Put Your People First: Building Organizational Safety and Resiliency
We are bombarded by opinions on when it will be safe and wise to bring societies back to more normal operations after the outbreak of COVID-19. For your business, however, you need to make firm decisions governed by clear principles. Your employees and your customers are likely looking for certainty, not conjecture. This paper provides a framework for arriving at those decisions, along with inspiration about what tangible steps you might take.
WE EXAMINE FOUR MAJOR DECISIONS TO MAKE:
How quickly do you ask employees to come back to the workplace, once government allows it?
How much should you re-engineer the workplace, and what actions would be most worthwhile?
To what degree should you transform how work is performed, and by whom, to enable greater resiliency?
To the extent you can do so, how intrusive about employees’ and customers’ health status are you willing to be?
SETTING POLICIES AMID UNCERTAINTY
No one knows exactly what the future holds for this pandemic, but we can lay out a handful of discrete scenarios and their implications.
Scenario 1 - Continuation Along the Present Course, with a W-shaped Recovery
The will to re-open the economy is strong, but so is the coronavirus’ ability for contagion. As these two forces battle, we can foresee many tentative moves to venture back to normal operations, countered by occasional retreats as the disease resurges. Already, Asian nations such as Singapore have traveled this route, even as they have leveraged extensive testing, contact, and trace infrastructure. Companies will face choices about when to open, what risks to take, and how to diversify their exposure to possible shocks like renewed outbreaks in certain locales. The cycles of recovery and relapse may continue until there is a safe, effective, and widely deployed vaccine, well into 2021 or potentially 2022.
Scenario 2 – Effective Treatments Emerge
There is also a reasonable chance that clinical trials prove out a safe and effective treatment for COVID. Many such treatments are being assessed, ranging from days-long infusions at hospitals to simple oral therapies. If these treatments are successful and not cost-prohibitive (thresholds that may well vary from country-to-country), the health consequences of COVID would be less potentially dire, and governments may decide that the benefits of rapid re-opening outweigh the risks. In this scenario, individuals – both employees and customers – would need to make their own determinations of acceptable risk.
Scenario 3 – Broadening Immunity
As of this writing, evidence is inconsistent about how wide a swathe of the population has developed antibodies to the coronavirus, and how effective those antibodies will be in preventing renewed infection. If a critical mass of the population does develop antibodies—that provide reasonable degrees of immunity, and whose presence can be detected both easily and reliably—then the spread of the virus may slow and a large number of people may be able to work and shop as before the outbreak. These events could coincide with Scenario 2.
The key questions will then revolve around how the results from antibody tests will be used – proactively by people to prove their status, or assertively by businesses and other institutions to determine which individuals may undertake otherwise risky activities. The legalities of ongoing prohibitions against the uninfected and most at risk are quite likely to face challenges, and we can expect the usage of any “immunity passport” to vary considerably from country-to-country. Indeed, Chile is already planning to issue such passports, while in other countries it still seems Orwellian.
APPLYING THE SCENARIOS TO MAJOR ISSUES
As we look across these scenarios, the appropriate responses to key issues will vary
Where you choose to focus your response will depend, of course, on which scenario is transpiring as you make your decisions. Your actions will also be affected by factors such as:
How imperative is it to bring people back to work, for your customers’ well-being as well as for the sustainability of your business? Relatedly, how viable is continued remote work for your employees? This may depend upon the type of job being performed, so companies will develop hybrid approaches of making workplaces safer while keeping staff as remote as possible.
Does the workplace carry inherent risks of personal contact, such as in person services, that increase the likelihood of transmission?
Is your workplace readily reconfigurable? Is it a matter of changing the placement of desks, for example, or redesigning an entire assembly line or bank branch?
How much do your customers insist on knowing your workplace safety level, both for their own health as well as for their purchasing requirements?
How intrusive and assertive are you willing and allowed to be, such as through taking the temperature of employees and customers, checking antibody status or telling employees over a certain age or with certain medical conditions that they should continue to work from home?
What is the attitude toward risk of your employees and customers, and how does that range?
HOW TO RESPOND
There are a variety of workplace interventions available to you, whichever scenario plays out. We can consider them under the broad headings of safety and resiliency
SPACING Already, employers are planning how to re-space desks, restaurant tables and more. You will need to consider both the probability of disease transmission (with the bundle of mitigation methods, especially use of PPE), as well as how attitudes may have changed during the pandemic. With physical proximity now taboo, how willing are employees and customers to be within close distance of others? Do their attitudes differ depending upon whether the people are co-workers or strangers?
SAFETY BEYOND SPACING Most workplaces have innumerable ways of transmitting disease aside from close physical distance. Doorknobs, elevator buttons and other commonly touched surfaces can easily become contagion hubs. For Evertec, a leading Latin American payments processor-based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, management has shifted to essential workers coming to their site in three distinct shifts, with cleaning interspersed. This reduces the chances of disease rapidly permeating critical on-site employees. Employers will also need to consider how workers move from home to work and back again with minimal exposure to themselves and household members.
