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The first thing that has hit people about the COVID-19 coronavirus isn’t the infection itself — it’s anxiety from a drastic set of behavior changes we’re being told we have to make to protect ourselves and others.

No more handshakes. No more hugging. Don’t even get near other people — best to stay at least six feet away if you can. Keep your hands away from your face, and stay out of the office.

In addition to these life-changing stressors for your employees, COVID-19 can also exact a toll on your business itself. The coronavirus’s fatality rate seems to be hovering around 3 percent for now, and that makes it a major business threat. When COVID-19 hits a location, whole social networks may have to be quarantined, including your employees, your customers, and your suppliers. All the people you rely on for business performance, growth, and profits could be isolated and unable to help.

Now Is the Time to Act

Organizations must act quickly and wisely to calm fears and protect their interests. If you haven’t yet, now is the time to develop plans for both virus prevention and coping with a local outbreak.

The first step is staying informed about the virus’s spread and following guidance from reputable health experts. We recommend turning to the World Health Organization for advice and updates.

Additionally, leaders need to understand how their own employees are reacting to COVID-19. At CultureIQ, we developed an internal survey companies can use to assess where their workers stand on virus safety. We’ve also compiled action-planning information and guidance in a Coronavirus Resource Hub, which your organization may find helpful as well.

In addition to gathering the necessary resources, there are other things businesses must consider when making their coronavirus plans. Here are a few key action steps to start taking now:

1. Build Health Habits Among Employees and Other Stakeholders

You’ll need to quickly get your workers to adopt health-protecting habits. It can be hard to get buy-in for such drastic behavioral changes, but you can attract attention and spur motivation by getting a little creative.

For example, you could set a (pleasant-sounding) office alarm to signal regular hand-washing breaks. You could recruit some volunteer “sneeze police” who oversee tissue disposal and workstation wipe downs. Spring for personal bottles of hand sanitizer (yes, they might be a little pricey these days) and distribute them to each employee.

For more expert HR insights, check out the latest issue of Recruiter.com Magazine:

2. Go Virtual Whenever You Can

In addition to forming new habits, your workplace will need to make some logistical changes. Luckily, other workplaces are in the same boat and on the same page as you’ll be. You will likely need to use virtual meetings instead of in-person meetings whenever possible, and it’s a good idea to cancel all unnecessary travel. Make these changes very public in order to open your culture to the outsiders who are also necessary for your business. They will appreciate it — and probably be commiserating with you about it.

3. Prepare for an Outbreak

In the event of a worst-case scenario — an outbreak at your office — you will need to execute a premeditated contingency plan. Start by considering how to keep infected and exposed employees as productive as possible without coming into work. Here are a few important tips:

• Ensure that people have laptops and access to voicemail and other systems necessary for remote work.
• Consider whether you need to increase the amount of PTO or sick days you grant your employees.
• Put a process in place to quickly evaluate who is not reporting into work each day.
• Create a plan to drastically alter your service delivery to keep some revenue coming in even with a skeleton crew — e.g., closing down the dining room at your restaurant but staying open for takeout orders.

Show and Tell

Like any culture change, inoculating your company from viral outbreaks takes a combination of verbal communication, nonverbal reinforcement of verbal messages, and collaboration from as many employees as possible.

Tell people the right thing to do — like staying at home when you or others near you have a dry cough, a slight fever, and fatigue. That’s a message that many people are used to ignoring; work needs to get done and paychecks need to be brought in. That means this verbal message needs nonverbal reinforcement: When the boss stays home or the owner closes down the site, that’s when people realize how serious this is.

Finally, get employees involved in creating new healthy habits. Make sure leaders are hearing upward feedback about what is needed to ensure the business survives and people stay safe. That’s the most important component of a healthy business — and a healthy culture.

Paul M. Mastrangelo is principal strategist at CultureIQ. You can contact Paul at AskAStrategist@cultureiq.com.

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