Don’t panic – but act quickly
Wow. Okay, everyone’s talking about working from home, worrying about Coronavirus and stockpiling toilet rolls. We’re living in interesting times.
Don’t panic. But before you get overtaken by events – and the worst case scenarios could mean lots of missing people from your workplace – stop now and come up with a plan, so you avoid firefighting and crises.
Then come up with a Plan B. Because things are moving quickly and before you know it, employees might have trouble juggling childcare (if schools close) with their own or relatives’ health problems – and you might suddenly have a significant staffing problem, slowing down whatever you’re working on for some time.
We’re practical and optimistic people, but with looming threats of Coronavirus and a global ripple effect (possibly including economic troubles ahead), the next couple of months might be a bumpy ride.
Here’s a short list of things to consider and work in quickly:
Working from home?
Many jobs can be carried out by people working remotely, but that depends on:
- The kind of work involved (including any equipment needed) and
- Whether or not your employees can work at home.
You might have a good understanding of the first part. You might get a few surprises with the second. For a start, not everybody lives in secure or happy homes where they can work as normal during the day. Once people start working from home, any issues about housing might come to a head.
Our advice: get on with it, before you have to. Test the waters instead of thinking about how things might work and what might go wrong: suggest that everyone works at home tomorrow and see how it goes. If there are glitches, it gives you a chance to fix them before you might have fewer options. Offering the option of working at home reassures people who are worried about travelling into the workplace by bus or train, but doesn’t mean anyone worried about working at home feels they have to.
You could also be more flexible about travel to and from work, so that people can avoid travelling on busy buses and trains during peak times.
Next thing to consider: are you thinking too short-term? Suggesting people work at home for a few weeks is one thing, but you need to think about how you adapt to running teams of people remotely for longer – in case working from home continues for some time. This might be a steep learning cure, if you’re used to working in the same place together. Start as you mean to go on: regular communication, virtual (phone or video) contact and meetings etc. Don’t become invisible to each other.
Short-staffed through illness
If people get ill, can you cope with a few empty chairs and how many – and for how long? How much work can you put on pause or reallocate to other people? You can’t predict who will definitely be able to work as normal and who won’t, but you have to be practical and assume a few people at least might be out of action for a couple of weeks.
Work out what the critical risks are if key people go off sick for a fortnight. That includes you. How quickly can work be handed over and, if that’s a problem at the moment, quickly come up with ways to share information or update projects etc, in case a sudden issue means someone isn’t available for a while and other people have to step in.
Sick pay – who gets it and how much?
And before it hits you, how much are you going to pay people who go off sick? You probably have “normal rules” for this in your contracts, which will have a certain amount of full pay or Statutory Sick Pay only for your employees, but what about other workers (zero hours, freelancers or agency workers) who might not be able to work?
All of this depends on your priorities and business needs. Balance whatever’s essential with people’s needs too – either because you’re a supportive employer or just because you need to keep people and avoid becoming even more short-staffed, if people jump ship after seeing their pay drop at a difficult time. However happy your people are, causing them financial problems (eg getting SSP only and having problems paying the rent) will cause a big impact on their lives and might disrupt working relationships.
You’re going to have to be flexible with your normal rules for sickness absence. If you need a doctor’s note signing someone off work for more than a week, it’s not going to happen if they have called 111 and been advised to self-isolate, or just done that now because that’s the advice for people with sore throats and high temperatures. You don’t want to force people with Cornonavirus to see their GPs and put those surgeries at risk. You’re going to have to trust people.
Can you cope if business drops off for a while?
If you rely on people walking into your venue for food, drink or a haircut, what happens if they stop? We’ve already heard about trade falling and bookings being cancelled, which is partly customers worried about going out, but also (we suspect) people avoiding spending money at the moment in case their own pay levels or jobs are affected. Can you cope for a week, or a month?
If people start going off sick – in all kinds of businesses and industries – that includes your customers and business partners. That slows down decisions and new customers signing up. What does that mean for your cashflow and workloads for your people?
Start juggling figures, ideas and options to prepare for these kind of changes. How much work have you definitely got booked, that won’t be cancelled or postponed? Have you got enough for all your people? Have you got enough income guaranteed to pay people?
If you need to downsize, have you got anything that will give you options in your contracts or policies? If not, try communicating with your people – preferably without scaring them – and ask if anyone’s willing to reduce their working hours, take an unpaid break or anything else. The next step might be laying people off (redundancies etc) but asking first might be a good place to start before things get that far.
Don’t panic – but get on with it
You cope with quiet periods of the year, like August and Christmas. This is just sudden and things are moving fast. But please, whatever you do, don’t just wait to see what happens: crack on with coming up with actions to cope with holding things together through remote working, a drop-off in capacity (fewer people available for what you do) and potentially all kinds of risks to your business activities including cashflow.
Internal and external. Reassure all your people that you want to help and support people to keep working and, if they have to, while they’re off sick. You’re identifying ways to help and avoid crises. You are that kind of organisation to work for.
Externally, share that it’s business as normal and you’re taking practical steps to make sure – especially with your customers. Make sure you get the credit rather than keeping it secret or leaving people to worry.
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