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- COVID-19 is spreading throughout the United States, with over 550 cases and 21 deaths.
- In order to contain the disease, China quarantined 50 million people, 30% of companies shut down temporarily, and many people worked remotely.
- Employers in the US must be proactive to help contain the disease by remaining up to date on accurate information, communicating regularly with staff, and maintaining a clean office space.
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The number of people affected by coronavirus in the United States is climbing — over 550 individuals have tested positive and 21 people have died. Fear is spreading even faster. Amazon sold out of Purell hand sanitizer, several large-scale conferences and festivals have been called off, and the stock markets have been uncomfortably volatile.
So far, there are over 111,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 throughout the world and 3,892 have died from it. As of now, the large majority of these cases and fatalities are in China — around 70% and 80%, respectively — where the outbreak began.
In an effort to contain the outbreak, China quarantined almost 50 million people. And of 1,000 Chinese companies recently surveyed by research firm China Beige Book, around 33% shut down temporarily, and another third required their employees to work remotely.
With each day, there are a few more cases in the US. If you’re in a leadership position at your company, it doesn’t hurt to be proactive and take every reasonable measure you can now to prevent further spread of the disease.
Here’s how to keep your team updated about the outbreak and maintain as clean and healthy a workspace as possible.
Where to get the most accurate information about COVID-19
Quite quickly, “coronavirus” has pervaded vocabularies across the world. But though it may be a new term to many of us, it’s been around for decades.
“A coronavirus is a common type of virus that can infect your respiratory tract,” explained Dr. Manesh Trivedi, director of infectious disease at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center. “Almost everyone gets a coronavirus infection at least once in their life.”
Originally detected in humans in the 1960s, there are seven different types, with the one currently making headlines recently being identified as the seventh. It’s official name is SARS-CoV-2, and it causes coronavirus disease 2019 (or COVID-19).
As a leader at your organization, you can help keep hysteria at bay and slow the spread of the disease by communicating only the most accurate updates and minimizing the spread of misinformation among your team.
It’s also critical that you’re up to date with affected areas, as your contingency plan will be vastly different if there’s an outbreak in your community. Also, pay attention to travel bans so you can make adjustments to work trips and provide guidance on personal travel and self-quarantine.
No matter what you may see in the headlines, always revert back to these two reliable sources: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and The World Health Organization (WHO).
While details are still developing about the virus, here’s what we know so far.
How to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in your office
When someone who’s infected with COVID-19 sneezes or coughs, droplets exit their nose and mouth and eventually land on another surface. Should an uninfected individual touch the affected surfaces, then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth, they can catch COVID-19.
There’s also the potential that, if you stand close enough to someone with the virus, you could inhale the droplets and become infected.
Knowing this, it’s your responsibility to make sure the space your employees work in every day is as sanitary as possible (unless, of course, you’re already a fully remote company).
“Conduct regular disinfecting of workspaces, shared spaces such as break rooms and cafeterias, and frequently touched items like doorknobs, countertops, refrigerators, microwaves,” said Jennifer Ho, vice president of human resources at Ascentis, an HR software firm. It’s also worth giving your phone a regular cleaning as well.
Disinfecting high-touch areas should occur at least daily, though given the severity of the situation, doing it a few more times a day isn’t a bad idea. The Center for Biocide Chemistries provides an extensive list of cleaning products that will fight the virus. (Good news: There are a lot more options than Purell.)
Ho also recommended limiting the number of vendor and client visits to the office, rescheduling the meetings you have or conducting them virtually. Inform your contacts that you’re operating out of an abundance and caution, so in-person meetings will be limited until the situation improves, then provide them with the option of a virtual chat or rescheduling.
Ultimately, the less people coming in and out of the office, the better. You might also consider refraining from shaking hands with clients (if you still meet with them face-to-face) and instead opting for a kind wave or elbow bump.
In addition, any employee returning from travel to an area in which the virus is spreading (even if they just have a layover in one of those spots) should self-quarantine in their home for 14 days.
What signs and symptoms of COVID-19 to keep an eye on — and what to do if you think an employee might have the coronavirus
COVID-19 presents similarly to pneumonia. The most common — and often earliest — symptom is a fever. Patients can also develop fatigue, muscle pain, a dry cough, and shortness of breath.
