As Homebase’s Head of People, I first wrote this article to share how I’m developing our response to COVID-19. But our focus is very different this week. 

The outbreak has spread, and our offices are located in the large metropolitan areas of San Francisco and Houston—with one city currently required to follow a shelter-in-place order.

During this uncertain time, we’re focused on maintaining our team’s well-being, morale, and ensuring we can communicate effectively with each other while working remotely.

Here are my recent thoughts on what you should do about COVID-19 as a small employer—and how you can continue to modify your business operations in an evolving situation.

Remember, this is not professional legal advice. If you have any questions or concerns regarding the COVID-19 response, consult an employment lawyer. 

What should I do right now about the coronavirus?

First, make some immediate changes if you haven’t done so already.

1. Stop business travel

We’ve implemented a temporary policy here at Homebase banning all business travel.

2. If you’re still in a shared physical office, increase your office cleaning practices

The coronavirus can easily spread, so be sure to disinfect all shared surfaces in your office daily, if not more often. Remember to clean areas you wouldn’t normally think about, like elevator buttons, shared iPads, faucets, coffee pots, kitchen handles, keyboards, and doorknobs.

3. Stock up on supplies

It’s common for your everyday vendors to be on backorder during a health scare like COVID-19, but I was able to secure supplies for Homebase through an industrial supply company. However, some companies like this will only serve current customers, so you might have to check out a few different options. 

Here are a few you can start with: 

If you are unable to obtain antibacterial cleansing wipes, use traditional cleaners. If you are unable to get hand sanitizer, load up on soap and encourage more frequent handwashing. You also have the option of making your own homemade hand sanitizer.

4. Educate employees

Give your team reputable sources to reference for accurate information about the coronavirus outbreak. Here are some good ones: 

Remind employees to stock up on in-home supplies so that they don’t have to venture out as often during social distancing. Should they get sick, they should plan to have at least two-weeks worth of supplies at home. However, you should also remind your team that “essential businesses” will still remain open during this time, so there’s no need to hoard food and supplies that you don’t need, which can prevent high-risk groups from accessing those goods.

Before the shelter-in-place mandate went into effect in San Francisco, we had a sign in our office that said, “How was public transit? Please clean your hands!” We also placed hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies around our office.

5. Handshakes are out! And if a physical location is still open, maintain a minimum distance of 6 feet

Right now, we’re in social distancing mode so if your business is still open and your employees are still coming into your work location, experts recommend that their desks or workstations should be at least 6 feet apart. And when it is time for a break or lunch, your employees should not sit together but rather maintain their distance.

6. If a physical location is still open, require sick employees to stay home

Ask all employees who are feeling the least bit unwell or exhibiting any signs of illness to stay home, even if their symptoms do not mirror the known coronavirus symptoms.

What should my COVID-19 policy look like? 

Outline what you know and what you’re doing in terms of a business contingency plan if people have to start taking more severe isolation precautions.

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong publicly shared the company’s policy and strategy for mitigating the effects of the pandemic. His coronavirus plan consists of a tiered system, and the different levels are triggered by how serious the virus transmission is in the area. 

We’re using a similar strategy here at Homebase, and we’re now currently at tier three. It looks something like this:  

Tier 1: A precautionary plan 

  • Don’t schedule any work-related trips unless they are business-critical. 
  • Cancel work-related events that consist of large gatherings.
  • If possible, use video chats for meetings with off-site individuals. (We like Zoom and Hangouts.)

Tier 2: 100+ cases of “in-the-wild” transmission

  • Voluntarily allow employees to work from home as much as possible, if it’s possible with your business model. 
  • Don’t offer any shared food when risk levels rise—you can also opt for heated foods only, or prepackaged foods. 
  • ALL business travel should stop. 
  • Limit on-site meetings, visits, and services. 

Tier 3: Local containment is failing

When creating a policy for COVID-19, it’s important to remember that you still need to comply with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), making accommodations for employees when necessary. 

