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Vague remote work policies won’t cut it during the coronavirus pandemic

March 17, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC

It’s hard to ignore the news of the coronavirus’s impact. Although it is easy to forget now, we have had a fair amount of experience thinking through how to handle epidemics in recent years, from the far more deadly but less extensive SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012, to the less deadly but so far more widespread swine flu in 2009. 

Employer responses to those prior epidemics were not much different from seasonal flu and were mainly about hygiene and efforts to prevent workers from getting sick at work. This time, the focus is much more about preventing infection by not coming to work, specifically working from home. How sensible this strategy is for organizations, compared to other alternatives, remains an open question. 

There is no doubt, though, that the drumbeat of advice about self-quarantining and other practices to keep employees away from the workplace will challenge organizations’ current approaches to employee management.

The most obvious one is working from home or telecommuting, which is already quite extensive. Gallup found in 2016 that 43% of U.S. employees spent “at least some of their time” working remotely. The issue is that most employers do not have clear and consistent policies on working from home, leaving local managers discretion as to which employees can do so. 

As a result of the coronavirus, organizations should and likely will move away from arbitrary discretion and toward companywide, objective policies on which jobs can be done remotely and under what circumstances.

Working from home is not a panacea, though. It mainly suits white collar jobs, and even then, not all such jobs. It also can’t be done indefinitely, since at some point most employees will need resources from their peers or at their offices. And of course, if people are really sick, they can’t work at home, either. A second practice that will be rethought, therefore, is “replacement planning”: how to fill those jobs that are crucial when the employee cannot do them. In most organizations now, there’s no one to step in. Employers cover the work by splitting up tasks among other employees, and leaving things that way as long as the system seems to be working. If it isn’t working, they hire additional staff. 

The difference with the coronavirus is that multiple jobs are likely to go unfilled at the same time, so stretching remaining employees is unlikely to work. Hiring from the outside or even using temps is unlikely to work as well, since all organizations will face the same staffing challenge. 

Management needs a plan that defines which jobs are crucial, including ones that can’t be done from home. The plan should outline who will step in to fill them, ideally giving employees the chance to see if they can handle bigger roles.

A harder challenge in this crisis, though, is determining what to do about employees who don’t want to come to work because they are concerned about being infected by being at their office, or because the overwhelming amount of information about the coronavirus makes them feel that they might be sick, even if their symptoms don’t match those of COVID-19, the disease it causes. (To be clear, the fact that employees without paid sick leave have a financial incentive to come to work even when they may be contagious might be an even bigger problem.)

The truth is that so long as local authorities are not requiring people to isolate in their homes, going to an office is no more dangerous than other activities many people are still partaking in, such as picking up groceries or gathering at friends’ homes. Nevertheless, many workers are feeling anxiety about going to work right now. 

Trying to prevent employees from staying home with formal rules is unlikely to work. A better approach would begin with asking employees for their help during this crisis. To get that help, employees must know that their employer is doing its best to keep them healthy while at work, and that the company can’t stay in business in the long run if its employees don’t come in. 

Employers that have honest relationships with their workers will likely find that these employees won’t stay home unless they truly need to. If, on the other hand, employees don’t feel that their employers care about them, and have no allegiance to their bosses, they might well stay home more than is necessary.

This is new terrain for all involved, and it can be extremely helpful for employees to have guidance from their employers as to what is expected. Under normal circumstances, for instance, it’s not good for employees to complain about the hygiene of their coworkers or go to supervisors when they think someone might have virus symptoms. But right now that would be desirable behavior, so it is important to let employees know these new, and hopefully temporary, rules.

At minimum, this crisis should make employers rethink what kind of relationship they want to have with their workers. If it’s not one where employers and employees are looking out for each other, then perhaps it’s time to get that in order before we need each other in the next crisis.

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. His latest book is Will College Pay Off? A Guide to the Most Important Financial Decision You’ll Ever Make.

More opinion in Fortune:

—Four lessons from the coronavirus
—Let’s remember what we learned in WWII, as well as in 2008
—Combating coronavirus starts with keeping health workers well
—Coronavirus may finally force businesses to adopt workplaces of the future
Curing HIV and sickle cell falls short if the most vulnerable populations are left out

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