COVID-19: Workforce considerations

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Managing disruptions to people and productivity from the coronavirus

The spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) places immediate demands on many US business leaders to communicate to stakeholders with as much specificity as possible — even if the prospect of a direct impact on the business due to emergency public health measures feels remote. This is especially the case for the workforce.

Questions are already being raised: Should I still fly to the sales meeting? Can I work from home if my children’s school closes? How do we protect employees who are essential to keeping physical operations running?

The answers can drive day-to-day operational decision-making in ways that quickly turn into strategic junctures. Leaders set the tone in communicating information about contingency planning in a crisis, especially during a viral outbreak. Authentic messaging cuts through business uncertainties and inspires sound decision-making, even if the company never has to shift fully into crisis mode.

US employers should consider a comprehensive plan of action to protect people and productivity. Three considerations are likely top of mind:

  • Ways to address workforce safety, as employees may face different health risks depending on the type of work they do and where they do it.
  • How to ramp up remote working capabilities to keep people connected securely, and to keep projects documented and moving forward. It may not be possible to hire or find substitutes fast enough to replace sidelined employees or operations.

    As the virus spreads, its impact across many sectors seems inevitable. There have been several high-profile warnings by leading US companies about sales disruptions, as well as early indications of industry-wide impacts, for example, in the airline industry.
  • Creating a strategy for communicating factually and effectively to employees, customers, partners and other stakeholders. The fear of the disease — and the contingencies that many companies put in place — may  result in long-lasting effects. For example, consider the economic impact of a growing list of cancelled or postponed industry conferences on the host cities.

What to look at now

Ensuring employee safety

Test emergency contact systems to confirm you have accurate contact information for all employees — particularly those from centralized functions like Finance, HR and IT. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued interim guidance for all employers and specifically for those in health care. There are recommended steps for handling sick workers, employee travel and environmental cleaning.

Prioritize remote technology capabilities

Organizations that are ready to adapt quickly to changing conditions have tested and enabled technologies that can support emergency communications and continued collaboration, as well as information back-up and documentation. These processes are critical to continuity when a crisis, such as a viral outbreak, can take business partners, as well as competitors, offline at the same time.

Although many companies have the pieces in place that enable employees to work away from the office, an effective remote technology plan should include the following:

  • IT infrastructure and security plans that address integrated processes, documentation and back-up. As many companies are already in various stages of workflow migrations to cloud environments, these measures should not be unfamiliar. However, the shift to a fully remote environment can create additional challenges.
  • Network availability to employees, including those who do not have company-managed devices, enabling them to stay connected to the company and various working groups. Can the company offer access to core systems and control conditions for entry? Companies also should understand whether supporting systems, such as VPNs, are optimized for mixed (both company-managed and personally-owned) laptop/WiFi and mobile device/mobile network control points.
  • Clear expectations to teams and supervisors regarding documentation, communication and validation.
  • Consultations with legal to understand any increased liability for employees who are working offsite or at home, as well as any potential data security issues that could arise.

Assess the impact on global mobility and business continuity

Global mobility issues should be top of mind, including how to address the health of employees and business continuity with customers. Learn more about COVID-19’s  trade and tax implications and mitigating supply chain disruption.

  • Companies are developing their contingency plans quickly. While it is too early to fully understand the severity of this crisis and its long-term implications, there are several steps businesses can take now to improve the situation. Learn more in crisis response planning for COVID-19.

Where to focus next

Develop a remote working model

As you look longer term, you’ll want to tackle the concerns and constraints associated with productivity impacts. The rapid advance in technology tools that enable remote working are reshaping what the workplace will look and feel like in a not-too-distant future, especially in the services industries. A crisis like a viral outbreak can reveal immediate infrastructure gaps, while also accelerating the timeline for more work activities to take place outside of a shared physical space.

The reality is that many organizations have not addressed the conditions required for working remotely — or how to do it well. The shift can be bigger than many companies realize, and productivity impacts are possible in the short term as teams learn how to collaborate with co-workers and connect with the company in new ways.

There are also smaller, tactical matters to address, such as how often employees need to check in and what remote tools match up appropriately to distinct tasks. For example, there are differences — cultural as well as technical — between email, chats and virtual meetings that may be underappreciated. What is the preferred method to collaborate on activities that need to be documented and/or take place in a secure environment? Which tools foster rapid, collaborative learning and on-the-ground management decision-making before a team is prepared to execute on a project?

Longer-term, many companies will likely require more practice in transparent knowledge sharing, distributed authority, and encouraging active experimentation and diverse perspectives. Replicating the rich connections that people make while working in the same physical space in a virtual environment is difficult to get right.

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Contact us

Carrie Duarte

Workforce of the Future Leader, PwC US

Bhushan Sethi

Principal, Joint Global Leader, People and Organization, PwC US