The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has made it clear that it is a question of when, and not if, local outbreaks of the coronavirus (COVID-19) will occur in the U.S. At the same time, the U.S. State Department has warned that travel restrictions could be put in place with little or no advance notice.
Early reports of coronavirus illnesses in China attracted some initial attention in the U.S. before being largely ignored. After all, other recent pandemic scares had not lived up to the hype. Compounding the issue is the fact that most people outside of Asia had never heard of Wuhan, the east-central China city that is home to more than 11 million people and where the first coronavirus cases emerged. It was not until reports surfaced of COVID-19 in Japan, Italy, Iran and nearly three dozen other countries that anxiety levels in this country started to climb. Dramatic drops in global stock markets—the S&P 500 lost $1.74 trillion of equity in just two days—brought the seriousness of the issue home in economic terms.
Like any crisis businesses face, poor communications and operational complacency could make the threat posed by COVID-19 an even greater challenge. Your management team will not be blamed if the coronavirus strikes, of course, but how well your company prepares and responds will be judged by employees, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders.
Effectively communicating preparedness and making smart operational adjustments are critical for organizations to successfully navigate this or any crisis. A widespread outbreak in the U.S. would particularly disrupt travel, retail, entertainment and health-related businesses. Other businesses could suffer from mission-critical supply chain problems. All companies run the risk of staff absenteeism or customer slowdowns. Here are five key steps your organization should take to communicate effectively and adjust operations:
- Sound the alarm, but don’t be an alarmist.
Government warnings and news reports make it likely key audiences have questions about your plans if COVID-19 becomes a serious issue in the U.S. You need to display an appropriate level of concern, coupled with implementation of preventative measures.
With these communications, employees come first. You should act now. Make it clear that if employees and contractors are sick—especially if they exhibit respiratory illness symptoms, such as a cough, shortness of breath or fever—they should stay home and see their doctors. Remind employees of proper hand hygiene, along with cough and sneeze etiquette.
Place 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer units near workplace entrances, in conference and break rooms, and other high-traffic areas to serve as visual reminders about the need for protection. Sanitizing wipes and tissues should be readily available and quickly restocked. Encourage employees to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds several times each day. And, if you operate an employee cafeteria, review hygiene and food safety procedures, including having cafeteria workers wear gloves and face masks.
- Adjust policies to reflect the threat.
As companies aggressively encourage sick employees to stay home, they must also review work-from-home and sick-leave policies. Keep in mind that many employees will need to stay home not only if they’re sick, but to care for ill family members or cope with childcare issues if schools close.
Employees afraid of losing pay or opportunities are more likely to risk coming to work even if they feel ill or have been exposed to COVID-19. The risks are compounded by recent changes many companies have made to their workspaces: fewer offices and more shared desks and collaboration areas. Your company must ensure employees and contractors are aware of your policy changes and that you will follow public health advisories.
Get used to hearing the term “social distancing.” Because experts think the coronavirus is transmitted through human contact, public health officials recommend reducing unnecessary face-to-face meetings. Many companies are restricting international travel, particularly to areas where the coronavirus is prevalent. Make sure anyone booking travel checks the CDC’s Travel Health Notices for up-to-date information.
Some companies also use screening tools to block access for visitors who may have been exposed. Make this process transparent for employees and visitors to set expectations and eliminate frustration.
These temporary steps can help cut the spread of COVID-19 and may serve to stave off potential mandatory bans.
- Leverage technology and relationships.
The growth of companies allowing work-from-home arrangements is a positive trend that can help combat the spread of coronavirus. Make sure your employees’ computers, tablets and smart phones have the most recent version of your remote meeting software.
Limiting large gatherings can reduce potential COVID-19 exposure, but this can pose problems for companies planning sales meetings, holding launch events for new products or locations, or taking part in major conferences. Before you cancel these events, consider delaying them or offering virtual meeting options.
Strong, healthy relationships are more likely to endure business disruptions and crises, but that requires communications that are honest, open and authentic.
Take steps now to strengthen connections with employees, customers, suppliers, communities and thought leaders. Limiting face-to-face meetings does not need to negatively impact the amount of contact and connection with key audiences. Prepare in advance by discussing the “what ifs” with internal audiences, customers and suppliers to help discover potential options you may need to deploy in this or other crisis situations. You can also investigate options for accelerating delivery of critical supplies to have a 30-day inventory on hand.
- Be flexible, understanding and human.
Your organization cannot control the level of impact of the coronavirus, but you can positively influence how quickly your business recovers. This depends largely on the flexibility and compassion your organization shows to employees, suppliers and customers who must react in real time to what’s happening with their families, colleagues and public health advisories.
Make health and safety measures a priority. Help employees and your community cope, and your actions will be remembered long after business disruptions fade.
- Communicate early and often.
Keeping employees and other key audiences fully informed is critical to illustrate your organization is ready to cope as best as possible. Regular communications help to maintain trust.
Your communications team should be structured to handle rapidly evolving situations—not just the coronavirus, but any crisis. Having plans to regularly update employees and other audiences is key to reducing uncertainty and combating the rumor mill. People are much more understanding when they see you’re aware, that you care and that you’re taking steps to minimize potential damage.
Hopefully, the COVID-19 outbreak does not become a full-blown pandemic. Taking appropriate operational and communications steps now will help your organization’s strength and stability. When lives and livelihoods are at stake, having a management team that’s considered well-prepared, thoughtful and resilient will enhance your corporate reputation long after the coronavirus is controlled.