RULE ENFORCEMENT Rules are only as useful as their enforcement. In some environments, management can’t be ever-present to assess whether new procedures are being followed. Boeing has taken an interesting approach at its giant assembly buildings near Seattle; workers are given red cards, which they can anonymously play to alert supervisors to a safety violation.
RE-DESIGN OF THE WORK ENVIRONMENT Some work environments may call for re-design. We have already seen the rapid deployment of modifications in essential businesses such as grocery stores, like installing shields in front of cashiers. This crisis may present a chance to re-examine long-standing practices, such as offices still using paper forms, bank branches that look unchanged from those seen in movies set in the old Wild West, or restaurants that do not accept contactless payment like Apple Pay
KEEPING VIRTUAL WHAT YOU CAN Organizations have often been surprised at the effectiveness of virtual work. Professors Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman of the University of Chicago estimate that 34% of US jobs can be performed remotely. Another analysis by Citi and the Oxford Martin School estimate that 52% of the US workforce could work virtually. The city of Cedar Hill, Texas found that even services such as EMT, fire, law enforcement and water utilities could function virtually. Greg Porter, the Cedar Hill City Manager, describes, “COVID has introduced our public to this wealth of tools to access services and communicate. The use of these tools has gone up over 500%, and I don’t think these things will go back much in the other direction. Even our library, for instance, has been doing virtual storytime and arts-and-crafts, and we’re going to continue that.”
The nature of “virtual” can also be workplace-specific. Bobby Cobb, the owner of a chain of Boston-area auto body shops called Today’s Collision, reports, “We brought in mobile carts, with a computer and monitor on them, so that parts can be ordered right at the car and technicians can work alone in their bays, not entering the office.” This crisis has created a break with inertia and forced organizations to uncover just how differently they can organize jobs. You may need to consider what supportive infrastructure people require to keep the work virtual, e.g. for those workers who also have to care for homebound children.
VIRTUALIZING THE HITHERTO NOT VIRTUAL Even positions that were always deemed to be onsite might be virtualizable. At Evertec, the Network Operations Center (think of a giant room filled with large monitors) has gone remote to people working from home. According to Mac Schuessler, Evertec’s CEO, “We had to do that gradually and carefully, but now that it’s done, it’s sustainable.”
Workplace safety may not be enough. While a worksite may not promote disease transmission, workers may still contract COVID in other ways, and suppliers may be susceptible to shutdowns due to disease. Organizations need to think through their resiliency against such shocks. They should plan for:
UNDERSTANDING INTERNAL DEPENDENCIES Determine if key work depends upon a handful of individuals and consider cross-training or other means of de-risking these potential failure points
MAPPING EXTERNAL DEPENDENCIES COVID may flare up in distinct regions, factories, or other worksites with amazing rapidity, jeopardizing key suppliers. Japan learned from the devastation of its 2011 earthquake by creating redundancies in supply chains, as well as less manufacturing reliance on extremely specialized components. Consider what you can do to ensure that your operations can continue even if your business partners are hobbled.
CREATING CONTINGENCIES Lorraine Lago, head of St. John’s School in Puerto Rico, says that Hurricane Maria taught about the value of contingency plans. “Now, we know the value of planning ahead without being alarmist.” When the school had to close due to COVID, it was up-and-running at full capacity with synchronous virtual learning (the gold standard in distance education) within two days. For many organizations, the dislocations from coronavirus are far from over, and further contingency plans are required.
CHANGING THE NATURE OF DECISION-MAKING We face economic uncertainty along with insecurity due to disease, and the business environment looks to be turbulent for some time. Is your decision-making agile enough to respond? Does top management have the needed amount of visibility to what is happening in real-time on the ground? How can decision rights be delegated and distributed close to the point of choice?
CHANGING WORK PROCESSES Given that the resolution of this crisis may take time, how should your work practices change? For instance, organizations that can afford it may find that this is an excellent time to hire talented staff, but how will they onboard people who start in an entirely virtual environment?
TO MOVE FORWARD, PLAN OUT 3 ESSENTIAL STEPS:
For employees to focus on your business, they need to feel safe. Customers need to know that you are taking care of them as well as your staff. Risks—of disease transmission as well as unstable business partners— abound. By thinking carefully through the major decisions to make, the impacts of distinct scenarios, and your business-specific factors, you can determine what actions are most appropriate for your circumstances and lay out a staged plan for their rapid and effective implementation. COVID poses unique challenges for us all, but the principles of effective planning can make this crisis manageable.
New Markets Advisors is a boutique consulting firm that helps companies determine what to bring to market and how to do it successfully