With that being said, someone could have coronavirus and never show any symptoms at all.
If you suspect you have coronavirus, Dr. Trivedi advised calling your healthcare provider first — same goes for encouraging your employees to take similar steps should they present these symptoms. The first step should not be to go to the emergency room. You risk infecting everyone else there — doctors, nurses, patients, and family members.
In general, if someone has symptoms similar to the flu or pneumonia, encourage them to stay home for four to five days after the initial onset (this is when you’re most contagious), if not the full 14-day quarantine.
How to communicate with your employees about coronavirus to quell fears and concerns
The health and safety of your employees should be a top priority. They are, after all, your most valuable asset. And when there’s a new virus rapidly spreading throughout the country, communicating with your employees about it is non-negotiable.
“In times of crisis,” shared Bryan Harris, a director at communications firm Jackson Spalding, “it’s more important than ever that leaders display conviction and clarity. Leadership may not know what’s around the corner, but employees want to have faith that the person leading them is ready when the time comes.”
Here are some tips for communicating with your staff about COVID-19.
Source any information you share from the CDC and WHO
The primary mission of these two reputable organizations is to protect the public’s health, so you can be sure that anything you read on there is backed by a team of experts who are monitoring the situation very closely.
Identify one person or team to own COVID-19 communications
This will minimize the risk of mixed messages and let employees know exactly who they can go to with questions.
“Someone within the company should be designated as the single source of information to monitor guidance from the CDC and recommend what should be communicated to employees and when,” said Dr. David Gregg, chief medical officer for employee wellness company StayWell. Harris suggests putting together a small group of leaders — a task force of sorts — who’ll work closely with executive leadership and HR to guide internal communications and decisions. You don’t necessarily want to dump the entire onus on, say, your marketing team.
Leverage the company website or intranet to share updates
It’s easier to create a page that you can update frequently than it is to continuously send emails. Of course, if you have an urgent announcement, reaching your team via email is fine (just make sure to put that update on the intranet, too).
Don’t use permanent methods of communicating unless it’s something that’s set in stone
For reminders about proper hand-washing methods, a flyer above the bathroom sink is fine. But since this is still a developing situation, most things will be in flux, so it’s better to communicate about them on your intranet or via email.
Continuously promote preventative practices, including proper hand-washing techniques, sneezing into your elbow, working from home, and taking sick time
Your staff likely has heard about general hygiene practices before — to avoid seeming like you’re teaching a child how to wash their hands or sneeze politely, consider sending around guidelines from WHO or the CDC, saying something along the lines of:
“Hi team: As you likely already know, washing your hands is incredibly important, especially with the current outbreak of coronavirus. Please take a few moments to review the attached guidelines from the World Health Organization. We’ll also be posting a few of these around the office.”
You could also opt to hang them up around in obvious spaces without saying anything.
When it comes to encouraging employees to stay home, you may need to revisit your work-from-home and sick-leave policies. Broadcast these changes widely and clearly — what exactly are they, and how long are they in effect?
“Understand that some people, especially hourly or low-wage workers, come to work when they’re not feeling well because they depend on the income,” explained Harris. “Communicate genuine concern for your people and show them you’re willing to work with them in the face of a difficult situation.”
This messaging could look something like:
“All: As per usual, our general guideline is to remain home when you’re sick so you can rest up and prevent spreading whatever you have to others. This is even more important with the coronavirus outbreak. If you exhibit symptoms, please reach out to your healthcare provider and do not come to the office. We understand you might have concerns about taking sick time. Please know that we want to work with you to alleviate these concerns. You can reach out to [HR contact person’s name] to discuss a possible course of action should you become sick.”
Of course, “there’s no one-size-fits-all approach because no two organizations are the same,” explained Harris. “Communicate in whatever method best fits yours.”
If your employees are used to a certain way of receiving information from you (like on chat or during weekly all-hands meetings), stick with that method. It’s okay to add additional modes on top of that, but if you divert completely from what’s already working, some people might not get critical messages.
Decreasing the rate of the coronavirus outbreak requires collective action. If you’re leading a team of people, that means there are extra precautions you should be taking — as soon as possible.