“I think this may ‘turn misfortune into a blessing’. It’s an opportunity for more people to be at home, for remote work to be pushed forward, for a more flexible lifestyle to progress.” ~ Hiroshi Ono, Professor of Human Resources Management at Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, Japan – Fortune, March 1, 2020
“We are recommending all employees who are in a job that can be done from home should do so. Taking these measures will ensure your safety and also make the workplace safer for those that need to be onsite. Please let your manager know that you will be working from home, so all our teams remain well coordinated.” ~ Kurt DelBene, Executive Vice President, Corporate Strategy, Core Services Engineering and Operations, Microsoft – Newsweek, March 5, 2020
“Our top priority remains the health and safety of our Tweeps, and we also have a responsibility to support our communities, those who are vulnerable, and the healthcare providers who are on the front lines of this pandemic. To continue this push, we are moving beyond our earlier guidance of “strongly encouraging work from home” provided on March 2 and have now informed all employees globally they must work from home. We understand this is an unprecedented step, but these are unprecedented times.” ~ Jennifer Christie, Chief HR Officer, Twitter
COVID-19 has escalated at breakneck speed since last week when I addressed the importance of washing hands, using hand sanitizer and other everyday hygiene etiquette to combat the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, that is currently sweeping the globe, including the U.S.
My home state of New York recently surpassed the state of Washington with the dubious distinction of having the most reported cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., although to date New York has reported fewer deaths than Washington. In addition, the House has just passed a final version of a bill to provide relief for many Americans grappling with logistical and economic challenges; it now goes to the Senate. But much more needs to be done by both federal and state governments and employers to ensure that Americans can stay home and practice social distancing without undo and long-lasting hardship.
This week I am addressing one of the most effective means to combat COVID-19, as well as other epidemics and pandemics: the increasingly popular — and quickly becoming mandatory — work-from-home practice. But because working from home is still an alien idea for many employers, they have dragged their heels on implementing it. Thus, sudden and forced working from home can come as a shock for both employer and employee.
When I participated in the coordination of disaster recovery and business continuity contingency efforts at my Fortune 500 financial services company, I learned the value of establishing and effectively communicating an effective work-from-home policy. A little over a decade ago, when we were coping with the H1N1 pandemic, many companies were still struggling with the concept of an organization-wide policy. But by expanding working from home we were able to prepare for the worst-case scenario of having to close our offices to all but bare-bones essential personnel in order to stem the spread of the outbreak.
Now, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, companies of all sizes are quickly implementing work-from-home policies. In my view, such policies should become permanent, to function in full-time and part-time situations and in emergencies of various durations. Of course, not all workers can work from home, but those that can should.
Working From Home As Part Of Corporate Contingency Plans
As someone who has participated in the planning, testing and implementation of sophisticated corporate disaster recovery contingency plans over a 15-year period, I know how such plans can not only save lives but keep an organization’s operations running, albeit with some changes and workarounds.
Thus, I strongly believe that every organization in every industry of any size should maintain a comprehensive, regularly tested and up-to-date disaster recovery contingency plan that is ready to roll out at a moment’s notice.
Physical disasters — whether they are on the scope of the September 11 attacks; weather disasters such as Harvey, Maria, Sandy, Katrina, Andrew or California wildfires; infrastructure breakdowns such as the 2003 Eastern U.S.-Canadian electrical grid blackout; or pandemics such as SARS, H1N1, Ebola and COVID-19 — do not discriminate among entities, humans, fauna and flora. All are fair game to be damaged, hurt, sickened, destroyed or killed. In 2020, with all the aforementioned disasters that have occurred over the past few decades, we have the disaster recovery experience and know-how and the technology that helps us to plan, quickly mobilize, survive and recover. Hence, we should never be caught short on any emergency!
Disaster recovery plans are like insurance policies. It might take staff or outside professionals and a budget to develop and maintain them, but they can pay off big time if they have to be implemented. Such plans have two major goals: The first is to ensure the protection, safety and well-being of all its employees and anyone who is on its premises on a permanent or temporary basis, such as clients, vendors, visitors and others. The second is to ensure the smooth continuity of the institution’s operations and to mitigate financial loss. The best corporate disaster recovery plans include a work-from-home component that, when run efficiently, can ensure that these goals are met.
