Business Leaders: Let’s Talk About Coronavirus

“There is an important space between tuning out and freaking out.”
~ Homeland security expert Professor Juliette Kayyem

Business Leaders: Let’s Talk About Coronavirus

For business leaders, the minute-to-minute barrage of breaking news on the coronavirus (COVID-19) makes it challenging to know how and when to respond. To separate fact from fiction and provide some sound advice on what to do now, we spoke with homeland security expert Professor Juliette Kayyem and relied on advice from the Center for Disease Control and various public health experts. In government, academia, journalism and the private sector, Juliette has served as a national leader in America’s homeland security efforts. A former Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, Juliette is the Senior Belfer Lecturer in International Security at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and faculty chair of the Homeland Security Project and the Global Health Project. She is known to many of her colleagues as “The Queen of Calm”.

The bottom line: First and foremost, don’t panic. There will be ongoing impact as healthcare professionals become equipped to test for the virus and we await a safe and effective vaccine, which may be 18 to 24 months away.

While the scope of the impact is currently unknown and evolving, there is time to prepare. Don’t squander it. The likelihood that you or any of your employees will get COVID-19 is believed to be very low. But that can change as the CDC, NIH and the best scientists in the world work together to understand the virus and the challenges presented by “community transmission”.

Your employees will look to you for calm, steady leadership as well as guidance on what they should do as individuals, family members and parents. They also need to have confidence that your company is prepared to navigate potential disruptions. How many times has an employee or co-worker asked a “What if” question? Having some solid answers will calm an uneasy workforce.

Let’s start with the basics. The major symptoms of coronavirus are fever, cough and shortness of breath. Call a healthcare professional if you develop symptoms and have been in close contact with a person known to have COVID-19 or if you have recently traveled from an area with widespread or ongoing community spread of COVID-19.

Reinforce the social contract. We are stronger as a whole when individuals take personal responsibility for good hygiene and prudent decision-making. Protecting yourself, your family and friends, your co-workers and the public is not a spectator sport. Everyone can and should play an active role in fighting COVID-19:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay at home if you’re sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially if they are visibly dirty, after going to the bathroom, before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use hand sanitizer that contains 60% alcohol.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Consider replacing a handshake with a “fist bump”.
  • The CDC advises that the average American does not need to wear a mask, but should do so if advised by a healthcare professional.

If the virus spreads, it won’t hit all communities equally. It will impact the country in pockets. Parents might consider preparing for disruptions to daily life like school closures. Think “72 on You”: 72 hours of provisions in house like food, specialized medications and prescriptions, diapers, baby needs, some cash, etc.

Businesses have a responsibility to plan. Juliette cautions that employers should be prepared for potential disruptions to business operations and the supply chain. “Failure to plan often results in bad decision-making and can lead to disjointed action either too early or too late,” Juliette says. “If you haven’t already explicitly formulated and communicated a continuity of operations plan, now is the time to begin.”

Juliette advises thinking about business needs and implications in four phases. She describes them as follows:

PHASE 1: Readiness & Preparedness
Identify a czar or primary contact — someone other than the CEO. This person will be responsible for establishing or refreshing a continuity roadmap and will make decisions in real time, communicating up and down and across your organization. This person should also initiate contact with local and state officials, remind teams of the importance of hand-washing and staying home if sick, and think about planning for some employees to telecommute. Finally, the czar (and everyone in your organization) should be aware that some populations may face disproportionate scrutiny due to race or country of origin. Be particularly mindful of and support those of Asian descent.

PHASE 2: Activation
Deciding when to activate a continuity of operations plan can be challenging. This will require a flexible approach as the needs at headquarters will likely differ from needs in the field. Be aware of school district closures across your region as this may drive the timing for activation. Unlike extreme weather events in which response and action often take place in shorter and more well-defined periods of time, infectious disease outbreaks such as this are likely to require a slow rolling view. When considering activation, good communication with local and state officials is critical.

PHASE 3: Continuity Operations
The content of business continuity policies and procedures should be transparent and actionable. Identify specific guidelines on areas such as telecommuting and protective gear that will enable core functions to continue. Be clear on which functions or services are deemed nonessential and may cease temporarily if necessary. This will require variances depending on location and will necessitate flexibility to adjust and modify in real time. Active, consistent and clear communication with employees will be vital.

PHASE 4: Reconstitution Operations
The time will come to resume normal business operations. Timing on when to return to normal is also challenging. Again, this will require communication with local and state officials and will depend on community indicators such as school re-openings. Strong continuity operations will precipitate smooth reconstitution.

This four-phase framework can help business leaders get a handle on the potential implications and challenges related to the coronavirus, and organize their thinking on how to address them.

“There is an important space between tuning out and freaking out,” Juliette says. “Responsible employers should plan so they don’t create a void which can easily be filled with anxiety and panic.”

Visit the CDC website frequently for the most current information.

And don’t hesitate to call on the team at the TEN|10 Group if we can be of assistance with crisis communications planning and communications.