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Coronavirus: 4 tips to ensure COVID-19 doesn’t slow your business down

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In light of the coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19), contingency planning has become a major consideration within businesses worldwide.

This kind of planning is useful in any event, whether it be for coronavirus, inclement weather, or train or bus strikes. It might keep managers awake at night but it shouldn’t have to, especially as there is plenty that businesses can do now to prepare for operational resilience.

The chancellor of the exchequer announced in his Budget (11 March) that there will be £7bn of measures to help support businesses and individuals who will be affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

The government has provided a full update on the Budget. In addition, to help your company, we offer workplace advice on four areas to focus on – along with actionable takeaways – so your teams can try to keep functioning no matter what’s happening in the world.

1. Coronavirus: Work from home policy

If your business is using cloud technology, your employees can work from the comfort of their homes, should there be work closures, and you can relax in the knowledge that your people can continue to be productive.

Your finance team, for example, will be able to stay on top of managing cash flow and invoicing by accessing accounting software even if they’re not in the office.

Regardless of world events, many businesses worldwide know flexible working is beneficial. According to research from MindMetre Research, 82% of employees from organisations offering flexible working say they’re more productive, while 58% say it improves job satisfaction.

The best policy is one where a culture of home working at any time is normalised for employees where it’s a realistic option.

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Takeaway one

Consider the need for a work-from-home strategy for those areas of your business that can support remotely. Part of this could be to adopt cloud computing – and it doesn’t have to be a lengthy process to do it either.

Having your data stored in the cloud rather than individual devices means information can be accessed anywhere if you have an internet connection. By adopting cloud computing, your employees will be able to work when and where they need to.

Takeaway two

Put the right tools in place. Do you have the right ones to ensure your employees can still be operational if they cannot make it into the office? Do they have access to laptops, work phones and adequate internet connectivity?

Technology is essential to ensure your people stay connected in situations such as this – not only with the company but your customers too. It will ensure work can happen in real time and collaboration can take place across functions seamlessly.

In the very short term, if you haven’t already adopted cloud computing then tools such as shared file service Google Drive or the chat/meeting tool Microsoft Teams can be put in place.

Takeaway three

Encourage your employees to take their laptops, tablets and work mobile phones – if they use them – home each evening in case the business or its environment must close following an outbreak.

Essentially, you need to equip your staff to work wherever they find themselves – in the office, at home, or even out on the road if they visit clients or customers.

Takeaway four

Travel of any kind, including freight transport, can be affected. You may have considered travel bans within the business which, for sales staff, can be a tough blow.

However, the same technology that enables remote working can enable them to continue to do their jobs via virtual meetings, rather than face-to-face.

Unfortunately, there’s very little to get around freight transport and other logistics problems but the situation can be helped by ensuring your suppliers and customers are in-sync with regard to what’s feasible under the circumstances.

Check your existing contracts for clauses that might deal with events such as this to work out where you stand legally.

2. Coronavirus: Work advice and communication

Keeping your people connected, engaged and updated is key when business continuity is concerned. Having the right mechanisms in place and using them at the right time is critical to ensuring there’s no panic or misinformation surrounding what they should do.

You also need to keep lines of communication open with your customers, clients and suppliers. Let them know what they can expect of you and be sure you know what you can realistically expect of them.

Takeaway one

Have channels in place that allow you to send written updates and, in the case of time-critical emergencies, mobile updates too. You might want to put in place coronavirus workplace posters explaining what’s happening in your business and to give advice.

For your employees, consider introducing a teamwork hub that fuses group chat software with collaboration tools to enable teams to work and be updated together. Again, tools such as Microsoft Teams or Slack are good for this.

Ensure email addresses (personal and company ones) are correct as well as mobile numbers. Do you have a company newsletter that you can tap into, or an intranet?

Takeaway two

Send regular (establish what you think regular looks like) updates – but importantly not too many, which could not only worry rather than reassure employees, suppliers and customers/clients, and also annoy them especially if you are not saying anything new.

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3. Coronavirus: Pay and legal requirements

As an employer, you will already know that you’re required to provide statutory requirements to your employees such as maternity leave and pay.

