People Strategy

RfH Insights: How HR Teams Are Addressing Coronavirus

March 4, 2020
November 7, 2023
Andy Przystanski
Lattice Team

RfH Insights features actionable advice curated from Resources for Humans, Lattice’s online Slack community of 7,000+ HR and recruiting professionals. Interested in joining the conversation? Register here.

There’s the work I already had to do, and then there’s coronavirus.”

That was the private lament of an HR leader grappling with one of the most unique challenges of her career. The global spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has put people and security teams on high alert. It’s spurred concerns about business continuity, travel, and above all, employee safety.

Resources for Humans
is Lattice’s Slack community of over 7,000 HR leaders. Since last month, dozens of members have brought up questions and shared actionable advice on how to handle the outbreak. Here are some of the conversations’ most prevalent themes and insights.

Communication and Cleanliness

Companies might worry about sounding alarmist, but sometimes saying nothing is worse. According to data from the communications platform SocialChorus, 85% of companies have sent employees at least one notice about the outbreak. Most of the messages addressed travel, remote work, and sick leave.

Julie Li, VP of People at Stella Connect, knows from experience that crisis communications require nuance. “How do I communicate in a way that is telling people the facts and is reassuring, but not panic-inducing? We need to meet people at their comfort level,” Li said. The New York-based company took decisive action in response to the virus’s spread, organizing a task force that includes the company’s CEO and CFO. Li leads the task force and its comms strategy.

“At this time, it’s helpful to overcommunicate. It’s about being reassuring while still recognizing the severity of the situation,” she said.

Teams from large and small companies alike shared policy language in the Resources for Humans community. One member put together a list of crowdsourced email templates. Others, like Coinbase, shared an exhaustive policy doc that included everything from travel rules to employee FAQs.

Employees are known for keeping it clean around HR — coronavirus takes it to another level. Every internal policy or employee communication shared mentioned handwashing, personal hygiene, and cleanliness. While “clean desk” policies are typically associated with security, some teams took a more literal interpretation.

“Our office manager is the real MVP for forcing everyone to start doing a weekly deep clean on their desk months before coronavirus ever made headlines,” said Leah Ward, Operations Manager at Teampay. She expects the habit to stick long after coronavirus subsides. “Everyone is already used to regularly wiping down their devices and equipment with disinfectant to stay germ-free,” she said.

Remote Work and Continuity

Most professionals cited remote work as their preferred tool for curbing transmission. For companies where onsite work isn’t required, asking staff to work remotely serves two purposes: protecting employees from infection and testing business contingency plans.

“I think it’s worth remembering that pivoting to remote, if you decide to do so, will have gains and losses across the board,” said Rachel Ben Hamou, Director of Talent Development at PeopleStorming. To Hamou and others, those upfront challenges only serve to improve companies’ odds of weathering future crises. “Ultimately, I believe this is a good test of our ability to be agile and adaptable, albeit under some unpleasant circumstances,” she said.

In some industries, working from home isn’t an option. HR professionals are experimenting with other approaches, including being mindful of employee proximity and office design. “If there's a need for members to be in the office for the work they do, consider organizing them into teams A, B, and C to minimize large groups gathering in the office,” said Wilson Lim, Operations Manager at Saleswhale. The World Health Organization says that keeping a distance of at least one meter (or three feet) between individuals helps mitigate the chances of transmission.

Business Travel and Events

Business travelers might be the most susceptible to catching and spreading the virus. Unfortunately, the first quarter is an especially busy time for conferences and offsite events like sales kickoffs. That reality has put both planners and HR teams in a bind.

“We've made the tough decision to cancel our US onsite at the end of this month which would have involved domestic travel,” said Megan Prager, HR and Technical Recruiter at Pex. “We also canceled all travel to both international and domestic conferences including SXSW. No company travel at all is allowed until further notice,” she said. Nearly a dozen other professionals shared similar policies.

In some cases, the choice was made on HR’s behalf. Facebook, Microsoft, Zendesk, and others have all canceled conferences this spring. Li and the Stella Connect team were impacted by the cancelation of Zendesk Relate — a decision so last minute that attendees found out in their hotel rooms.

Employees travel for leisure, too. In cases like these, companies are legally allowed to ask them to disclose travel plans. If an employee just came back from an overseas trip, it could be prudent to ask them to work remotely for a few days. Some teams called it a “self-quarantine,” others a monitoring period.

“Fourteen days home quarantine is what we've gone with if an employee is returning from a highly infected area,” said Sara Niemi, Head of Talent at Submittable. According to health experts, that’s exactly how long it can take for symptoms to show. Several of the HR professionals in the community recommended checking in with affected employees periodically to see how they were feeling throughout. One company weighed whether it would be necessary to ask travelers for a clean bill of health signed by a doctor.

Sick Leave and ‘Presenteeism’

Coronavirus might be top of mind, but seasonal illnesses like the common cold or flu haven’t gone anywhere. Employers aren’t taking their chances given the growing number of community-spread cases nationwide. When a case of the sniffles could amount to so much more, teams encouraged employees to work from home or take a few sick days.

“If employees are sick with anything, they should work from home or log sick time. If they have a fever, we ask them to stay home for at least 14 days,” said Stephanie Heath, Senior HR Generalist at a digital health company. That was a sentiment echoed by many others in the community. In addition to asking employees who feel unwell to stay home, HR teams went through the effort to regularly check in on employees and their symptoms.

“We encourage people to stay home for the duration of their symptoms. It doesn't make sense to put a number [of days] on that, given that folks can be sick for two days or two weeks, depending on what they have and how their bodies respond,” said Ashley Burnstad, Director of People at Roostify.

Coronavirus might be in its early stages here in the US, it’s been an overseas concern since January. Saleswhale, headquartered in Singapore, has had over two months to iterate on its policies. The company, like others in the city-state, takes a bold approach to discourage presenteeism. “To help with screening and detection, we've also implemented twice-daily temperature taking via a non-contact forehead thermometer,” said Lim. Overseas, the practice has become increasingly common at airports, train stations, and even building lobbies.

While we might try to compartmentalize our working lives, the outside world has a knack for barging in. Global contagions, natural disasters, and other crises test HR teams’ mettle in ways that everyday workplace challenges don’t. It means instituting new policies, testing business continuity, and asking employees to change old habits. Who better to rise up to the task than HR?

Hamou, like the rest of the professionals in Resources for Humans, is used to a curveball or two. It comes with the territory. “I’ve personally learned so much through crises both at home and at work. You don’t realize how truly resilient you are until you are tested,” she said.

Leave it to HR, the team responsible for employee growth, to see the opportunity in a challenge.