Amazon employee Tahsha Sydnor stows packages at a facility in Arizona. More than 1,500 company employees have petitioned Amazon to increase the safety precautions in its warehouses (Photo by Ross D. Franklin/AP)

The messages from business leaders started tentatively, almost apologetically, about measures being taken “out of an abundance of caution.” Then they became a torrent, and jarringly drastic: Shut it down. Don’t travel. Work from home. Keep your distance. Stay safe!

Practically overnight, it became clear that the painful prescription for halting the spread of the coronavirus would be to “put the economy on ice” by imposing drastic restrictions on the public, possibly for months. As federal guidance lagged, business leaders suddenly had to become first responders in their own way. Without having any real precedent to guide them, they’re now making emergency decisions about the health and wellbeing of their employees, their communities, and their businesses themselves.

For companies that deal face-to-face with the public, this brought the history-making step of closing retail stores, theme parks, movie theaters, conferences, cruise lines, and ski resorts. Famous names fell like dominoes as they shut down all or part of their operations: Apple, Disney, Levi’s, Patagonia. Airlines declared themselves in critical condition, slashing their schedules and asking for $50 billion in government assistance. Even Broadway and Saturday Night Live have gone dark.

Having made epic decisions to close or cut back, Corporate America is left with a mountain of questions, especially about how this crisis affects their employees. Among them: What are the new rules of working remotely? How can parents get work done at home when schools are closed too? How do companies protect front-line workers from getting sick–and persuade them to stay home if they do? How long can companies afford to pay hourly workers who have been furloughed?

Human Resources has abruptly entered a new era, forged in crisis, and likely to leave a lasting impact. Among the many new considerations for HR and other business leaders:

Talking to Your People, Candidly and Often

As business leaders grapple with an onslaught of new issues, they should remember a cardinal rule of management: Communicate clearly and frequently with your workers and customers, says business strategist Edward Segal, author of  the forthcoming book Crisis Ahead: 101 Ways to Prepare for and Bounce Back from Disaster, Scandals, and Other Emergencies. “The public has access to so much information–from so many sources–that it’s as possible that they’re going to get the wrong information as they’re going to get the right or correct information,” Segal told From Day One. “That’s why a company or organization should be the go-to place for the most current, accurate, updated information about the impact of a crisis on their organization.” Good communication will go a long way toward reducing worker anxiety, said Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, writing in Harvard Business Review. Argenti added: “The company needs to demystify the situation for employees, put everyone’s mind at ease, and provide hope for the future.”

Many of America’s best-known retail chains, including Apple, have temporarily shut down their stores as a precaution (Photo by Harry Cunningham on Unsplash)

Creating Crisis-management Teams

Most major companies have set up coronavirus task forces or crisis-management teams, “with a response tailored to specific geographic regions,” according to a survey of chief human-resources officers (CHROs) by Larry Edmond, managing director of the Gallup organization. The steps they’re taking include creating succession contingencies for all major executives, moving critical operations to unaffected regions, and cross-training team members to perform critical functions in case another team member is quarantined. Many companies are also splitting large teams into multiple parts, physically separated from one another, to compartmentalize any potential exposure to the virus.

Managing the Great Homeward Migration

The single biggest change has been companies telling millions of employees to work from home, creating an explosion of usage of the shorthand, "WFH." For more workers than ever, this is physically possible, but it presents a host of challenges, ranging from the technological to the cultural. While the concept of telework is a familiar one, less than 4% of Americans WFH full-time, so “the coronavirus is triggering a grand experiment,” as Axios puts it.

When the crisis began to unfold in early March, Silicon Valley led the way, ordering nearly 1 million employees to work from home. The result, reported the Wall Street Journal: “It’s been messy.” Software developers at Apple “have complained about slow download speeds and mounting confusion over still-evolving new rules about what work they are allowed to perform.”  Google told its 119,000 employees to put in for work-from-home kits of monitors, cables, and other gear, but workers have faced long backlogs and started hauling office gear home with them. Indeed, “for those of us who have mostly worked in offices, converting our comfort-focused homes into efficient professional workspaces isn’t always easy,” noted New Yorkproviding an online catalog of items ranging from chairs to coffee makers.

The procedural and emotional aspects are more nuanced. Cut off from face-to-face interaction, will workers be as creative, as engaged, as productive? Without the clear boundaries between work and home, will they suffer accelerated burnout? Is there a way to work from home without losing your mind? Newly minted WFHers are turning to advice columnists for tips on how to structure their new lives. Kara Cutruzzula, who has worked from home since 2013, and shares her experience in her newsletter Brass Ring Daily, told Yahoo Lifestyle that there are a number of ways to make working from home manageable and productive. “Mimic your working conditions as closely as possible,” Cutruzzula explained. “This means sitting at a desk or table for at least part of the day, getting dressed (even if it's just into a ‘nicer’ set of pajamas) and eating meals and snacks at the usual times.”

The challenge is particularly daunting for working parents with kids at home during the workday, thanks to widespread school closings. For example, how does a working parent participate in a videoconference with a toddler video-bombing their call?  In a piece in Harvard Business Review, organizational psychologist Stewart Friedman and management professor Alyssa Westring offer a set of guidelines for working parents to cope. Their tips include talking to your boss about the complexities of the situation and how you plan to manage it; get on the same page as your parenting partner about the shared responsibilities; leverage technology wisely (“your internet speed might not support your video conference calls while your kids stream Netflix”); and mobilize your village of friends and neighbors to make things easier for one another.

