Across the globe, increases in the number of confirmed coronavirus diagnoses and deaths keep coming at a fever pace. Seeking to keep Americans safe, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has issued a number of recommendations, from practicing the basics of good hygiene to avoiding air travel, cruises, mass transit and large crowds, particularly for immunocompromised individuals and people over the age of 60.
CDC officials have also suggested that businesses in the U.S. should plan for “social distancing,” such as canceling meetings and conferences and arranging for employees to work from home. The list of companies already instituting work-from-home mandates in one or more locations reads like a who’s who of American business: Microsoft, Eli Lilly, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Takeda, Google and NASA. Many more are predicted to soon follow suit.
While it’s difficult to predict how widespread such arrangements will become, employers are likely to base their decision on the threat level in the area where they conduct business, according to LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the Business Group on Health. In cities where an outbreak of coronavirus has led to school closings, for example, employers are more likely to institute work-from-home arrangements. Likewise, if an employer has one or more workers who test positive for the disease, that may lead to a mandate that all employees stay home for the length of time it takes to determine whether anyone else has contracted the virus.
Of the greatest concern to employers are those situations where an employee has an elderly parent or immunocompromised child at home, says Heinen. They may be the first to be granted work-from-home arrangements, as they will be understandably fearful of bringing the virus home to a loved one who is apt to suffer severe complications or even death. When it comes to concerns about giving those employees preferential treatment, Heinen says, fairness is always the goal, but special needs of certain employees may cause employers to allow them to work from home, while others are required to report to the workplace.
Employers should also consider the anxiety level of employees before enacting a work-from-home mandate, says Heinen. For someone with a nervous temperament, fear of germs or hypochondria, being told to work from home could cause them to panic, sending their minds racing into very dark places. The isolation will likely compound their fear.
“HR needs to get out ahead of this issue, but not so far ahead that it alarms employees,” says Heinen. “They should assess the risk and respond at the appropriate speed without panic.”