In 2001, when the September 11 attacks occurred, my Wall Street building was shut down while decontamination and clean-up was performed. The relatively small percentage of employees who were already set up to work from home was able to quickly continue working through the recovery period. Others were reassigned to remote offices, but many could do nothing from their homes to participate in the recovery. In 2009, when H1N1 hit, the lesson had been learned and many more employees were connected to the company intranet and email system and able to conduct business from home in the event of office closures, quarantine, caring for ill family members, dealing with school closures and other related scenarios.
Even employees whose normal duties are strictly on-site can be assigned temporary duties while they are home. For example, as a former executive assistant-turned-vice president and manager, I recognized decades ago the value of setting up EAs to work from home during an emergency. In a pandemic, for example, virtual appointments will likely increase, travel plans will likely decrease, and there will be other matters to coordinate. There are few professionals better prepared or in a better position than an executive assistant (or former executive assistant!) to remotely orchestrate the moving parts of any recovery operation on behalf of executives, to represent the organization, and in concert with contingency planners.
Prepare Your Home…
Those working from home — whether self-quarantining, self-isolating, caring for children or other family members, or who have not experienced symptoms of or tested positive for COVID-10 but are taking precautions — should prepare their homes to protect everyone from the virus invading their homes.
In most situations, other than immediate family members, including our pets of varying species, those entering our homes should be restricted. The CDC has published an entertaining and helpful graphic novel to help all family members to prepare for a pandemic: “Zombie Preparedness.” And This Business Insider article has a good list of items to prepare for working from home or being quarantined: “What to buy for your home emergency kit if you’re quarantined during the coronavirus outbreak.”
Moreover, keeping our homes clean and orderly is a must to slow the spread of germs that cause viruses and keep us physically and mentally healthy and happy. Of course, not everyone with super busy lives have the luxury of having Hilary Farr make our homes perfectly organized and functional. But we should give it a shot ourselves because clean and orderly are life hacks that can be life changers.
In addition, taking steps to clean all produce thoroughly (I use a white vinegar wash) to ensure all dirt and bacteria are eliminated. I regularly wipe off canned goods and other containers with an anti-bacterial cleaning wipe because I envision them having been stored in a warehouse that might be visited by rats whose little feet walk over such containers. 🙂
I also recommend using hand sanitizer even when you are just staying at home to ensure your hands do not contact bacteria or virus particles that might be clinging to cardboard delivery boxes or mail. While there is relatively low risk of coming into contact with COVID-19 through the mail, why take a chance when we are taking all these other painstaking measures? It’s possible that an exposed or infected delivery person or letter carrier has innocently and recently touched your packages or envelopes. I have found that being persnickety about such things can work out well when defending oneself and one’s loved ones from serious health threats!
Working from home might also involve participating in meetings via videoconferencing technology, which means your home venue should be neat and attractive and not distracting. Tips to prepare for that can be found in my archived post: Job Search Series – “Nailing The Interview – Part 1 – Types of Interviews.”
If it turns out that you do come down with COVID-19 and your symptoms are mild or manageable, after receiving clearance and instructions from your doctor or other health professional there is a good chance you will be able to recover at home according to the CDC.
Recovery Component to Permanent Policy
Sometimes a work-from-home emergency arrangement turns into permanent policy at an organization. Following a recovery operation, some employers have recognized the value of their staff working from home permanently, part-time or on occasion.
One would think that the U.S. would be further along in the work-from-home concept, but it is a growing practice. Google and Twitter are two U.S. companies that are testing the waters in the wake of the current outbreak.
Outside of the U.S., two countries at the polar opposite of the work-from-home spectrum are Finland, which long has valued work-life balance and is the leader in flexible working arrangements, and Japan, which values long hours in the workplaces and whose companies reportedly manipulate employees into coming to work when they are ill. But in light of being hit hard with the COVID-19, Japan appears to be coming around to a seismic cultural change, with Panasonic and Mitsubishi two firms leading the way in work-from-home arrangements.
When implementing a work-from-home policy in which employees are allowed or in some cases required to work remotely — either from home or at another remote location — on a regular or permanent basis, training and trial periods should be part of the process.
If possible, an employee who has been successfully working remotely can be designated to mentor a newly-assigned remote employee. These steps can help to ensure a smooth transition to working from home or other remote location as well as encouraging ongoing productivity and satisfaction.
