Coronavirus will be catalyst for 'monumental changes' in U.S. workforce
Starbucks canceled its in-person shareholder meeting. Google is spiking all on-site interviews, and is now conducting job interviews via video platforms Hangouts or Bluejeans — joining tech powerhouses Facebook and Amazon, which announced similar freezes on face-to-face meetings.
With the spread of the coronavirus disease to the U.S., companies ranging from Wells Fargo, Lowe’s, Ford Motor and others have issued travel restrictions or outright bans on all nonessential travel.
And the banking giant JPMorgan Chase — representative of the staid financial industry resistant to many shifts in workplace culture — is keeping thousands of its traders and analysts at home in the wake of the global outbreak.
Yet massive shifts in workplace policies are just beginning and may mark a sea change event for work culture, say workplace and HR experts tracking the global coronavirus disease outbreak, medically known as COVID-19. So far, the virus has infected 100,600 globally and resulted in 3,400 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. In the U.S. the disease has resulted in 230 confirmed cases and 14 deaths, versus 16,000 who have died and 280,000 hospitalized so far from influenza in the 2019-2020 flu season.
The pandemic is forcing many employers long leery of remote work to reverse course. The coronavirus has become a catalyst for many industries that have been reluctant to adapt flexible work arrangements, ranging from WFH policies to flex hours for day care.
The coronavirus crisis is spurring employers to re-evaluate unnecessary commutes, reassess the value of congregating in offices and renewing debate about remote work models.
“Remote work is no longer a matter of convenience or economic efficiency. It’s literally a matter of life and death," says entrepreneur and former banker Alex Konanykhin, who is now CEO of TransparentBusiness, a New York-based software firm that advises on off-site work training and solutions.
His company, whose clients include Citigroup, offers software that allows employers and managers to track all workers’ computer activity and manage and collaborate with staff without coming to the office.
"We’ve seen monumental changes in the attitudes of business executives toward remote work in the last few weeks,” says Konanykhin, who in the 1990s was the founder and president of the Russian Exchange Bank, making him one of the wealthiest bankers in Russia at the time. “There is absolutely a renewed interest from financial firms, the largest corporations, human resources professionals and financial brokers,” he says, noting that two of the world’s largest banks reached out to him in recent weeks.
“That would be absolutely unthinkable last year,” he says, noting more interest in remote work came from tech firms and mostly small to midsize enterprises. “What previously was seen as a matter of economic efficiencies and work-life balance is no longer just about saving money. For many people, it’s about survival.”
Buttoned-up financial firms, which have long put a premium on in-person meetings, corporation business attire and team collaboration, have started to implement detailed contingency plans in the wake of the outbreak, most notably with JPMorgan advising 10% of its 125,000 employees to work at home. The bank, along with Bloomberg LP and others, also has split some of its staff in New York and London offices into separate buildings to minimize the impact of contagion should one of their workers get infected, according to media reports.
Coronavirus Disease 2019 got its official name on Feb. 11, when the World Health Organization announced the disease that first manifested itself in Wuhan, China. The new name is abbreviated COVID-19, with the “CO” standing for “corona,” the “VI” as shorthand for “virus” and the “D” for the disease formerly referred to as novel coronavirus, a new disease previously not seen in humans.
As of March 6, the coronavirus has climbed to more than 230 confirmed cases in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leading to increased anxiety and confusion over how to prepare.
Benefits brokers and insurance companies such as Marsh, Aon and others, which also have restricted travel warnings, said they are closely watching how the coronavirus may impact their respective industries and industry conferences.
Jennifer Benz, a senior vice president at the employee benefits communications firm Segal Benz in San Francisco, says the virus has hit home in the Bay Area, where some local schools began closing and sending students home early on Friday.
Her employer clients are focused on providing tactical plans for employers to get the word out to staff on upcoming travel restrictions, remote work options and prevention techniques on proper hygiene.
Conference cancellations, telemedicine
In the Bay Area, several large conferences for the tech and healthcare industry have been canceled, she said, including the annual HIMSS global health conference in Orlando, Fla., which was scheduled for March 9-13.
“Based on evaluation of evolving circumstances and coordination with an external advisory panel of medical professionals to support evidence-based decision making, it is clear that it would be an unacceptable risk to bring so many thousands of people together in Orlando next week,” said Hal Wolf, president and CEO of HIMSS.
Benz says in the wake of the virus, there will be renewed attention on remote conferencing and telemedicine options.
“A lot of companies have been trying to promote telemedicine in the last several years, and you see some who love it, but there are big portions of people who have never tried it or who think it’s not a viable option. This may be the opportunity to promote telemedicine as a good option.”
The Society for Human Resource Management is asking employers to encourage telework and quarantine employees who may be showing symptoms or have returned from high-risk areas.
“As more cases of coronavirus continue to spread around the world and within the U.S., employers must take the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of this virus within the workplace. To preempt this potential danger, employers should ensure business continuity plans take into account and prepare for biological threats,” SHRM said in a statement.
Employers need to have essential protocols in place to protect employees and avoid misinformation, says Joe Deng, an employment law partner at Baker McKenzie.
“If you don’t have a pandemic policy, you as an employer will very likely have analogous policies that can be used in this situation,” Deng says. “When planning for this scenario, you need to ask what are the objective facts and what are your options.”
In the U.S, the attention on coronavirus response is more about emergency preparedness, but it will shift to incorporate more long-standard corporate work policies, including flexible work arrangements and strategies to avoid public transit, like it is now in parts of Asia and countries like China, South Korea, Italy and Iran. “So in the U.S. it’s coming, but with a delay,” Konanykhin says.
For many workers in China, South Korea and Italy and other countries hard hit by the outbreak, commuting or riding public transit is not an option for many, which may be a precursor for the United States, he says.
“There is now no choice but to have a work-from-home plan. Not working at all is not sustainable for people,” he says. “What before was a nice thing to have, for many companies it’s now a must-have.”
With reporting by Alyssa Place.