COVID-19- Is your Business Prepared
Coronavirus (Covid-19): Is your business prepared?
In this article, we:
- identify key matters that you should consider when putting together, or updating, a contingency plan to apply in the event of a coronavirus outbreak in your organisation; and
- address some of the potential employment law issues that might arise as a result of managing an outbreak of coronavirus in your organisation, or where your production is disrupted due to the impact of coronavirus on your suppliers.
Preparing a contingency plan
Involve key stakeholders at the planning stage
It is a good idea to get all key stakeholders in the business to contribute to the planning process. This would include representatives from Occupational Health, Health and Safety, Human Resources and senior management.
You should also consider involving staff representatives at this initial planning stage. and staff representatives’ involvement may well become a necessity in any event if, as part of your contingency planning, you decide to change current policies and procedures.
Early involvement of the workforce also makes for easier communication of any subsequent changes.
Key matters to consider/review
Whether or not you have a business recovery plan which you can utilise to kick-start your planning process, some of the key issues to consider include:
- Identifying business critical roles
- Establishing current levels of transferable skills within your workforce
- Will you be able to redeploy existing staff to cover gaps in critical areas? Are your existing contracts of employment sufficiently flexible to accommodate such redeployment?
- What training and knowledge-sharing needs to be undertaken now to ensure that staff are ready to cover critical roles should there be an outbreak? Would it be helpful to put a ‘buddy’ system in place – pairing up specific workers/groups of workers to maximise your potential cover for critical roles?
- Are you in a position to encourage and facilitate a high level of remote working, thereby reducing risks of contamination and helping to ensure continuation of operations/services?
- Will you need to use temporary cover/agency workers? What processes do you have in place to ensure you can secure such resources as swiftly and cost effectively as possible?
- Do you have up-to-date employee information, including emergency contact details? Make sure that relevant individuals know where this information is kept and that you are clear about who has authority to access it.
- How will you communicate with staff during an outbreak? Do you have an established and effective communication cascade process?
- What health and safety measures do you have/will you implement in the workplace? For example, could you provide tissues and hand-sanitiser and encourage their regular use, by displaying posters or circulating staff communications encouraging staff to wash their hands or use hand-sanitiser on arriving in the building after using public transport and after coughing or sneezing? Should you increase the frequency with which frequently touched communal areas, including door handles, kitchens, toilets, showers, and hot-desk keyboards, phones and desks, are cleaned?
- Think about your external customers. What would be the potential impact on your delivery of products or services if you had to operate on a skeleton staff due to large-scale sickness absence? Do you want to include your customers in any communication cascade?
- What procedures do your suppliers have in place to minimise disruption/impact on your own business?
- Ensure there is ongoing review of official/government websites at management level in order to keep up-to-date with developments in your area and any changes in government advice.
Think about your existing policies and procedures
Which policies will be most important in an outbreak situation? Would your current polices be adequate?
You may decide that you need to adapt some of your current policies and procedures, or introduce new procedures, to deal with a potential outbreak. For example, if you don’t currently operate remote working but believe that it could assist in maintaining critical roles during an outbreak, you should consider providing guidance to employees as to how you want remote/home working to operate.
Consider the status of your current policies. Although most employment policies are not contractual and reserve the right for employers to make amendments from time to time, some policies and procedures may have contractual status. Amending existing policies and procedures which have contractual status is likely to require collective consultation with s or employee representatives.
Even if policies are not contractual, you should still consult with the workforce and give sufficient notice before implementing any changes.
You should pay particular attention to the following policies:
Sickness absence policy
Is your policy clear about how to report sickness absences, whom employees should contact in the case of illness, within what timescale they should do so and how often sick employees should keep in touch?
Does your policy require employees to produce a doctor’s certificate following a certain number of days, or on return to work?
In light of government advice that individuals who display symptoms of coronavirus should not attend their GP surgeries, but instead call 111, you should consider temporarily amending your sickness absence policy to extend the length of time for employees to provide a doctor’s certificate, e.g. allowing them to provide it upon their return to work.
We recognise there is some risk of abuse by some employees in operating a more relaxed system for production of doctor’s certificates, but you can still insist on compliance with individual reporting requirements and operate return to work interviews in an attempt to manage absences.
Remote/home working policy
To assist with containment, do you want to encourage more employees to work from home where possible? If so, you should ensure you have provided sufficiently detailed instructions to regulate an increased operation of remote/home working. Who should employees report to when working remotely? How often?
Consider whether you also need to enhance your IT and Data Protection polices to ensure adequate security and compliance if there is a substantial increase in remote/home working.
Could your company’s IT infrastructure cope with a significant increase in people working remotely?
Consider what information you should be providing to employees who travel abroad on business. The government keeps its website updated as to the coronavirus situation on a country by country basis: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/wuhan-novel-coronavirus-information-for-the-public.
You might want to consider encouraging employees to minimise all business travel, including within the UK, and encourage alternatives such as increased use of video or teleconferencing.
You may see an increase in employees taking other forms of leave, either to take care of sick family members, or if they are experiencing knock on problems in childcare provision.
How will you deal with such requests in light of overall staff shortages?
Being seen to operate such policies flexibly and fairly is important. However, you may want to warn employees that, if sickness absence is exceptionally high, the company may have to temporarily refuse additional requests for annual leave.
Agree your communication plan
Once you have decided how a significant outbreak of coronavirus may affect your business, you should consider how much information you need to give to your staff and how best to communicate this.
For internal communication, use your normal communication cascade – whether via team briefings/intranet and e-mail updates/employee newsletters. Remember to include those employees who are currently off sick, on maternity leave or other family leave, or who work remotely/from home on an ongoing basis.
The level of information you need to provide to staff will depend on the nature of your business, the health and safety advice you have received and communicated to-date and your assessment of how serious the potential impact of an outbreak on your particular business will be.
However, you should be careful not to alarm staff unduly.
Key basic information that employees will need includes:
- Confirmation of health and safety measures in force
- Symptoms to look out for
- Who to contact within the company if they feel unwell
- What to do if they are displaying symptoms or have had contact with someone who is confirmed to be suffering from coronavirus
Ensure that employees have ready access to relevant policies and make employees aware if these policies have been amended, or are subsequently updated as the situation develops.