidance on how to design these workplaces do reach out to our consultants for this.

6. Provide your employees with information from reliable sources

Educate your people on what they specifically can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to themselves or others around them. Use reliable resources and quote those resources to add credibility to your communication. When they turn out to you, provide them with the correct information but as well refer them to reliable sources. It helps to know that this is not an entirely uncontrollable situation and that you are controlling what they read and are exposed to through social media given that there are a lot of misleading information out there.

Some resources to get you started:

7. Clean the offices thoroughly more than usual

Adam Povlitz, president and CEO of commercial office cleaning service Anago Cleaning Systems offered some best practices on maintaining a clean office space, citing his company’s focus on healthy workspaces around the world – which will help you in your own office sanitation initiatives (as well as those of your employees):

  • Read the label of your cleaning supplies so you know what’s in them.

  • Check the websites – many cleaning supply companies are updating their sites with information specific to COVID-19.

  • Know your cleaning supplies – hydrogen peroxide with a dilution ratio of 7% or more will kill the virus. Most household cleaners are 3%, so you’ll need commercial-grade materials.

  • Disinfect and wait. All disinfectants take time to take effect, i.e. left on the surface for a period of time. Spraying and wiping will have no effect. And do not use bleach.

Time parameters also apply to:

  • Washing hands: 20 seconds or more using soap and water.
  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizer: rub solution in for 30 seconds and even up to 2 minutes to be effective.

You’ll especially want to maintain high sanitation in a sealed office space or an open-office environment or, obviously, both.

8. Leverage on technology to get through this uncertain period

Technology can help you do business as usual – you can continue working in a virtual environment at a minimal cost.

Move meetings and presentations that can still happen remotely via video tools such as Google Hangouts or Microsoft Zoom. Communications can take place via online chat channels and email.

As many companies ask their people to stay home, these 5 Tech companies are providing free remote working tools during the coronavirus outbreak.

Even your recruitment can benefit from technology here. Numerous companies – including Amazon, Facebook, VSCO, Twitter and more – are utilizing video interview tools for candidate interviews.

9. Be transparent

Many companies are going fully transparent with their internal communications and policies in response to the virus. If you want to see what they’ve got, more than 100 company policies have been collected in this crowdsourced Google doc.

People are scared and unsure of what’s going on. Clear policy and clear directives, step by step, with full transparency and uniform messaging and implementation helps.

Every workplace setting today should be discussing this right now with their employees. Tell them what we know about COVID-19. Tell them what you're going to do when the first coworker is infected. The more information you can give to employees the more responsibly they will respond when the case numbers begin to climb. If remote working is possible, tell employees do it, but help them understand one critical prevention point: If you work remotely for 70% of the day but then you spend the night out at a restaurant or in large crowds, you've nullified all the good you did during the day to protect yourself.

10. Be proactive

Your employees are going to have questions during this period. As a HR and business leader, it’s important to be as proactive and transparent as possible so your people can understand the company direction.

1. Consider creating a FAQ document that addresses FAQs basically; proactively.

2. Ensure that all HR people and managers are in the 'know' of your plans so that they can communicate with employees. If you don’t have any crisis communication plans in place, now is the time to have one.

11. You may need to switch to remote overnight

If you are planning to switch to virtual and remote overnight here are 3 tips to help you out.

1. Make time for you and the team for basic training on any system you chose.

2. Managers will need to set clear expectations with their teams about working remotely. Jeff Haden at boils it down to three requests: get your work done, be available (during normal working hours), and over-communicate.

3. The strongest urge when managing remotely is to micro-manage—and it’s also the fastest way to erode trust within the team. By sticking to a standard rhythm of status updates and using transparent tools, you shouldn’t need to constantly pester your folks about the status of their work.

12. Be compliant

There are also employment law implications to consider in the instance of a shutdown.

Understand that wage and hour obligations are triggered, even in a pandemic. Employer obligations to provide pay during a shut-down will vary by jurisdiction. Before implementing any changes to the terms and conditions of employment, employers should be aware of the laws and regulations of the applicable jurisdiction, including any duty to consult with unions, work councils or other employee representative bodies, and government agencies.

How can HR experts help you?

While policies for telework, sick leave, wellness participation and hiring a cleaning crew may have been agreed upon when the organization was founded and perhaps reviewed annually, a crisis such as the coronavirus requires smart and flexible planning.

Consider getting a consultant to guide you through these unchartered waters.

1. Employ Risk Management Strategies

As a business, you can monitor individual employees at risk of complications. Individuals at high risk for severe and fatal infection cannot be predicted with certainty, but likely include:

  • Pregnant women
  • People with compromised immune systems
  • People with underlying chronic conditions
  • People over age 65.

Once these employee populations are identified, you can provide them with additional protection.

2. Conduct a Benefits Review

In addition to what was mentioned earlier on leave policies, working from home, and when not to come to work or travel, it is important to consider conducting a review of your health and life insurance policies to ensure your employees are covered in case of emergencies. And don’t forget to communicate this back to your people.

What Is a Crisis Communication Plan and is it necessary?

A crisis communication plan is a set of guidelines used to prepare your business for an emergency or unexpected event. These plans include steps to take when a crisis first emerges, how to communicate with the public, and how to prevent the issue from occurring again.

Crisis communication plans focus on the company's response and how it will communicate with its stakeholders. These steps ensure information reaches employees, partners, customers, media, the general public, and any other valuable stakeholders. Most importantly, these plans guarantee a quick release of information, as well as a consistent message on all company platforms.

While your communication plan will differ depending on the crisis you're dealing with, below are some common strategies that businesses use to deliver an effective response.\

The overarching message is to STAY CALM, have a sensible plan that ensures business continuity with minimal individual risk, and remember, One Circle consultants can help, remotely and at fair value.


Thanks to all of our consultants who contributed to put this together:

Peter Du Toit, Elin Agodi, Fiona Thalmann, Steve Williams, Kristina Klasic, Loshen Naidu, Emma El-Karout.

World at Work

CNN – The disease expert who warned us