Employers Must Stop Sending Conflicting Messages
To encourage employees to stay home when they are ill, employers must not only have clear sick-days/sick-leave and other Paid Time Off (PTO) policies that are published and well-communicated, but that are also culturally supported throughout their organizations. It is counterproductive and cynical to send bulletins that extol the virtues of staying home when ill to avoid infecting coworkers and then allow managers to create environments that tacitly convey that staying home when ill is shirking one’s responsibilities. The fact is when employees come to work sick they not only spread illness among their coworkers but they tend to be less productive and can even make costly errors. It should not take the pandemic of a dangerous new virus to wake up employers and their managers to value and necessity of employees staying home when they are ill and might be contagious.
And, to reiterate, when establishing a work-from-home policy that promotes job flexibility, to ensure its success management training and monitoring must be part of the process to get everyone on the same page and reinforce the employer’s position. Managers thus informed and enlightened can create environments that match their organization’s policies and goals.
Using Etiquette To Stem The Spread Of COVID-19
There are 7.8 billion people on this planet. There are more than 330 million people in the U.S., providing lots of opportunities to spread germs that cause all sorts of viruses and spark pandemics. Until we can nationally or globally “flatten the curve” or a vaccine becomes widely available, we must continue to look to governments, employers and health organizations for help and direction, but they need our help as well.
And we can help by practicing etiquette. How can being polite help, you ask? It’s really simple and easy. The underlying concept of etiquette is selflessness and consideration of others. Everyone, even those in the so-called low-risk groups, should do everything they can to limit exposure to COVID-19, and if they are exposed they should self-quarantine. Otherwise, they can spread the virus to those who are at higher risk, such as their parents, grandparents or other elderly individuals or people of any age with serious underlying illnesses or autoimmune diseases. Those who actually exhibit symptoms or test positive should self-isolate. Guidance for both situations is outlined in this Prevention article: “What to Expect…”
In addition, out of consideration for others, the current trend of clearing the shelves of basic necessities such as toilet paper, sanitizing cleaning wipes, hand sanitizer, cold and flu medicines, personal products and even food should stop. Even on-line stores such as Amazon.com are running out of basic items. It’s understandable that people want to stock up, especially if they anticipate the need to self-quarantine or are buying for others, such as elderly or ill family members, neighbors or others that cannot shop for themselves. But others need these items, as well. Let’s allow the stores to catch up with the demand or risk the their imposing strict rationing.
We are all in this together so we all must take personal responsibility to look out for each other, so it bears repeating: Employers who prioritize the health of their employees by approving and encouraging their employees to work from home rather than spread illness to their coworkers and others in the workplace, and employees who stay home when exposed or ill out of consideration of others — and everyone who observes recommended best practices to avoid spreading the virus, overwhelming hospitals and healthcare facilities and workers, and is takes into consideration with their actions the well-being of their fellow citizens — are all practicing etiquette and altruism at their highest levels.
Stay Positive, Reduce Stress
As if we all weren’t struggling with enough challenges — health issues and healthcare coverage, the climate crisis, economic struggles, gun violence and global instability — we are now faced with a threat that will result in major life changes for the foreseeable future — until COVID-19 runs its course or treatments and a vaccine becomes widely available. That means that major life events could be modified or postponed, including weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, anniversary celebrations, birthday parties and the like. Even the way we conduct the 2020 elections could change. Monumental changes will test our patience, character and ability to cope. One challenge under consideration right now by the federal government is a national 14-day shut down.
To manage while working from or being confined at home, we can find ways to reduce stress and keep spirits up. I like Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy’s approach, as well as good old exercise and meditation in the comfort of home. And with commuting to and getting-ready for work eliminated, that could free up time to tackle — alone or with family members — some long-delayed household tasks or personal projects, spend some quality time with each other, take longer walks with the pooch, and play those board and video games gathering dust. Keep in touch with friends via email and texting. Try to keep your sense of humor; Iranian actor Danial Kheirkhah might help! Find that silver lining, thin though it might be, and wrap it tightly around you.
Again, we are all in this together. And we will get through this together, just with less actual togetherness. We can stay focused, engaged and informed via our smartphones, computers and TVs. So take precautions, stay well — and stay home when necessary, possible, appropriate and directed!
Until next time,