Jocelyn Brandeis & Julia Angelen Joy
Jocelyn Brandeis (L) & Julia Angelen Joy

The spread of COVID-19 coronavirus will be the world’s largest test-run of a mass work-from-home scenario and there’s a possibility it might fail. 

For small and medium-sized businesses – all 30.2 million of them or 44% of U.S. economic activity – this means making significant changes to daily operations, with little time to prepare, in a rapidly changing situation.

While policies for working from home range from an enthusiastically promoted company perk to a frowned-upon last resort, only 10% of the current U.S. employment-population has a steady grasp of how to work-from-home and maintain long-term productivity.

“There are going to be areas of quarantine in the U.S., and workflow is going to be dramatically changed," CBS News contributor Dr. David Agus told CBS MoneyWatch.

If you are one of the 90% of the organizations who do not currently offer remote work, you need to be prepared – from CEO to receptionist, and from accounting to waste management – to have your team move to an entirely remote operation, with little or no warning, under duress.

Questions your team needs to consider now:

  1. Can your organization deliver at current levels if a percentage of your staff gets ill? Do you have trained back-up for every role? Who will step in? Are they prepared now?
  2. How will you handle employee illnesses or self-quarantines? Will you assist staff if they face extenuating circumstances? If schools and daycares close, how will you support employees that are parents or grandparents?
  3. Will you be offering employees the opportunity for virtual attendance to conferences or will you be canceling all travel?
  4. What if an important supplier or partner is closed due to an outbreak? What if a vendor closes mid-project? What if deliveries halt nationwide?
  5. What if your business is named in the news? Are you prepared to address concerns? Do you have a trained spokesperson? What is the chain of command for addressing the media?

"Not working for an indefinite amount of time is unsustainable for individuals, businesses and the national economy. Providing an opportunity for efficient work-from-home alleviates the damage caused by the pandemic," said Alex Konanykhin, co-founder and CEO of TransparentBusiness.

The CEO’s job is to be in control of the situation and to present information to the employees in the calmest manner possible. Be honest, humble, and show that you care. A crisis is no time for jokes or charm.

The only thing people care about is how business will be handled and that they, their jobs, and their loved ones are financially and physically secure.

The CEO should use all available methods to communicate with the employees early and often, including all-hands meetings, internal channels, and social media.

Employee Communications 

When creating solutions to these difficult changes, always be sure to express concern and emotion for those in harm’s way. Employees will always be the greatest advocates of the company, but in a crisis, “loose lips sink ships.”

CEOs need to contain the rumor mill as fast as possible. The CEO’s goals for communicating are:

  1. Ensure that employees and customers are safe.
  2. Assure the public that the company can still function.
  3. Correct any problems while preventing new ones.

Operational Considerations

If a quarantine does go into effect, CEOs will be leading teams from afar, and there may be a learning curve for many. Working with computers and software within an enterprise is often different than working on a home computer. Assessing the tech capabilities of all staff members will be essential.

The company may have to provide laptops, iPads or cell phones to ensure employees can remain connected and productive. There are many free offerings across the web; however, no-cost solutions often have limited technical support. The company may have to purchase enterprise solutions that offer training or provide that internally.

In addition to technology updates, contact details need to be updated so that everyone can be reached, especially managers. Keep in mind that if there is a quarantine, people will not be leaving their homes; therefore, all IT issues will need to be dealt with by phone or computer.

There are companies that will thrive; some companies will survive despite leadership; and some companies will go under, never to be heard from again.

As CEO, you have the responsibility to lead the way if your company has a physical shut-down. You need to prepare for this possibility ahead of time to avoid scrambling the minute it happens.

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Jocelyn Brandeis is a New York City-based PR consultant & writer with 25+ years' experience. Julia Angelen Joy is president of Z Group PR and has worked with more than 100 small businesses on a variety of corporate messaging, digital marketing, and public relations solutions.