Co-authored with Jocelyn Brandeis

All companies, large and small, need to be prepared at any given time should a crisis happen that affects the company, employees, stakeholders, and community.

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With the COVID-19 coronavirus knocking on the United States’ door, we have to look at how other countries are handling their workforces and begin to make our own preparations, as globally conferences, museums, sporting arenas, concert halls, restaurants, and entire economies have been shutting down in the past few weeks.

For small and medium-sized businesses – all 30.2 million of them, accounting for 44% of U.S. economic activity – this means making significant changes to daily operations, with little time to prepare, in an unknown and rapidly changing situation. Industries that will be harmed the most will be manufacturing, retail, and hospitality, as they rely on in-person activity to keep their businesses going.

“There are going to be areas of quarantine in the U.S., and workflow is going to be dramatically changed. So the great companies of the world will start policies for employees to work from home,” CBS News contributor Dr. David Agus told CBS MoneyWatch.

As much as the U.S. is pointing toward a large-scale freelance, or gig, economy, we are far from the real deal. Currently, there is a multitude of technologies that allow people to work from home, with agencies, startups and progressive companies allowing employees to work remotely, but in general, we are not there yet. However, we might have to get there very quickly, like within 90 days quickly, if this virus spreads as fast as it did in China.

Many companies do currently offer remote work with approximately 3.7 million employees working from home at least half the time. While policies for working from home range from an enthusiastically promoted company perk to a frowned-upon last resort only to be allowed when absolutely necessary, only 10% of the current U.S. employment-population already has a steady grasp of how to work from home and still be productive. If you are one of the 90% of the organizations who do not offer remote work, you need to be prepared – from CEO to receptionist, and every division, from accounting, to waste management – to have your full team move to an entirely remote operation, with little or no warning, likely under duress.

“Not working for an indefinite amount of time is unsustainable for individuals, businesses and the national economy. Providing an opportunity for efficient work-from-home alleviates the damage caused by the pandemic,” said Alex Konanykhin, co-founder and CEO of TransparentBusiness.

This will be the world’s largest test-run of a work-from-home scenario we’ve ever seen. And there’s a good possibility it might fail – miserably. There are some CEOs and companies that will thrive; some companies will survive despite their leadership; and some companies will go under, never to be heard from again. But this scenario might succeed, too, if CEOs prepare their companies in time.

As CEO, you have the responsibility to lead the way if your company has an immediate physical shut-down. You need to prepare for this likely eventuality ahead of time and avoid scrambling the minute it happens.

Could the Coronavirus Impact Your Business?

Questions your team needs to consider now as we prepare for an increase in coronavirus cases:

  1. Can your organization deliver at current levels if a percentage of your staff gets ill? What if an important supplier or partner is closed due to being affected by an outbreak? What if a vendor closes mid-project? What if FedEx/UPS stops all deliveries nationwide?

  2. Do you have trained back-up for every role should your business be affected? Who will step in and are they prepared?

  3. How will you handle employee illnesses or self-quarantines? Will you assist staff if they face extenuating circumstances? Employees may have to stay home due to illness or they may have to look after loved ones. If schools and daycares close, how will you support employees that are parents or grandparents?

  4. What if a freelancer, customer or client contracts the virus at your location? Do you have an on-premises isolation room? Do you have a “greetings” policy? (No handshakes or cheek kissing but rather, elbow or fist-bumping, or nodding, bowing or waving.)

  5. Will you be constantly disinfecting your offices? If you have a cafeteria on-premises, what precautions will you be taking to secure food prep services?

  6. What if your business is named in the news? Are you prepared to address concerns? Do you have a trained spokesperson? What is the chain of command for addressing concerns?

  7. Will you be offering employees the opportunity for virtual attendance at conferences?

  8. Should your brand attempt to insert itself into breaking news?

How CEOs can Lead the way Through Coronavirus Concerns at WorkThe CEO’s job is from the top-down to be in control of the situation, along with management, to present information to the public, employees, and press in the calmest, cool, collected manner possible. Be honest, humble, and show that you care. A crisis is no time for jokes or being charming. The only thing people care about is how things are being handled and that they, their jobs, and their loved ones are financially and physically secure now and in the future. The CEO should use all methods to communicate with the public, employees, and press: press conferences and interviews, social media, internal communications (email, intranet). Trust is everything when you run a business.

PRSA has these tips on how businesses should handle the potential crisis that applies to companies both large and small:

Safety, support, and education should be the priorities in a crisis and at the top of any list or plan of action. Now is the time to live brand values over profits and to show empathy and understanding, internally and externally. The wellbeing of employees and their families should always be a priority. Proactive and transparent education for the workforce and partners is required.

Leadership Planning

It is vitally important to have these conversations now and begin to have your leadership team review from every angle the potentially harmful situations or disruptive issues that could occur and be prepared to deal with them.Talk to your executives to find out if they can think of any potential situations and how they would prefer the situation to be handled/answered. You may not agree with their answers but you do need to work with them and get their buy-in to respond. When creating solutions to these difficult changes, always be sure to express concern and emotion for those in harm’s way.

The CEO’s goals for planning are to:

  1. Ensure that employees and customers are safe.

  2. Prevent (further) destruction of people or company assets.

  3. Assure the public that the company can still function and help them with their needs.

  4. Correct any problems and prevent new ones.

If a quarantine does go into effect, eventually as CEO, you will be leading your team and your employees from afar.