Keeping Workplaces Clean and Safe

Since many people can’t work from home because they handle physical goods or have to work in moment-to-moment human interaction like bond trading, the burden is on companies to scrub and protect these environments in unprecedented ways. The New York Stock Exchange, determined to keep its iconic trading floor open, started taking the temperature of everyone who entered the space to check for tell-tale fevers. Facebook and other companies have restricted visitors to their offices and have started conducting most job interviews via video conferencing. Supermarket chains including Wegmans and Whole Foods have reduced the daily hours they’re open in order to provide more time for cleaning and restocking.

With a boom in e-commerce as brick-and-mortar stores close, the focus has shifted to maintaining worker safety in the giant fulfilment centers where goods are stored and packages assembled. More than 1,500 Amazon workers from around the world have signed a petition that calls on the company to take more steps to ensure safety in their warehouses, the Washington Post reported. Workers told the Post the company was advising workers to wash their hands, for example, but weren’t providing enough time to do so properly. The company, for its part, said it’s following guidance from health officials. “We are going to great lengths to keep the buildings extremely clean and help employees practice important precautions such as social distancing and other measures,” Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman said.

Underscoring the Need for Paid Sick Leave

Unlike other developed nations and 13 states in the U.S., there is no federal law requiring paid sick leave. The arrival of coronavirus puts the need for such a law into stark relief, since it would help protect both employees and customers. If hourly workers feel sick but need the money and worry about job security, they will be tempted to stay on the job.

Most American restaurants do not offer paid sick leave, according to a nationwide survey called The Shift Project, in which two University of California sociologists interviewed tens of thousands of retail workers, the New York Times reported in an editorial. The “list of malefactors” included restaurant chains McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A, supermarket operators Wegmans and Kroger, and retailers Victoria’s Secret and the Gap. However, some major retailers like Costco and Home Depot offer sick leave as a standard benefit. Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden and other chains, announced last week that it had implemented paid sick leave for its 190,000 employers.

But the survey indicated that large numbers of employees at companies that offer paid sick leave, including at Chipotle and Walmart, don’t feel that they’re actually allowed to utilize the benefit. Congress and the White House have included a provision for paid sick leave as part of their legislative response to the coronavirus outbreak, but the proposed law has been assailed by advocacy groups for having language that lets many employers off the hook, for example by excluding companies with over 500 workers from the requirements.

Keeping Hourly Workers Afloat

As companies radically cut back their output, many of their hourly workers will go on unpaid leave, hitting them immediately with the financial impact of the pandemic. In one high-profile case, billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic airline is asking its staff to take eight weeks of unpaid leave, which a British politician called “an absolute disgrace.” Other employers with temporary shutdowns, ranging from the progressively minded Patagonia to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, home of the Nets basketball team, have pledged to keep paying their hourly workers during the furloughs. “We are especially aware of the difficulties faced by our hourly employees. When games and events are cancelled or postponed, work stops and so do paychecks,” said Barclays SVP Mandy Guttman in a statement. “We want to let our Barclays Center staff know that nobody is left behind and we are in this together.”

“The overall picture is one of extreme fragility for millions of American workers, especially at consumer service companies. This reflects a trend that has been developing for more than three decades,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “We’ve been living off the formation of low-wage and low-hour jobs in sectors that happen to be incredibly vulnerable to just this particular crisis,” Daniel Alpert, an investment banker and adjunct professor at Cornell Law School, told the Times. “In the current situation, where you have a dead stop in consumer activity, any ‘customer-facing’ business where the customer is no longer doing any ‘facing’ is under enormous threat.”

 

Providing Resources for Worker Well-being

In the Gallup survey of corporate CHROs, they cited a host of benefits that they’re adding, or current ones they’re reminding workers to take advantage of. Among the steps: increasing sick leave or paid time off on a case-by-case basis, utilizing short-term disability leave or other benefits, recommending employee assistance programs (EAPs), reminding workers of stress-management programs and other mental-health benefits, and staggering shifts to help employees avoid busy commutes.

 

Testing a Company’s Values

As decisions on these questions show, the coronavirus is stress-testing the values of Corporate America and its leaders. If a company is built upon strong, reliable and trustworthy leadership, there’s a better chance it can power through the crisis. And when it does, it may emerge even stronger.

“A company that does things the right way, they can reap unanticipated advantages,” said Edward Segal, the business strategist. “Managing a crisis the right way can send a powerful message to employees, and give them a sense of comfort and confidence, and it could also be a powerful tool for retention of employees and recruitment of new employees.”

He added: “I like to quote Winston Churchill, who said, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going.’”

Editor's note: From Day One has postponed three of its conferences in response to the coronavirus pandemic. You can find an updated version of FD1's schedule here.

Michael Stahl is a New York City-based freelance journalist, writer and editor. You can read more of his work at MichaelStahlWrites.com, follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl, and order his first book, the autobiography of Major League Baseball pitcher Bartolo Colón, at Abrams Books