If people request time off due to a serious medical condition or to care for a family member with a serious medical condition, depending upon your company size and their tenure, they may be protected under the FMLA.  

Additionally, it could be considered a “reasonable accommodation” to allow employees who are disabled or immunocompromised to work from home sooner than other team members. Personally, I would also offer extra consideration for employees who live with higher risk individuals, like those over the age of 60.

If your business model doesn’t allow for your staff to work from home, think about ways you can adjust your business to help your staff continue to work during this crisis.

  • Can you allow your staff to take some time off (paid or unpaid)?
  • Can you limit your staff’s exposure to the public?
  • Are there any projects that your team can work on remotely?
  • Do you have any long-term projects you’ve been putting off? 
  • Are there any online trainings your team could participate in?
  • Can any of your work be completed using video conferencing as opposed to relying on in person meetings?

This might be the time to task your team with projects outside of their normal day-to-day activities.

How do I transition my team to remote work?

Knowing that transitioning to remote work can greatly impact productivity and culture, we made some adjustments that are working well for our team. 

  • For team communications, we are relying heavily on Zoom’s online meeting software and Slack for instant messaging.
  • Each morning, our CEO posts a message to set the tone for the day. He includes updates on the business, the economy, and most importantly our customers, challenging us to find new and better ways to serve them during this difficult time. 
  • We have distributed documents to the team that outline proper communication channels and online work etiquette, standardizing how we share information. 
  • Teams have started having daily huddles where they can share what they are working on, socialize, and talk about any challenges they’re facing with this new remote work culture. 
  • We’ve made a concerted effort to drive a positive online culture. We start each day with an upbeat music video and motivational quote, we share photos of our pets and children (who are happy to have us home), host online happy hours and virtual events, and have themed dress up days. 
  • We support our employees by sharing resources on a variety of topics including wellness, working from home, dealing with anxiety, physical fitness, and unwinding after a long day. 
  • We also promote our employee assistance program (EAP) which offers resources like confidential counseling, legal support, and financial advice.

What could the coronavirus outbreak mean for my business? 

Social distancing means exactly what you would think: people living in an impacted area are not going to want to go outside and interact as much. This is where your adaptation strategy should come into play. 

Rethink your business operations 

Revisit your business operations to minimize external touchpoints. 

If you run a restaurant, you may be required to only offer pickup or delivery options. For example, restaurants in China (like McDonalds) are implementing “contactless” pickups to keep people safe. Customers order via an app or in-store computers, workers put the orders in sealed bags, and they are placed in pickup spots where no human contact is required. 

Do you have a retail shop? Think about increasing your online presence and offer more products to be delivered if you’re required to close during social distancing. Or roll out an online promotion, so you still have a steady stream of revenue if customers aren’t physically coming into your store.

Avoid making big business decisions 

The truth is that the future impact of COVID-19 is still up in the air as we’re trying to mitigate the outbreak. So hold off on making business plans that could potentially be ruined if we’re still required to follow social distancing orders in the next few months. 

Pause on signing any large contracts that could potentially be affected. Anything that is not business-critical should be considered carefully at this time, as none of us really know how the coronavirus will impact our businesses in the long run.

If you anticipate a significant loss of income, ask an insurance broker about your options with business interruption insurance. You also may be eligible for other COVID-19 grants and low-interest loans designed for business owners

The bottom line 

Your bottom line should never come before the safety of your employees when dealing with a public health emergency like COVID-19. 

Refusing to make any accommodations to protect your team’s health is shortsighted—and it may be a violation of the law. You don’t want to lose your staff because they don’t feel like you have their back, and if you wait too long to address the situation, it will be much more difficult to implement a plan. 

Still, it is important to prevent any fear mongering in an age when there is lots of fake news about COVID-19. Keep a pulse on the situation in your area by following reputable sources like the CDC and your local health department, and proceed accordingly.

Stay healthy and wash your hands!

Remember, this is not professional legal advice. If you have any questions or concerns regarding the COVID-19 response, consult an employment lawyer. 

This article was updated on March 19.

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