For businesses worried about COVID-19 the time to act is now.

March 13, 2020

Article originally published in Medium

By Katie Heelis and David Tarrant

Much remains unknown about the emerging COVID-19 outbreak that has already claimed thousands of lives, crashed global markets, and brought entire regions and economic sectors to a near standstill.

While information will become clearer over time, for now individuals and businesses should take their cue from public health professionals as they provide updates and guidance. It starts with being prepared. Given what we know about the incubation period of the virus, if you wait until an outbreak is publicly observable before changing your habits, you are probably too late.

Fortunately, much of the best health advice we hear from the experts is no more complicated than committing to common-sense practices that will help us live healthier lives, regardless of whether a pandemic is just outside our walls.

For individuals, improve your personal health practices such as frequent and effective hand-washing, coughing into your elbow and avoiding touching your eyes, mouth or nose after visiting public locations. These practices are not only effective in protecting against COVID-19, but also against ailments such as the flu — which itself kills hundreds of Canadians every year.

Businesses too, should have a healthier mindset. Like individuals, embracing collective best practices can continue to help you over the long-term.

Having had the opportunity to advise multiple public and private sector clients and officials on the current situation and past health crises, we see three clear areas of action that are applicable for leaders in business of all sizes and sectors.

  1. Walk the Talk: Demonstrate you are taking the crisis seriously. This can be as simple as increasing the frequency and rigour of routine cleaning services, including active disinfecting measures.

    Employers should also improve access to hand-washing stations, hand sanitizers, disposable wipes, tissues and ‘no-touch’ disposal locations for garbage. Actively discourage unnecessary in-person meetings and work arrangements.

    Don’t wait to do the Human Resources legwork to make it easier for employees to self-isolate in an outbreak situation. In sectors where flexible work arrangements are already common, this will be fairly easy. In other sectors where the workforce tends to be primarily paid hourly, there will be additional challenges to making the transition. But these are employees more likely to face financial or social pressures to show up to work when sick; they need confidence that they can stay home if necessary to limit the spread of the virus. If your workforce is unionized, this is an ideal time to open up lines of communication with union leadership on steps you can mutually take for the benefit of employee health.

  2. Let your team know you are personally invested in them: Your employees will be anxious. As business leaders you need to assure them that you are in this with them. Be direct and proactive in communicating about any changes you are making. Whether through physical posters, social media, email or any other channel, communicate clearly and frequently.

    For employees in customer or public facing roles, take extra time to give them confidence to talk about the steps you are taking so that they can themselves respond effectively to questions.

    Communications should be personal and start from the top. Your goal should be to give all employees peace of mind that the entire company is in this together and will support each other in getting through the crisis.

  3. Be open with your customers: COVID-19 has already shaken markets and severely impacted several economic sectors. People are scared, and even if the public health impact of the virus turns out less severe than expected, the economic damage could be profound.

    There is no greater defence against this economic disruption than preserving the trust of your customers. Again, this requires proactive and direct communications. Let them know you are taking every possible measure to protect their health and well-being. Ensure that your physical locations have ample signage and that your digital and social presence emphasizes the steps you are taking to protect public health. Be extra diligent with response times and clarity for customer questions.

    This is not a time to downplay risks or project overconfidence. People are frightened and the threat is real. Businesses who show leadership, move quickly and demonstrate their commitment to employee, customer and public health will be best positioned to survive and succeed.

Katie Heelis formerly worked for Ontario’s Minister of Health as the Public Health Policy Lead. Currently, she leads the Health Practice at Enterprise Canada. David Tarrant is VP, National Strategic Communications at Enterprise Canada. He has served as a Senior Communications Advisor to the Prime Minister of Canada, two Canadian Premiers and senior executives of a major Canadian bank.

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