Coronavirus may create lasting workplace change

Written by: Andrew Hill and Emma Jacobs
Published on: 1 Apr 2020

From Sars to tsunamis, companies are used to preparing for business interruptions. The coronavirus outbreak is the test for which they have been planning for years.

Like any crisis, though, this one has new elements. They may yet bring about lasting changes in how companies manage their workers, and how those people work.

The template for short-term action is standard across large companies: reconsideration of business travel, up to and including total bans, and self-quarantine for people arriving from higher-risk zones; encouragement of remote working; regular communication of public health advice. Among more novel approaches, international banks in Japan are operating split teams to prevent intra-company contamination.

At the same time, despite the existence of business continuity plans, coronavirus has exposed gaps.

Even though the assumption is that it is better to communicate more frequently with staff — in part to drown out misinformation on social media — Brian Kropp, chief of research in Gartner’s human resources practice, says companies are “struggling with drawing that line” between preparation and fear, as they did 18 years ago during the Sars epidemic.

Then, “a lot of companies went out and bought flu shots and encouraged employees to get flu jabs,” he says. “A lot [of employees had] had them already; a lot felt they were being forced to do something they didn’t want to do. It created anxiety for a problem that wasn’t there. One of the problems is how to prepare without creating anxiety. You don’t want to create a panic.”

Johnny Taylor, chief executive of the US Society for Human Resource Management, says its members have been asking about the fever tests that some Asian offices are now applying to all building visitors. “It makes people feel better, but the reality is if you’re carrying [the virus], you may not show the symptoms” and the fever could be down to a more common virus. His organisation is instead reinforcing recommendations that staff do not come to work while sick. At SHRM itself, this is backed by an “open leave” policy that ensures sick leave is paid.

Mr Taylor says a pandemic might well bring about improvements to US practice on paid sick leave — which can encourage staff to hoard their allowance and attend work while ill. In the UK, SHRM’s counterpart, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, recommends employers “should treat any time off taken by employees who have been advised to self-isolate, even if they have no symptoms, as paid sick leave or agree for the time to be taken as holiday,” although there is no statutory right to pay.

If schools or nurseries close, staff concerns about how to pay for childcare, or how to take time off to look after children, will increase. “Some employers might agree with staff that they should take time off as holiday out of existing annual leave if they want to be paid in these circumstances,” says Ben Willmott, CIPD’s head of public policy. “We would recommend that employers should be as flexible and generous as they can be in supporting employees.”

The most obvious development since the Sars outbreak of 2002-03, is the increase in remote working, fuelled both by more flexible and decentralised management practice and more widely available technology.

Manufacturing companies face more of a challenge in instituting remote working or emergency shift working than their service industry peers. SHRM’s Mr Taylor believes it would stretch most companies to institute remote working widely for more than a few weeks. “If you really could get away with that, perhaps you could consider having a remote workforce always,” he says.

“The tech is better than it was in the last pandemic. People are more used to it,” says Gartner’s Mr Kropp. “Some managers make it hard, however. We are telling employers to communicate with their managers to encourage people to work from home. Some are saying that the employee can work remotely and it’s up to the manager to explain why they can’t.”

A sustained period of home working could raise questions both about the adaptability of managers and the practicality of encouraging more remote work. Mr Willmott says companies should “identify managers who have transferable skills [which] might mean providing training for staff to fill in other jobs. Quite often you’ll have managers who have been promoted as they have a particular technical skill but you might have to utilise their core technical skills.”

Other management challenges include the risk that requests by ex-pats to return home from infected areas will have a knock-on effect on local employees, says Sarah Henchoz, employment partner at law firm Allen & Overy. “If employers agree to this, there is a risk that local employees will feel very isolated and it creates a real ‘them and us’ culture, which is very unhelpful and could even give rise to claims of discrimination.”

Mixed messages might also be a problem for companies such as consultancies, where employees spend much of their time at clients’ workplaces. If a company tells its employee to work from home but the client wants them to be on-site, it might prove “inconsistent and create a feeling of unfairness”, says Mr Kropp.

In general, though, companies say best practice is spreading alongside the virus itself. Collaboration across supply chains and even between rivals could be one legacy of the outbreak. Companies have activated established networks of human resources managers, or joined informal discussions to reach a consensus about how to react to the threat of coronavirus.

It is inevitable, though, that this crisis will also expose some basic deficiencies, just as previous emergencies did. Peter Cappelli, director of the Wharton business school’s Center for Human Resources, recalls that after Sars, a surprising number of companies reported that “they literally did not know how many employees they had [or] where they were distributed across locations”. The silver lining was that disaster planning “moved them toward better accounting on those simple matters, which then made it easier to do all kinds of things like planning”.