• Businesses must test home-working technology and review and prepare policies relating to remote working and sick pay;
  • How and what employers communicate to their employees about coronavirus is critical;
  • Global epidemic preparedness and response is underfunded – the business world needs to help fill this gap.

Last week, my whole team had a work-from-home day. With potential disruption from the coronavirus epidemic a real prospect, our business continuity planners had strongly encouraged every department to test its capacity to work remotely.

The evening before our test, I received a text message from my child’s school: “Immediate school closure: please check your email for details.” Pupils had returned to school after half-term holidays in Italy and were now unwell. It would close as a precaution.

For me, this was going to be more than a drill.

It’s an experience that very personally brought home how far-reaching the social impact of epidemics can be. Without any coronavirus infection confirmed, several hundred families had to make sudden arrangements to look after their kids. That will have meant cancelled meetings and business trips, projects delayed and lost earnings. Our school closed for just two days in the end, but extend that across a country for weeks – Japan is closing its schools until April – and the societal effects become systemic.

The role that employers play in the response to coronavirus is therefore critical. In my own case, I’ve been fortunate that Wellcome, the charitable foundation for which I work, was already thinking about how to support employees through school closures, self-isolation or quarantine.

Coronavirus will probably reach every country sooner or later and some measure of disruption is inevitable when it does. There are three important ways in which businesses and other employers can prepare and react to ensure that they mitigate rather than feed the adverse effects on their own operations and on wider society.

Firstly, there are decisions about your own staff. If schools are closed or trains cancelled, people will have to stay at home. It pays to test home-working technology now before it’s needed. Our trial picked up laptops without the right video conferencing software and dodgy microphones that we can fix this week but couldn’t if everyone was stuck at home.

There are many more questions worth answering before you have to. If a school’s closed or a family is self-isolating, will you waive rules that stop parents from home-working while also looking after a child? Will you pay employees who are asked to self-isolate? They don’t technically qualify for sick pay and it obviously affects the bottom line, but the cost to your business (never mind society) of an infectious person showing up at work could easily prove to be much, much higher. Under what circumstances might you ask parents to self-isolate if their children’s schools close? What are you going to do about roles that can’t be performed from home? Employees need to know where they stand before the virus is on the doorstep.

The impact of the coronavirus by country
The impact of the coronavirus by country
Image: Statista

Secondly, the communications that employers deliver to their staff will be among the most important information they get about this epidemic. The Edelman Trust Barometer has repeatedly found that a person’s own employer is the most trusted of all social messengers – beating business in general, government, media and NGOs by 20-point margins. When the boss speaks, people listen and the tone, accuracy and relevance of employers’ advice can make all the difference between calm and panic.

Employers should be thinking now about how they’re going to pass on vetted messages from the World Health Organization (WHO), the US’ Centers for Disease Control or Public Health England – and shouldn’t try to second-guess or exceed them. To make this easier, Wellcome, Edelman, the World Economic Forum and others, in partnership with the WHO, are building a platform that would feed accurate, timely coronavirus information to employers for dissemination on their intranets. If your company is interested in joining us, we would be delighted to hear from you.

How coronavirus has affected stock markets
How coronavirus has affected stock markets
Image: Statisa

Finally, the biggest employers have a greater part to play. Global epidemic preparedness and response is underfunded. While the rich world can afford coronavirus interventions, the global spread of the virus in less than three months has demonstrated how international health is as strong as the weakest and poorest health system. There are no drugs or vaccines against coronavirus and research to deliver them requires funding too. Sizeable financial contributions are needed from high-income governments, from philanthropy and from global financial institutions like the World Bank, but also from business.

Far-sighted companies should see this as a shrewd investment. The tens of billions of dollars the world needs to respond to coronavirus are nothing compared to the trillions wiped from stock exchanges last week. Customers and employees increasingly expect businesses to play a fuller part in supporting global public goods and to look beyond the interests of shareholders alone. There’s no need to invoke concepts of social purpose or stakeholder capitalism here; this crisis is a threat to shareholders, no less than it is to wider society.