COVID-19 Pandemic Planning: 8 Considerations to put the Safety of Your Teams and Business First


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By Eric Michrowski

The COVID-19 Pandemic is rapidly becoming a topic of urgent executive dialogue in the US and Canada as the rate of infections is rapidly growing and spreading within the community. As the landscape is swiftly evolving, several large gatherings and sporting events have been cancelled and the markets have responded wildly. Many businesses have responded swiftly and proactively while others with global footprints had to immediately respond in January with the first signs of an outbreak in China. Others are working through their strategies at this moment.
There is little doubt that the impact will be profoundly felt economically for many businesses. Like other black swan events, organizations that play their cards effectively will come out stronger on the other side while others might quickly get swallowed or lose the trust of their customers or employees. Those businesses risk failing.

As you start to explore your strategies to succeed, here are a few ideas to consider.

1. Start with your employee’s safety and wellbeing first.
While our initial instinct as business leaders will likely be to protect the business (which is important), the most critical first step should be to think about your employee’s safety and wellbeing. It doesn’t mean that furloughs won’t become necessary. But it means that you should first look at what your team members need to weather the crisis. Think about whether they have elderly parents they look after, whether they may be more concerned because of health conditions, whether changes to their work methods or environment could immediately build loyalty and discretionary effort. It’s not about spending money but rather showing active care and demonstrating that you put them first, even in times of crisis.

As an example, we derive our revenues by traveling to client sites. However, as the crisis intensified, we realized that this was causing unnecessary stress, so we banned travel, even if it would impact our bottom line.

If you are a utility, you could consider immediately asking team members that don’t need to be in an office to work remotely. If you are in hospitality, you could seek to understand the drivers that would help alleviate stress for team members. Perhaps some taking care of elderly workers would appreciate a leave of absence.

Try to think about real and meaningful measures that show care, beyond just increased sanitation and hand sanitizer which often feels like a cop-out.

In all cases, ensure that any team members that might not feel well (even if unrelated to the COVID-19 outbreak) don’t come to work. There should be no perceived barriers to them taking time off to avoid broader business continuity challenges – no disincentives or social norms that might hinder them to take time off. Some chains in the US thankfully implemented sick leave policies at the last minute. But it takes a clear message from leadership to stay home when not well in these difficult times.

Companies that don’t have sick leave policies need to quickly step up quickly. And the answer isn’t the one where one CEO asked associates to donate to cover the time off for those that have contracted COVID-19. Even in these challenging times, the goal should be to exceed minimum legal requirements.

At this stage, don’t place profit ahead of employees. It doesn’t mean you need to accept unreasonable expectations. You can easily achieve both goals.

2. Always put your customer's safety and wellbeing above profit.
Your customers are the reason why you are in business. Too many businesses forget that when they run into a self-preservation mode. It’s time to show real and tangible actions, not just words meant to reassure.

In the last few days, many organizations came out with public messages showing their care for customers, others had messages that were devoid of real measures. Some movie theatres and companies like Apple, chose to take the high road and close to avoid risking an impact – shifting to ecommerce options. Others simply said that they were adding hand sanitizing stations.

The hotel industry was quick to respond with reassuring messages as soon as the crisis hit. However, in visiting several hotels over the past few days, I quickly came to the conclusion that this had not been genuinely operationalized. For example:
In several hotels that I visited, sanitary precautions during turnovers hadn’t changed without any deep cleaning of surfaces for the next guest;
In restaurants, norms around social distancing hadn’t been communicated resulting in most team members coming incredibly close to guests using traditional norms to show warmth;
In restaurants, as one guest left and a new one came in, several restaurants did nothing more than wipe down with a wet cloth.

Airlines did the same in North America, turning planes without proper sanitation whereas some Asian airlines minimally showcased the measures that they were taking to improve sanitation. In one case, I observed a crew asking for a deeper clean and this was mocked by the airport staff.

In observing these events, I realized that it was safer to pull my teams from the road rather than create unnecessary exposure.

Additionally, any attempts to be perceived as profiting from these difficult circumstances are bound to be treated with exceptional negative consequences. One software company that is involved in food ordering sent messaging that was perceived to mock the circumstances and attempt to profit from it. It caused exceptional customer anger and several customers shut down their accounts in protest, including myself. If you are going to profit from the circumstances, find ways to give back or help those that will be less fortunate – including those that might be losing their jobs as a result of this crisis. Short term profit is unlikely to bring long term prosperity.

Customers will accept some degree of additional effort in these challenging times, but organizations that don’t take their customers seriously risk long term impacts.
Long-term, Customers will reward organizations that put the wellbeing of all stakeholders first. Short-term it might be painful.

3. Embrace remote work. Rapidly.
If you haven’t already done this, immediately embrace remote work. Rapidly complete an inventory of who can work remotely and what barriers prevent team members from working remotely. Few roles can’t be completed remotely. The fact is that most remote workers produce more when they are at home. Some abuse the system, but it won’t take long to identify who those are.

