panic preparedness

Mercer’s Guide for Employers, Workforce Support in Pandemic

(Part 2 of 2)

Communicating with employees in this critical time is essential for employers who need to make sure their employees are taking every precaution, from reinforcing strong travel restrictions and policies to providing essential tips and assistance to facilitate remote working; and reminding them of hygiene practices to maintain health and share information on current business continuity and pandemic response plans. 

As COVID-19 expands geographically, employers with an international presence need to be proactive. Employees should be discouraged from traveling for business to the impacted regions. Even mild, unrelated injury or illness may be difficult to treat as the medical infrastructures are likely to be exhausted. 

Here are the remaining five considerations for employers to consider as advised by Mercer: (The first part was published last January 31, 2020.) 

6. Employers traveling from impacted areas

All employers and employees should collaborate with local health authorities to aid in the prevention and control of COVID-19. 

Health care workers or those who have been working with COVID-19 patients represent a higher degree of risk, and employers should consult closely with health authorities on definitions for exposure. Business travelers who are returning from the affected areas should be educated on the symptoms of COVID-19 (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that these travelers should be vigilant for at least 14 days after return). Employer and employee obligations under employment law will vary from country to country, jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It is important to remind all staff that local public health departments are the primary authority and ultimately responsible for the COVID-19 containment. 

Employers should seek legal counsel and follow the direction of local public health department officials if there are concerns about known, suspected or high-risk cases. 

7. Operation closures and employee experience

Despite the media reports and concerns, companies are adopting a balanced approach to operational questions related to the outbreak. 

In its February 2020 survey, Mercer Talent All Access – Business Responses to COVID-19 Outbreak, a third of respondents told us they were actively monitoring the situation to determine the global need to work remotely. 

Over a half (58 percent) had already decided to do so in regions affected by the virus. Additional steps, such as closing offices and curtailing travels were mostly limited to China and Asia Pacific, with 58 percent of respondents in China affirming these decisions. 

With regard to expatriates, the situation remains fluid, with 48 percent of companies saying they will monitor developments to determine the need to end long-term foreign assignments. At the time of the survey, 96 percent said they had not acted to do so. 

Additional surveys are needed to understand how perceptions are developing.

Employee experience 

As companies contend with supply chain challenges, they may be tempted to slow operations or close entirely. Although such decisions may be necessary, they create substantial uncertainty for employees across the enterprise, especially for those with variable income. In uncertain times, employers may choose to move beyond the contractual components of traditional compensation and benefits. Leaning into the emotional and experiential parts of the employee value proposition requires sensitive employee communications and clarity on the continuation of payrolls. It also means consistent messaging by managers about access to health benefits and more, such as expanded paid leave and well-being interventions — especially for those affected by the stress or concern for peers. 

Some companies are reportedly taking a decidedly compassionate approach — maintaining payrolls, auditing benefits to ensure coverage and extending flexible use of paid time off and other paid leave programs. In fact, in its February 2020 survey, 77 percent of companies said they were not adjusting plans for compensation. Their overarching goal is to sustain a bright future for their employees while supporting them through the difficulty.

8. Remote, flexible and adaptive working

Mercer has developed a framework for its organization in order to help clients work more flexibly. Its Adaptive Working solution allows employees and employers to establish whether workers need to be physically present at the office to complete their work. This approach is based on a clear and structured methodology to deliver practical and repeatable results — namely, when, where, what, who by and how work is done. 

Short-term fixes may be necessary, but lessons from the current crisis will help pinpoint and optimize vulnerable areas before the next crisis hits — especially with regard to flexible working and business process digitization.

Responses may need to be recalibrated as the virus advances or recedes. But in either case, employees will need consistent communications throughout. Be sure to develop communication templates, conversation guides and resource guides for managers to adjust their approaches as the situation changes. 

Managers will also need support. Assure them that the key to success is to lead with compassion during the uncertainty. Displaying empathy will yield far greater impact than any terrain knowledge that might apply.

9. Pension and other asset fund volatility 

Many companies are concerned about their ability to meet their pension commitments in light of the recent market volatility. Equally, employees are worried about the impact of market falls on their savings and retirement pots. 

COVID-19 is a classic “tail risk” event. It may only cause a short-term disruption to global supply chains and certain industries. But the impact may be much further reaching. The main concern for company pension plans is whether the outbreak leads to large-scale panic selling.

10. Pandemic preparedness plans

The rise of COVID-19 serves to remind us that country borders cannot contain the major risks to our businesses. Cyber attacks, environmental disruption and infectious agents are not limited by geography. So employers’ response must be coordinated and cross-functional. 

Having committed cross-functional crisis management teams is the best defense against adverse events that are increasingly part of a global economic landscape. 

A robust preparedness plan comprises governance structures, clear protocols and lines of communication. It also includes assessing supply chain viability and collaborating with public health entities. All employers should take this opportunity to review their existing pandemic, crisis management and response plans and establish new protocols for the current environment.