Managing people and business continuity in a coronavirus pandemic

Essential management advice to help organisations prepare to manage coronavirus employee absences

The Government has now shared its plans and contingency considerations for the potential impact of a pandemic CoVID-19 coronavirus with the UK public and the world.  

It may have huge personal significance for every citizen in Britain.  Yet there are also huge potential implications for every organisation.  

The eyes of all business leaders, owners and managers will have immediately been drawn to one enormously significant message.  

Up to ONE FIFTH of British workers could be off sick at the same time.  

It has added a further potential burden to leaders who are already deeply concerned about the impact of impending supply chain issues and an increasingly probable economic downturn.   

They are conscious too that supporting employees may need to go beyond what is mandated by current employment regulation and standard statutory sick pay arrangements. The Government has already made alteration to enable SSP to commence earlier to cover self-isolation. It has also hinted that there may be further directives being planned to support zero-hours contractors in the ‘gig economy’, and others who sit outside the normal SSP framework.  

Planning for coronavirus absence challenges 

Organisational contingency plans are no doubt already being drawn up – if not, they should be. There are some important employee health management considerations to incorporate as you focus on how to mitigate and manage the impact of the pandemic on your business. It will also help towards the national effort to slow down any spread of the virus  

Firstly, it is fundamental to have clear and unambiguous process around the management of all types of staff absence, clearly communicated to all employees and line managers.  

Secondly, having data to provide the full context is absolutely key to making effective decisions around your workforce planning during this period.

Managing based on fact, rather than hear-say, will be essential, and will make actions and decisions easier and faster.  

To collect the data leaders need to consider these essential questions: 

  • How will you know who is off work at any particular time? 
  • Can you track the reasons behind their absence? Are they in self-isolation and working from home, sick (for any non CoVID-19 reason) or sick (due to confirmed CoVID-19)?  What about emergency leave – it is inevitable that some parents may need time off to care for children, should school closures become a widespread reality. 
  • How will you support and provide a process to team and line managers so they can engage effectively with absent employees in line with regulation (or any new government directives that may emerge)?
  • How will you be able to see if this is happening or not? 
  • How will you keep track of the individuals and projected return timelines for those who are sick, versus those who are in self-isolation or quarantined for a specific period, or off for emergency parental duties simply until schools re-open? 
  • How will your line managers support employees who are in work but are ‘worried well’ – do they have the right information at hand? 
  • How will over-stretched line managers and their HR partners ensure that return-to-work processes are managed effectively and, potentially, in volume? 

More changes are possible 

Businesses must remain alert to further announcements from the Government. One possible change is that, if a wide outbreak of coronavirus does occur, it is likely that changed methods of sick certification will be considered.   

Organisations will need to adapt, flexing their own policies and approaches to accommodate such changes.  For example: initial return to work conversations might be held by telephone in advance of return, to ensure the employee is genuinely fit – rather than face-to-face after a return to the workplace.  

Reliable and complete data will help you not only to remain compliant with regulations, but also ease day-to-day management in a scenario where you may for the first time encourage staff to work from home whenever they have the opportunity.

Understanding your staffing levels is no longer a case of seeing empty workstations. While some organisations that already use remote working will do this routinely, it will be a new experience for others. Maintaining current, real time data sets is going to be critical to decision making and maintaining duty of care obligations.

Bookmark this: ACAS advice for employers includes lots more practical tips 

Communicating well around health has never been so vital 

As employers prepare, it will be important to establish good communication around health. Organisations should ensure clear and unambiguous communication with their staff – particularly around illness, self-isolation and arrangements for changed working if appropriate.  What is your process for reporting and recording?

The nature of the coronavirus challenge means ensuring good public health and hygiene advice is readily accessible to staff. Leaders, managers, HR teams and internal communicators must ensure they remain in alignment with public health and medical advice from official sources such as the NHS.  They must ensure this information is easily and constantly accessible for staff.   

At this time, that advice is that simple hand washing remains the most effective way of reducing risk of spreading or contracting the virus. Providing hand sanitizer in workplaces can be helpful but is not essential.  Paper masks make little difference and are not recommended for use.   

Businesses should direct their staff to the appropriate official channels for advice, if they are worried.  

It will be important to discuss the issue of ‘presenteeism’ and to encourage staff to exercise their judgement if they become unwell – taking the appropriate actions should they have symptoms suggestive of possible CoVID-19 infection.   

Employees should contact the NHS 111 helpline if they feel unwell, and not try to visit their GP or any NHS centre such as walk-in clinics or A&E departments. They should alert their employer that they are remaining absent in order to get this advice and support about what to do. 

It may be prudent to discuss everyday business and inter-personal behaviour with your staff. Handshaking and other personal contact greetings in a business setting may be prudently reduced although are not yet officially advised against under Government policies.   

In a similar way, you may choose to reduce the number or size of meetings, advocate against unnecessary travel, or recommend phone or video business meetings if appropriate – although specific social distancing measures have not yet been incorporated into official advice 

While it is not appropriate for employers to dictate out of work activities or advise directly on clinical matters, ensuring that staff are aware of official advice is advisable.  

When employees are self-isolating at home, they should also consider reducing close contact (where possible) with co-habitees. They should pay continual attention to hand washing, and the careful use and disposal of tissues. Good general home hygiene is also important, such as wiping regularly touched surfaces with appropriate household cleaners. 

Building healthy future workplaces 

The imminent disruption due to coronavirus is showing how is essential it is for all businesses and organisations to focus better on managing and supporting employee health.

How easily organisations and businesses find they can adapt at this pressured time may well highlight some important changes they need to make around employee health and absence management. It will show clearly why business systems are required for health all of the time, not just in a crisis.

It is to be hoped that after the concerns of this potential outbreak are behind us, British businesses will be better focused on the importance of creating a healthy workplace culture, collecting and utilising data to drive decisions and actions and ensuring health data is on the board agenda consistently. 

Related article: Why corona virus has reinforced the importance of managing sickness absence – the constant challenge