Quickly shift your thinking to outcomes that need to be achieved, as opposed to measuring effort (or hours worked). Think about easy to scale collaboration tools that might help support remote work – from video conferencing, conference calls to collaboration tools. Ideas will come in a future blog.

Shifting to remote work will very rapidly increase your business resiliency (by reducing the risk of being shut down by quarantines) while showing active care for your team members which will increase your discretionary effort.

Challenge the status quo. You might never have had remote work but if you look for ways to make it work. Instead of asking your team can this work be done remotely, ask how can we do this work remotely.

If you have the liberty, consider a gradual ramp-up to test network infrastructure and work out operational challenges. I will cover tips on remote work in a future blog. Some functions can’t be done remotely, I will cover those in the next section.

4. Reduce points of failures.
Some functions cannot be completed remotely. In manufacturing sites, generation facilities, utilities, people coming in person might be required. In those instances, think about where you might have critical points of failure where only a few people can perform certain work. It’s key to immediately find ways to make sure you isolate these critical resources so that if one gets sick and quarantined, your business can still operate. There is a very small window of time to ensure that you can cross-train and isolate teams to ensure your continuity.

Perhaps teams can be separated in different environments like many financial institutions have done for their trading floors. Otherwise, think about shift separation while conducting a deep cleaning between shifts to reduce the risk of contamination. Consider ways to stack shifts and adjacent teams to reduce the risk of an entire shop floor from being quarantined.


5. Involve your teams.
Your teams are at the front line, working with customers. They likely know better than anyone else how to save money and change your operating model to be successful in challenging times. They are also aware of unique points of failure that you be unaware of. Engage them every day to encourage them to come up with new ideas. Make them part of the solution so that you are leveraging their skills and talents. If you don’t already have them, consider instituting a daily huddle. A quick 15-minute start of day meeting where you cover key goals for the day, challenges and ideas for improvement. But be sure to make this meeting voluntary.

After the 9/11 Black Swan Event, Southwest was unique in asking their team members for advice while the other airlines quickly furloughed their teams. It created a different loyalty and also a different outcome through the ensuing crisis with Southwest being the only airline that didn’t have to file for bankruptcy.

6. Respect your business partners.
In crises, too many businesses immediately turn on key suppliers and try to extract significant savings or not pay them, when only weeks prior they called them “partners”. These short-term strategies might buy time but when the economy recovers, you will still need them. It’s in no one’s interest if these suppliers have to declare bankruptcy.

While it might not be the first priority, check-in to make sure they have adequate black swan response efforts under way that also protect your interests and try to support as needed to ensure they don’t fail.

7. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
These are unsettling times for everyone. Team members, customers, business partners will be experiencing heightened levels of stress due to the uncertainty. The communication doesn’t have to be perfect. People will understand that things are evolving but are looking for leadership, an understanding of reality, compassion and most importantly authenticity.

If you don’t know what happens next, then authentically share that with your strategies to get there. Don’t try to spin messages or sugar coat the bad news. We will share more ideas on strategies around this.

8. Drive Continuous Improvement.
No strategic plan will get it right the first time. Take swift actions but also revisit regularly to drive improvements. Tap into rapid innovation cycles to improve things such as remote work tools, huddles. Make sure you tap into your team members to rapidly drive improvements and ideation. Not identification of problems but focus on solutions but never seek perfection. Too many things will need to be rapidly adjusted.

And finally, a few simple bonus considerations:
CONSERVE CASH
DON’T PANIC – PLAN & EXECUTE
PERSIST BECAUSE SOME WILL QUIT
KEEP REIMAGINING YOUR BUSINESS MODEL


Whatever you may think, we live in times of uncertainty. Which explains why the markets are responding so wildly. We need to make the best of the circumstances in front of us.

To this day, I remember the day the Twin Towers fell. I was in my hotel room watching CNN in disbelief. I was in the airline industry and quickly realized that tomorrow wouldn’t be the same. I met many diverted inbound crews from all over the world. I was at the table when we managed that Black Swan event. This crisis is so different yet has so many parallels. Operational resilience and strategy in the face of a Black Swan event is the key to success. Let’s make this one a non-event by responding strategically.

Propulo is on a mission to improve the world of work. We help organizations strengthen their operations, safety and customer experience. As such, we put purpose over profit and refuse to profit from this crisis. As such, if you are seeking to bounce ideas on how to respond to the crisis, we will happily jump on a call to help you navigate the landscape without any obligations, expectations or costs. To bounce ideas with myself or my team, or subscribe to daily updates, click here. We will not send you any promotional information beyond this free service. We are committed to increasing organizational resilience as we deal with the looming crisis.

Take care of each other.