The COVID-19 global pandemic impacted businesses on a wide-scale basis and its effects are still visible today. While some companies were quick to pivot at the onset, others took more time to formulate a response. Essential businesses kept their doors open to provide necessities to communities across the country and around the world. Those who were able transitioned their employees and allowed them to work from home. Unfortunately, some companies were not able to sustain the economic shutdown and were faced with the tough decision to permanently close their doors. While the responses were as varied as the businesses themselves, the themes that emerged and the lessons learned were remarkably similar.
As a way of helping employers plan and prepare for the future, we have categorized key observations, including communications, environmental protections and employee practices. We’ll continue to keep an eye on what these could mean for businesses during and after the vaccine roll-out.
Communications undoubtedly impact the health and safety of a workforce but their role and relevance took on a particular significance during COVID-19. The myriad of responses ranged from handing out masks and installing hand sanitizer dispensers to daily communications with workers and one-on-one interactions with employees about their own screenings, and the health and welfare of their family members. It became clear that the companies who were most successful in dealing with the pandemic early on were those who appeared to over-communicate. Another successful communication tactic was to appoint an ombudsman or central voice to which employees could turn to once information was disseminated. This allowed employees to follow up with questions and concerns that were pertinent to their own unique situations. In many cases, the information and knowledge shared at work were meaningful and applicable to family members at home who were facing similar exposures or who might even be in a high risk category. The bottom line is when information is scarce and in some cases conflicting, there is value in transparency.
Successful companies also found ways to employ environmental protections effectively. For example, businesses took steps to introduce social distancing. Following the examples of many airports, wayfinding and traffic measures used were easily understood to facilitate flow. A large ‘X’ on the floor communicated where to stand and the spacing needed for social distancing. Some physical barriers were put up to help control the flow of people and ease the entry and exit from buildings. Many businesses looked at ventilation as a means of protection and installed filters with high ratings. As more was understood about COVID-19, measures to protect against airborne exposure became increasingly important. Personal ventilation equipment stamped with a HEPA approval rating soared in popularity and was offered at many retail outlets, as well as online distributors. These types of air filtration devices are designed to protect the employee as well as family members with whom the employee might come in contact with at home.
A third area that successful businesses turned to was establishing meaningful and effective employee practices. In essence, businesses offered employees guidelines about effective techniques for minimizing exposure to the virus and how they should act in certain situations. They were taught the importance of proper handwashing techniques and the need to use hand sanitizer after handling common tools or equipment. They were also educated on the need and value of social distancing. Personal protective equipment (PPE) became a part of the everyday business vernacular. Businesses considered the value of staggering shifts or using cohorts to minimize crowding. Wearing masks became widely accepted and commonplace in response to mask mandates. And what businesses learned in enacting many of these protocols was that these were not only beneficial in protecting against COVID-19, they also helped protect against common colds and the flu.
Now that the vaccine is being rolled out and the country is taking steps toward achieving herd immunity, many wonder what the business landscape will look like in the coming months. Many of the practices will likely continue into the foreseeable future: proper ventilation, increased sanitization, effective handwashing and use of PPE when needed. Moreover, we have seen businesses that invested in such safety practices not only maintain their customer base but in some cases, increased their customers due to such precautions. And those who adopted transparency in their communications earned the respect and support of their workforce.
COVID-19 struck the business community in ways that many never imagined. The lessons learned are timeless and can be applied to many challenges that undoubtedly will surface in the future. Communications, environmental protections and employee practices are measures that we can all live with and support as employees, customers and members of the general public.