However, several rights perhaps become more important in situations where illness affects a significant percentage of your workforce:

Deploying these rights may become necessary if – as examples – premises are forced to closed, individuals must self-isolate, or if individuals must stay home due to children being home because of illness or schools have closed due to coronavirus.

Note that UK law doesn’t have any requirement for compassionate leave, although you may wish to offer this in any event.

Takeaway one: Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)

You’re legally required to pay employees Statutory Sick Pay at the minimum a set amount of pay per week if they’re too sick to work. This is currently set at £95.85, and is subject to tax and National Insurance, just like any other earnings.

You must pay it for up to 28 weeks and you can demand a fit note (sometimes called a sick note).

The rules officially say sick pay only kicks in after day four, but the government has announced a temporary law change so that it kicks in on the first day of sickness.

This is to encourage people to not go into work if they’re unwell, so they don’t spread an infection. Changes following the Budget also mean self-employed people are covered too.

Further information regarding changes to Statutory Sick Pay post-Budget can be found here – all of which are positive changes in the short term to help provide clarity and support for businesses.

Takeaway two: Statutory right to request flexible working

Employees in England, Wales and Scotland have a legal right to request flexible working. This could involve working from home in the event of a requirement to self-isolate or working fewer hours if they have to care for sick relatives, for example.

As an employer, you must deal with their requests in what the government calls a “reasonable manner”, which includes assessing the advantages and disadvantages, holding a meeting to discuss the request with the employee, and offering an appeals process.

Employees must have been working for you for at least 26 weeks to make an application.

Notably, you must provide a decision within three months – but obviously you may want to compress this for a request in response to a world event such as this.

Takeaway three: Time off for family and dependants

Separate from the statutory right to flexible working, employees have a right to time off to deal with an emergency involving family or those who rely upon them for care but who might be unrelated to them.

You don’t have to pay the employee during this period and there’s no limit on the time taken. An emergency in this context is something unplanned, such as sudden illness, or an accident.

The employee should communicate to you as soon as possible that they need this time off and can do so verbally – there’s no need for them to put it in writing.

You should not discriminate against them in any way because of this request – doing so would give the employee the right to take you to an employment tribunal.

Takeaway four: Parental leave

Employees have a right to request unpaid parental leave to up to 18 weeks for each of their children (or adopted child), until the child reaches the age of 18 (which is limited to four weeks per child a year – unless the employer agrees otherwise).

As with other statutory rights, you mustn’t discriminate against the employee because they decide to take this leave.

To qualify, they will need to have been with your company for more than a year. Those classed as workers rather than employees are not entitled to this leave.

Whether parental leave should be used in the event of coronavirus is debatable especially as employees must give their employer 21-days’ notice before the start date – which is not doable in the event of a sudden illness.

4. Coronavirus: Create a workplace plan for emergencies

Take the opportunity to build out what we’ve discussed above to create a contingency plan that’s fit for any similar level of world event that might impact your business, employees, suppliers or customers.

Here’s five suggestions for how to get started.

  1. Assign an owner: All plans need a single point of contact, and a single person who owns the plan and can delegate. This needn’t necessarily be a senior member of staff. But people need to know who it is. This person should be the key sense-checker for the plan – the person who ensures the plan makes sense, and that nothing has been assumed.
  2. Invite input from all sources: The granularity of the plan will depend on your needs. You may decide that each function or department within your business needs its own plan, for example. You may even decide that individuals should create their own plans. But they should all sync-up and be combined into a larger workplace plan.
  3. Consider your entire ecosystem – from supplier to customer/client: Your plan might include a list of alternative suppliers for certain key resources, to be used if your existing supplier becomes unavailable. It may include specific plans on how to treat individual customers, especially larger and/or more important ones.
  4. Make this a living document: Don’t create it once and then forget about it. Ensure your plan is reviewed periodically and don’t be afraid to make changes should they be needed.
  5. Communicate: Once the plan is created, ensure it’s available to all – and that all know what it is, where it can be found and what it means for them.

Final thoughts

Strong technology roots and good communication processes mean your business can continue to operate effectively even when challenged with incidents out of your control.

Couple this with a supportive flexible-working culture, which empowers and enables colleagues to make the right decisions, and you’ll find that your company doesn’t have to slow down in a downturn.

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