by Denise Barndt, Amy Hoyt

It’s time to get ahead of the daily news.

Most U.S.-based companies are still scrambling to get a handle on today’s COVID-19 concerns, even as new ones are rapidly emerging. Whatever your company’s starting point, now is the time to think about and create a holistic plan for current and future concerns. The sooner your organization gets in front of this challenge, the better you can mitigate its impact.

Here is a look at how to take both immediate and long-term steps that can make material differences to your company in the days ahead.

It’s time to shift from reactive to proactive:

We all need to be prepared for a sudden rise in COVID-19 cases. Wider-scale testing in the U.S is just beginning. As it ramps up, we can expect to see a significant uptick in the number of domestic cases.

While a surge in numbers may seem daunting, we’re all better off knowing the facts. Accurate information is essential to your situational awareness – understanding the implications for your company and mounting an informed response. Choose your trusted source of truth, whether it’s the CDC, WHO or other agencies, along with localized data from health departments.

Make a forward-looking plan, and put it into action. If you have a dedicated Business Continuity group, it will take the lead, perhaps with the help of HR. Some companies may need to appoint an ad hoc steering committee, core crisis team, or other decision makers. Define roles and responsibilities upfront to move quickly and avoid confusion.

  • Begin with a clear goal – then build a plan that leads to that goal and guides employees, customers and other stakeholders to reach it. Try “looking around the corner” to assess the potential impact of the outbreak on every part of your business: operations, supply chain, travel, finance, human resources, etc. Consider that various regions and markets may have different dynamics and challenges.
  • Build several levels of impact/response into your plan, based on best- to worst-case scenarios. Consider how your actions will need to change as conditions change, and identify what triggers will prompt you to escalate to a higher-level response. For example, Level 1 might be adequate for a situation where fewer than 1 percent of your employees have contracted the virus, community numbers are low, and your supply chain is still strong. The trigger to escalate to a higher-level phase of response might be an increase in COVID-19 cases or a weakness in your supply chain. Such a phased approach is efficient and effective. It prepares you for the worst should it happen, while keeping your responses calibrated to the scope and severity of the situation at hand.
  • Identify what you’ll track and how you will measure impact. What’s the full cost of COVID-19 to your business? You’ll want data on all key areas of your business including operations, sales and marketing, manufacturing, customer service, HR and supply chains. Track all items related to the outbreak’s impact, such as paid leave, lost sales, etc. Factor in additional expenses such as hand sanitizer, masks, hygiene protection, additional sanitation services, etc. 
  • How will you track the effectiveness of your plan? Identify who or what you want to benchmark against: state, local or federal governments, other businesses or industry organizations? Decide how often you will update your information, and who will be responsible for tracking and reporting.

More things to keep in mind as you build your plan:

Protect your people. Think about how COVID-19 could affect everyone in your company – including full- and part-time employees, contractors, temps and others you consider part of your organization. Keep in mind that the heart of this challenge is a rapidly-changing health crisis that makes people feel vulnerable and worried about themselves and their loved ones.

How will you handle health screening? Do you have adequate sick-leave policies? If more employees begin to work remotely, how will you support them? How will you protect customer-facing employees who can’t work remotely? What about employees with existing health problems, such as immune deficiencies? Employee planning should consider issues of disability, policies for unique pay, caring for sick family, and disruptions such as school closures. Think about how you’ll support any foreign nationals who may face discrimination at this uncertain time.

Launch clear, consistent office procedures. You may want to include plans and information on advanced cleaning, new sanitation procedures, changes in processes, meeting sizes and locations, visitors, guidance for work areas and common spaces, and additional personal protection. Look at how you regulate incoming goods to the workplace such as mail, chemicals, office supplies and food. Manufacturers will want to address matters of personal protection, health screening, cleanliness, work areas, deliveries and inventory.

Establish travel guidelines, and update as needed. Give detailed guidance on travel, including any quarantine procedures or other requirements that employees must meet before returning to a workplace. Travel is a dynamic issue that will require frequent review as governments and global health agencies update their travel advisories and restrictions every day.

As you execute and manage your plan:

Keep your customers informed and supported. Consider how you interact with your customers when it’s business as usual. Do you need to change the way you engage with them now that’s it’s not?  How can you find an alternate way to support them if needed? If you need to make customer-facing changes, set expectations in advance and communicate often to keep service levels high. Make it easy for customers to reach you if they have questions or concerns.

Communicate openly, and tell it like it is. Who do you need to communicate with, and how often? Create a communication plan that includes global, internal and external communications at each level of your overall plan. Consider a campaign to keep employees informed and engaged. Based on your culture, do what you know works to bring people together around a common goal. Open, ongoing communication can vanquish the fears and false rumors that arise when people are left feeling uninformed.

Keep a long-term view even as you execute on your plan every day. Many companies won’t feel the full impact of the epidemic on some parts of their business for months. For instance, it may be 3-4 months before manufacturing supply chains feel the full impact of their suppliers’ slowdowns. Keep looking ahead, communicate often, and monitor closely to protect your supply chain.

Stay centered on your people. Companies that put their people first can build the camaraderie and trust to tackle their challenges together. Reach out to meet the needs of your people and even beyond, to their families and communities. A global epidemic is a powerful reminder that we’re all in this together.

The bottom line

As we weather this storm, it may be tough to see a silver lining. But you may find an opportunity to unite people in new ways toward ambitious goals that benefit your employees, your customers, and your company’s long-term sustainability. Some companies may even find modest but meaningful ways to serve as a source of safety and security in these uncertain times.  When your company rises to this challenge by putting your people first, you just might come through it more resilient than ever. In fact, you can plan on it.