Employee Communications

Once the management team has worked out a draft plan, it is time to make sure that your corporate culture (defined or organic) can handle the switch to remote work with clear communications and management.

How CEOs can Lead the way Through Employee Coronavirus Concerns at WorkOnce the planning team has analyzed the situation, remembering to take the delicate emotions of employees into consideration, employees must be educated on what steps and procedures will be in place in order to keep the company running through the duration and as we work back to a new normal. Your employees will have many of the same questions as the public and many more that will pertain specifically to their jobs and projects. Areas of concern will include the changes to working conditions and expectations, relevant and updated information on the company’s health benefits, project schedules and processes, cybersecurity and the use of home electronics, and resources available to them should they become ill. Employees will always be the greatest advocates of the company, but in a crisis, “loose lips can sink ships.” As CEO, you want to contain the rumor mill as fast as possible. Have union contacts available and be in contact if your employees are unionized. If you have major stakeholders, partners or competitors now is the time to make contact to ensure that your industry is working together to reinforce good business practices for employees and the public.

Operational Considerations

If your staff is not accustomed to working from home, there may be a learning curve for many. Working with systems within an enterprise is often different than working on one’s home computer. Assessing the tech capabilities and needs of all staff members will be essential. The company may have to provide software and hardware, including laptops, iPads or cell phones to ensure employees can remain connected and productive. There are many free offerings across the web, however, many free solutions have limited support and onboarding. The company may have to purchase enterprise solutions that offer training and help support or provide that internally. In addition to technology updates and installations, contact details need to be updated so that everyone can be reached immediately. Your key managers need to let employees know when and where they can be reached. Research your client’s clients and vendors, so you know who to contact there and call them preemptively to provide information to let them know what’s happening.

You might even need to collaborate with competitors for a while in order to complete large-scale projects since you may not have the same capacity that you once had while you work remotely. This could include competing vendors as well.

Keep in mind that if there is a quarantine, people will not be leaving their homes; therefore, all IT issues will need to be dealt with by phone or computer. No one will be able to drive to someone’s home to set up a network or fix a broken computer.

Emergency Planning

remotely connected people How CEOs can Lead the way Through Employee Coronavirus Concerns at WorkOnce the CEO has guaranteed the safety of employees, then it is time to step back from the situation and let emergency services do their job. Unless your business is to provide medical services and support, do not overstep or fall prey to the wild-west of social media by sharing undocumented advice. Research and provide several trustworthy, reliable resources and ensure that your staff has access to those. Know which executives and employees have skill sets that might be helpful in an on-site crisis – CPR/first aid, foreign language, construction, software installation, product training, etc. Human Resources might be able to assist you with this but now is the time to discuss these scenarios company-wide and provide access to everyone, not just upper management, to refer to these people, if necessary.

Customer Communication

Fear is an incredibly powerful emotion. One of the first things to happen when a business drastically changes its operations (shuts down temporarily or moves to a fully remote operation) is that the public begins to think that the business is in trouble and rumors, panic and fear can set in, as consumers begin to wonder what happened to the business. Customers should be contacted early and often with information on the physical locations, products or services, contact information and a timeline for the new business operations. The CEO may need to go the extra mile in order to calm fears and let the public know if a competitor is better suited to assist the customer in the meantime. Social media communications will become extremely important to customer-facing departments, as will home-based customer service call centers as customers attempt to maintain or manage transactions with the company. You may need to invest in these resources now to make sure that you have the appropriate level of customer service should you move your entire operations to an online-only environment.

Newsjacking: Should Your Brand Attempt to Insert Itself into Breaking News?


Media Relations

Even with the drastic changes that businesses will face in the coming months, very few will be required to speak with the news media about their organizations, unless they are directly linked to the spread of the virus. Not every executive can speak towards every situation, so designate appropriate spokespeople to ensure that senior management is prepared as soon as possible.

media relations remotely connected people How CEOs can Lead the way Through Employee Coronavirus Concerns at WorkIf your business operations require that you provide information to the public, know that you will need to protect the flow of information in order to contain rumors, speculation, and untruths. Timely and truthful information is essential, especially in order to prevent the news media from trying to find their news through other sources, including employees, other news outlets, the internet, or eyewitnesses. Any information provided must answer the basic “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of the situation, even if it’s bad news. Provide factual information, and never assign blame, no matter what. Prepare a targeted media list (print, TV, radio, online) to reach out to with company information.

Think about what the press and public will want to know:

  1. What areas of the business are affected?

  2. What is the cost of the damage?

  3. What does the company plan to do about it?

  4. Which organizations and authorities are you working with?

  5. When will more information be available?

With a national health crisis looming, there are no press exclusives or off-record interviews, because the goal is to disseminate information as far and wide as possible, not to contain it. The only information to be contained are rumors, and the only way to do that is by holding regular press briefings, even if that’s multiple times each day for weeks on end, and being truthful. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so; but also say that you’re working on getting the answer and will respond when you have the information. NEVER LIE. You will get caught and your reputation will be ruined. As always, make sure the designated spokesperson is confident, trustworthy, clear, concise, and stays on message. It’s ok to disclose mistakes, legal problems, or bad news, just be honest about it. The public will talk for a while, but they’ll also be forgiving if you are straight-forward with them from the start, and you’ll ultimately survive the beating all at once instead of dragging it out.

A version of this post was printed in O’Dwyers PR News.

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