WHO declared Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 31, 2020, exactly a month after the first case of 'pneumonia of unknown cause' was reported in the Wuhan, China.
The contagious disease has spread rapidly and has claimed more than 160,000 lives worldwide and counting. With a mortality rate of 3.4% as estimated by WHO, for March 3, 2020, the outbreak is genuinely gaining pandemic stature.
The world markets have witnessed huge losses with Travel, Tourism, IT, and Manufacturing sectors being the worst affected. It is feared that the global growth rate might drop by 50% if the outbreak is not contained. With the big international players adopting all possible measures to safeguard its employees, the global office scenarios are seeing a sea change. With standards like 'work from home,' 'split teams,' and adoptive leave policies, HR has their hands full. As expressed by various HR heads of reputed Multinational Companies, HR has, for the first time, is getting involved in the business continuity process. When Manufacturing units are cutting production rates by half, and significant IT industries are directing their employees to work remotely from homes, it's a Herculean task for the HR to coordinate manpower and formulate policies that are effective and legally compliant.
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Scientific studies* have pointed out that it takes only a few hours for any contagious disease to spread in the office environment irrespective of the degree of physical contact. The common areas (cafeteria, break rooms, restrooms, conference halls, etc.) and shared resources (photocopying machines, doorknobs, elevator keys, etc.) act as breeding grounds of infectious diseases. The pathogens deposited by the infected individuals through touch and dissemination of droplets through coughing and sneezing spread the disease at an alarmingly fast rate. HR plays a vital role in ensuring the health and hygiene of its employees. From ensuring total sensitization of the common spaces and resources to providing flu shots to the employees, the onus lies with the HR.
Although common cold and flu account for a dip in attendance of employees and accounts for substantial loss of revenue to the companies every year, the present situation is far from ordinary. Thus, the decision of provisioning the employees to work from home is the best option. However, employees have raised the issue of the legality of this provision by posing the question, 'Can a company direct its employees to work away from the workplace?' Thus, it may not be a cakewalk for HR to convince everyone to be productive while away from their designated workstations. Businesses that cannot afford remote working, the HR have devised novel ways to ensure that the employees are safeguarded from exposure to the disease. In addition to providing complete sanitization of the workspace, HR has formulated adoptive leave policies and organized the employees into teams based on skillsets, location, and levels of functionality. The approach has been proven effective during past outbreaks like SARS and H1N1, which had threatened the world markets. Pulling a few chapters from the past experiences and improving them might be a useful measure while combating COVID-19.
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As pointed out by many industry experts, one of the major causes that have catalyzed the adverse impact of COVID-19 is fear generated due to the misinformation of facts. The absence of reliable information regarding the outbreak and the inability of the management to provide a well laid out plan to curb the spread is a significant area of improvement. A poll conducted by a reputed newspaper has found that 80% of the working respondents consider office management to be more reliable than any other source of information regarding the outbreak. While the governments are on their heels to provide the best measures, HR has a significant role to play in clearing the misinformation and assure the employees of their safety, which is a fundamental right. From taking proactive roles in educating the employees about the symptoms of the disease, its causes of spread, and the preventive measures, one must adopt to make a detailed plan to ensure that the management does not stand without a leading head in case of emergency. HR must act with empathy and foresight. The HR leaders must lead by example and be the first line for any immunization drive or physical examination.
The vital role of HR to combat COVID-19 is well recognized. The Enterprise Singapore under the guidance of Singapore Standard for Business Continuity Management System- requirements and relevant advisories has released a guide on business continuity planning for employers, HR, and operational leaders to deal with the outbreak. The manual has emphasized the significant areas of focus on minimizing the impact of the epidemic and can go a long way in the formulation of effective damage control policies.
COVID-19, despite being the worst outbreak in recent times, has definitely changed the way businesses operate. It has presented HR with a stiff test that will surely bring a sea change in the role played by HR in operations and management.
* The Healthy Workplace Project: Reduced Viral Exposure in an Office Setting. Kelly A. Reynolds, Palomar I. Beamer, Kevin R. Plotkin, Laura Y. Sifuentes, David W. Koenig, and Charles P. Gerber. Arch Environ Occup Health. 2016 May 3; 71(3): 157–162.
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