Adapting Travel and Telework Policies for Coronavirus

March 11, 2020

Adapting Travel and Telework Policies for Coronavirus

As the coronavirus spreads, more and more companies are opting to restrict business travel, prepare employees for remote work and limit in-person visits to workplaces. Many companies have tiered response plans based on local needs and are testing remote work capabilities to be prepared. 

Business Travel Precautions

The difference between a reasonable response and overreaction seems to change hourly. How can employers ensure they are making responsible decisions regarding business travel? Management specialists recommend the following:

Beyond that, companies would do well to err on the side of caution, said David Michaels, a professor of public health at George Washington University and assistant secretary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for seven years during the Obama administration.

"Every employer has to consider whether or not the risk [of travel] is warranted—not just the destination but the plane trip itself," Michaels said. "It's a moving target right now. If you can avoid [having employees travel] as much as possible, you're going to be better off because when you minimize employee exposure, you improve your ability to function in the long run."

As employers scramble to get ahead of the fast-changing travel landscape, they must also consider when travel bans should end. The WHO website cautions against indefinite travel bans, saying they "may only be justified at the beginning of an outbreak, as they may allow countries to gain time, even if only a few days, to rapidly implement effective preparedness measures. Such restrictions must be based on a careful risk assessment, be proportionate to the public health risk, be short in duration, and be reconsidered regularly as the situation evolves."

Remote Work Considerations

Concerns over containing the spread of the coronavirus is prompting many employers, including Twitter, to encourage their employees who can to telework. But companies will want to set expectations, especially for those employees who have not previously worked remotely.

"Work-from-home policies will be unique from one organization to another, but organizations must create policies that are effective for their teams,” said Ronni Zehavi, co-founder and CEO of Hibob, a cloud-based people management platform based in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Set clear expectations on establishing work hours, prioritizing tasks and attending meetings that usually would be held in person.

Ad hoc conversations can take place when people bump into one another in the workplace, noted Society for Human Resource Management blogger Ross Smith. He suggests creating an "always on" video or chat channel to create such interactions digitally for remote workers.

Here are some other things employers should keep in mind:

  • Companies need to set standards in advance for how employees are to communicate and collaborate.
  • Set up employees with remote log-in access and company laptops and make sure employees share their cell phone numbers with team members.
  • Conference calls and collaboration systems such as Skype and Zoom help teams get together from a distance, Zehavi noted. He suggested encouraging employees to download and test all apps in advance of teleworking.
  • Smith suggests recording meetings for those unable to attend in person. This also may be helpful for those working or traveling in different time zones. 
  • Be mindful, too, of those who are teleconferencing and repeat questions so everyone can hear. Make sure to give people on the phone opportunities to speak up.

For workers in specific industries, telecommuting may be difficult or even impossible. Companies are considering staggered work hours and reviewing sick leave policies for hourly employees. 

"In situations like these where an employee can't avoid going to work, it's vital workers are staying informed as well as ensuring their personal hygiene remains a top priority," Zehavi said.

Limiting Office Visits 

Facebook is restricting visits by employees' friends and family to all of the company's offices in 35 countries to limit their workers' exposure to the coronavirus, Business Insider reported, and using video conferencing to conduct job interviews.

The Authors: 

Deborah Stadtler is Managing Editor at SHRM’s Executive Network, HR People + Strategy.