Last reviewed 6 April 2020

Laura King advises on the practical precautions organisations should take to manage their activities during the coronavirus pandemic.

Background on the coronavirus (COVID-19)

The new virus, officially known as COVID-19, is from the coronavirus group which is globally relatively common. However, humans do not have any pre-existing immunity to it. This new strain, first identified in China, causes a range of symptoms that are similar to the common cold or flu including a temperature and cough. In severe cases it will progress to pneumonia and cause difficulties breathing.

It is thought to spread by droplets transmitted when people cough, sneeze — or even just talk. Those within 2 metres of an infected person may breathe in the droplets and, as can be expected, the longer you spend near to someone who is infected, the higher your risk of catching the illness.

Surfaces can also become contaminated from droplets in the air or from contaminated hands — so surfaces such as an office kettle, door handle, or lift button can also facilitate the spread of the virus if people touch a contaminated surface and then touch their eyes, nose or face.

In terms of its seriousness, it is thought to result in mild symptoms for around 80% of those infected. A recent study published on 30 March 2020 in Lancet Infectious Diseases estimated that the death rate for confirmed cases was 1.38%, although other studies have estimated the fatality rate as more than twice that. Fatality rates increase for those aged 70 or older, and the need for hospital care appears to rise markedly for people over the age of 50. Other studies have identified that those with underlying health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are also more at risk.

Actions every organisation should take

Key to any actions should be the recognition that the employer has a duty of care to provide a safe working environment: it can be assumed that this includes a duty to ensure staff are protected from unnecessary risk of infection.

1. Ensure co-ordination and clear leadership

First, the organisation should ensure that a nominated person is responsible for keeping abreast of developments from the World Health Organization, the UK Government and the NHS.

To help co-ordinate the organisation’s response to developments, regular meetings and briefings should be had with key members of staff. This might be the responsibility of the person currently designated to manage any disaster response or preparedness planning.

It is likely that a number of areas of the business will need to stay abreast of developments, so make sure the contingency planning team includes all relevant departments, eg HR, procurement and facilities management.

2. Prepare for reduced staff levels

As part of contingency planning, consider how best to keep the organisation up and running in the case of reduced staff levels. Many organisations have started putting employees on furlough.

This might include considering the following.

  • Which staff can be transferred to keep core functions running?

  • Is additional training needed to make sure that staff can temporarily perform different functions if necessary?

  • Are any additional resources necessary to make sure people can work from home?

  • What policies are in place to ask staff to work different hours or perform different tasks? Are there any clauses in contracts that prevent this? It would be good practice to communicate any potential changes upfront.

  • How does the organisation respond to staff needing to take time off to care for dependants if they fall ill?

  • How does the organisation accommodate parents needing to care for children who are at home due to school closures? Being able to provide flexibility in working hours will be critical here.

  • If the company puts in place policies to self-isolate, what impact would this have if a number of people were off work at the same time?

3. Prioritise staff communication

Communication to staff will be critical, and care should be taken to ensure that any messages sent out are consistent and measured. It is worth keeping in mind that due to the heightened media attention and risk of illness, some employees might be extremely nervous about the situation, so be mindful of how the organisation responds and make every effort to ensure that any decisions taken are both fair and proportionate.

From a planning point of view, review how you communicate with staff at short notice, and the best methods of advising employees of any changes they need to be aware of.

Also make sure there are clear plans in place to communicate with suppliers or other stakeholders that might be affected by the organisation’s operations. For example, many companies have used mailing lists to send out regular emails to their customers letting them know of steps that the organisation is taking to continue business (or in some cases, suspend business), protect staff, and let customers know what to expect. This can be especially useful if there are any changes to the service, such as delivery times, or if customers need to take any steps to help protect frontline staff.

4. Advise employees on keeping healthy

As could be expected, social media is full of claims of cures and preventive remedies. In many cases, there is no proof that these solutions will kill the virus (eg eating garlic), and some proposed methods of destruction can be dangerous; as such, organisations should take advice from relevant government bodies on appropriate ways to avoid catching or spreading the illness.

The World Health Organization has also published some myth busters to help dispel common misconceptions.

Currently, the two main ways of prevention are to practice good hygiene and “social distancing”. Current advice from the World Health Organization is to:

  • wash hands frequently

  • cough or sneeze into a tissue or bent elbow and immediately bin the tissue used

  • avoid touching your hands to eyes, nose or mouth to help reduce the risk of infection spreading

  • maintain a distance of at least 1m (3 feet) from anyone who is coughing or sneezing. The NHS has advised that people should keep 2m (6ft) away from people in all cases, regardless of whether someone is coughing or sneezing.

The desired amount of time for handwashing is for 20 seconds — or two rounds of singing “Happy Birthday”. Use an alcohol-based hand rub if it is difficult to wash your hands.

Public Health England has published resources to educate people on how to prevent the spread of the virus. The resources can be used to promote good practice and can be used by a range of organisations to increase awareness among employees and members of the public.

From a business point of view “social distancing” might include having discussions by Skype.

Although we have now entered spring, the usual winter bugs are still doing the rounds, and so encourage anyone who is ill to stay at home, if working from home is not an option. This will help to keep everyone in the workplace healthier, and is also much better for the sick employee.

Finally, it has long been recognised that good sleep, diet and exercise all help boost the immune system. Taking appropriate opportunities to encourage healthy behaviours in staff can only be beneficial. As part of this, ensure that any current employee welfare programmes or advice channels are up to date and properly briefed.

5. Review HR policies

HR policies that will need to be considered include the following.

  • What flexibility the organisation is prepared to offer over working practices and whether new policies need to be drawn up.

