Returning to business after COVID-19
We are nearing the end of the nation’s 30-day period to flatten the COVID-19 curve. As federal and state government officials think about how best to reopen the economy, business owners begin to anticipate their return. At top of mind will be servicing debt, meeting employee payroll, and re-engaging customers.
The CARES Act will enable some short-term financial relief for some businesses through the SBA, assuming it will be replenished. But there are realities beyond the balance sheet that deserve calculated consideration.
Just as profits have been disrupted by the pandemic, so too has the psyche of their employees. Many have been in survival mode, forced to confront economic hardship, job insecurity, feelings of despair, anxiety, even loneliness from social distancing. Firms that rush back prematurely or lack sensitivity during this transition can face a negative backlash that can disrupt business operations and harm their brand. By embracing new norms and accommodating preferences, when possible, employers reinforce the notion that they value employees’ mental and physical health above profits.
There are characteristics of the novel coronavirus that will influence planning. First, this novel coronavirus has no established pattern of seasonality. We cannot predict whether its activity will dampen during warmer months. Second, this highly contagious virus can be transmitted by people who have no symptoms. Absent testing for COVID-19, there is no way to know if returning employees were never infected, are actively infected, or are immune. Third, novel viruses can have multiple waves of peak activity. Meaning, after infections have dramatically declined, a resurgence can occur leading to a second wave. This can occur amid reopening the economy. Finally, residual community circulation of the virus can remain following the decline in cases, especially in epicenter locations.
Given these features, businesses must strategize when to reopen, how to reopen, and how quickly to restore operations.
The first sign will be the relaxation of national and state guidelines. This may occur as early as May 1. Other telltale signs include a sustained decrease in the number of cases following the peak; a decline in the number of deaths; the widespread availability of tests, including rapid antibody testing showing past infection and possible immunity; capacity for contact tracing in areas hardest hit; the return to work of competitors; rescheduling of large industry meetings; and when the broader business ecosystem perks up.
When many of these criteria have been met, businesses can begin to gradually reintroduce employees to the office. As an initial step, companies could have a small number of essential employees — say, C-suite executives — return. Following a period of observation, a larger group of employees can return. Following another period of observation, the remaining complement of employees can be directed to return to work on a rotational, or hoteling, schedule. This will reduce workspace crowding, conditions that favor person-to-person transmission. Employees in this last group would continue working remotely when not physically in the office.
Ideally, each phase of returning employees would be followed by a wait-and-see period of two weeks. Why two weeks? Because that is the length of the incubation period — the time from infection to becoming sick — for the novel coronavirus.
Ramping up workplace occupancy and operations can be tricky in the immediate aftermath of a pandemic. Businesses should be prepared to arrest, modify or pull back returning groups of employees if the situation changes. Success will depend upon a company’s ability to align its schedule for returning to work with data-informed milestones related to the virus and the business ecosystem. It will require both vigilance and nimbleness.
Going forward, business continuity planning may look different. Office floor plans and cubicles may need to be reconfigured to expand to limit the clustering of employees. Adaptive policies to bolster safeguards may need to be revised. To support employees working remotely, some companies will need to redouble investment in technologies beyond videoconference.
This pandemic has stress-tested every enterprise in one way or another. Unfortunately, not every business will pass the test. Those that are more flexible than doctrinaire, more supportive than punitive, and more transparent than ambiguous will rebound faster, with less staff turnover and higher employee morale.
LaMar Hasbrouck, MD, MPH, MBA, is a physician, business owner and former executive director for the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
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