Is Your Office Ready for a Pandemic?

3 min read
  • Operations

Chances are, your company has a business continuity or disaster recovery plan to cover all of the run-of-the-mill disasters in your area, whether you’re subject to wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and so on. But are you ready for the flu?

It may sound funny, but an epidemic—including the flu that’s still going on worldwide, the measles that is now hitting California, or the norovirus that recently evacuated and shut down an entire Idaho college building—can be just as devastating to your company as the more traditional natural disasters.

In fact, in some ways, an epidemic can be worse. It doesn’t damage the buildings or the equipment, as a natural disaster can, which may lead some people—like your customers—to not understand or be sympathetic to your issues. “I can’t get my order because you people have the flu? Are you kidding me?” Moreover, epidemics can last for weeks or months, which can make it pretty hard to operate in crisis mode for all that time.

This year, for example, flu has reached epidemic levels in several states, including California, and has particularly hit young adults. And while it might seem like the worst has already passed, the Center for Disease Control says flu season can last until April and that for people who haven’t yet been vaccinated, it’s still worth it to get vaccinated now. In fact, part of the reason this flu has hit young adults so hard is that working-age people are less likely to be vaccinated.

As with any natural disaster—and particularly for an epidemic—the most important resource to protect and support is your people. What are some steps you can take?

If a vaccine is available for the disease, make sure employees know about it, and find a way to pay for it, if company insurance doesn’t cover it. If possible, arrange for the health department to come into your company to vaccinate employees. The cost is likely to be minimal compared with weeks of sick time and lost productivity for valuable employees.

Needless to say, ramp up hygiene notifications such as washing hands, not touching faces, and covering mouths; put out sanitizer and tissues; and ask the janitorial staff to be more thorough. In some cases, stronger measures may be needed. Norovirus, for example, basically needs swabbing with 5 percent bleach before it can be killed.

In addition, make sure employees have the ability to work at home or from some other remote location—and make sure their telework system is set up and working well in advance of needing it. Obviously, if people don’t have to come to work, they’re less likely to expose each other to germs they pick up from their families, public transportation, and other activities—and if the epidemic gets severe enough, it could make commuting more difficult.

“Make sure you factor in things like the suddenly limited resources of local health departments and hospitals, which may make mass-inoculation programs problematic,” wrote Gartner’s research vice president Kristin Moyer in 2009, coincidentally the last time this year’s H1N1 flu strain was prevalent. “I have yet to speak with any clients who had factored in what the potentially high worker absentee rate would do to the supply chain for things like food and fuel… what happens to your plans if your healthy staff has hungry dependants and an empty fuel tank in their car?”

Chances are, though, that some people are going to get sick. Make sure they understand, first of all, that you don’t want them to come to work sick. The extra day or two of work you get out of them, assuming they can even function, could end up getting a bunch of other staff members sick. (And be sure to check on people you don’t hear from. You don’t want one of your employees to be home alone if they need help.) “If you don’t normally offer paid sick time, consider doing so, if only temporarily,” writes Business Management Daily. “Knowing they won’t lose pay could persuade sick workers to stay home.”

Second, make sure that it’s clear who’s in charge of the various office functions if people are out sick. Make sure processes and procedures are defined and stored  in an accessible place so they’re available to the backup people, and update them as necessary. There are samples and guides online to help develop them. And remember that some employees might not make it back to work right away; don’t assume everyone will be back in two or three days.

Finally, just as with any other disaster or business continuity plan, be sure to test it periodically. Just like you don’t want to find out when a hurricane is bearing down that your plan has flaws, you don’t want to wait until half the office is out sick, either.

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