  • What steps to take for individuals at greater risk (ie those who are pregnant or more vulnerable to infection). For example, whether duties could be altered, setting up the individual to work from home, or whether adjustments would need to be made under the Disabilities Act.

  • What to do with regards to pay if someone is asked to self-isolate or if they choose to self-isolate because they are showing symptoms of the virus.

  • Ensuring policies in place to proactively mitigate against any potential discrimination or harassment against individuals or groups of workers.

Bear in mind that setting overly harsh HR policies around remuneration may result in employees coming into work when it would be more advisable that they stay at home.

More HR advice can be found in the features: Guidance on managing coronavirus issues at work and Eight essential coronavirus Q&As.

6. Avoid non-essential travel

Following recent Government advice, travel should not be undertaken unless absolutely necessary. The organisation has a clear duty of care to staff to ensure their health and safety.

7. Implement remote working

The latest Government advice is to work from home where possible.

Make sure that employees are aware of remote working policies and that they are set up to conduct work away from the office. Ask everyone to check that they have all relevant log-in details and that they know what to do (especially if they do not regularly work from home or haven’t done so in a while).

Also consider how other work processes could be done away from the office, eg review how tasks could be carried out if the work isn’t computer-based.

Security protocols and the safety of information will need to be a consideration, eg making sure work is saved in a place that is both secure and accessible when working remotely and reiterating policies on the use of removable devices such as USB sticks.

If IT teams are involved in helping staff set up remote working, consider asking them to update and circulate any guidance, and ask that requests for assistance regarding remote working are prioritised.

8. Identify precautions for staff who cannot work from home

Mailrooms

There have been various reports about the length of time that the virus can survive on certain surfaces. However, at the time of writing, the WHO have advised that “The likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low.”

The UK Government has advised that those working in postrooms should continue to follow their usual risk assessments and safe systems of working, but do not need to implement additional precautions.

Front-line staff and those who need to go into work

Where businesses do need staff in offices, workplaces or onsite, the organisation should ensure that employees can follow advice from Public Health England, ie:

  • they are able to maintain a 2m distance from others

  • have facilities for handwashing (or have a supply of hand sanitiser where this is not possible)

  • they do not come into work if they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, however mild, or if someone in their household is self-isolating.

Other considerations to protect people unable to work from home could include the following:

  • limiting the number of people in the building at any one time

  • if staff need to visit people's homes (for example, tradespeople conducting emergency repairs) this should only be permitted if no one in the house to be visited is self-isolating, and rules around social distancing can be maintained

  • increasing, or insisting on, the use of any self-serving options to reduce face-to-face interaction

  • installation of screens to increase the protection of staff from airbourne particles

  • identifying what personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning products are needed; for example, providing disinfectant so that high-touch surfaces such as doors can be regularly wiped.

9. Assess workplace cleaning

Although cleaning is an important job whatever time of year, now would be a good time to check cleaning standards and schedules. It might also be prudent to refresh any training or advice on priority jobs, such as high-touch areas. Also speak with cleaning contractors or staff to check that cleaning supplies are well stocked, and that in the event that staff have to conduct a deep clean, they have the expertise and provisions to do so.

Keep in mind that anti-bacterial products are not necessarily effective against the virus. Instead, in its guidance on decontamination in non-healthcare settings, the Government has advised that cleaners use either a combined detergent disinfectant solution at a dilution of 1000 parts per million available chlorine, or a household detergent followed by disinfection (again with 1000 parts per million available chlorine).

The Government’s guidance also outlines processes for disposing of waste after a deep clean. This includes double-bagging any waste that has come into contact with any individual suspected of having COVID-19. If they test negative for the virus, the waste can be thrown away with the normal rubbish collection. If the individual tests positive, the waste will need to be stored securely for 72 hours before being thrown away with normal rubbish.

Many workplaces will already provide hygiene products such as tissues, desk wipes and hand sanitisers. Make sure any products that will help staff maintain good personal hygiene are well stocked and that staff are able to access them. See the feature, Deep cleaning the workplace in the time of coronavirus.

10. Consider your supply chain and procurement

It is likely that a number of supply chains will experience disruption — this is already evident in the short supply of face masks and hand sanitiser. To mitigate the effect on your organisation, it is important to have a good handle on your supply chain.

In the short term, identify supply chain risks and put in place actions to manage these risks. This might include increasing inventory or looking to local suppliers for certain goods or services. In many cases, organisations will be looking to plan for different scenarios that balance supply chain resilience against flexibility.

Consider both tier 1 and tier 2 suppliers to check that you are not impacted by unknown risks further down the supply chain. If there are areas where supply chain visibility is low, ask questions of your suppliers and have a clear understanding of how services or products are faring. For example, what are the lead times for supplies coming from abroad, and are they already in transit?

Over the long term, such work will help increase visibility of the organisation’s supply chain and may help identify previously unknown vulnerabilities. Although times of heightened threat are never desirable, there can be positives: if done well, the exercise can be used to work on improving the organisation’s understanding of its supply chain, develop better resilience, and foster better partnerships with key suppliers.

In summary

  • Be prepared for any eventuality. While your response should be considered and proportionate, it makes good business sense to be as well prepared as possible.

  • Help staff stay healthy by promoting wellbeing services and explaining how to avoid infection through good hygiene and social distancing.

  • Communicate clearly and often with staff.

  • Listen to staff concerns and manage these appropriately — consistent HR policies will be needed to manage different scenarios within the organisation.

  • Consider the implications for core areas and functions if people are unable to get to work, or if large numbers of staff are having to self-isolate.

  • Review work processes and see if any can be adapted to better safeguard staff, eg using more online customer service tools.

  • Consider supply chains and other essential supplies that keep the workplace functioning — how can these be managed, and what active management is needed?