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COVID-19: How firms can protect their workforce, operations and values

The rapidly escalating challenges from the COVID-19 global outbreak present critical people issues for organizations to assess and address.

As organizations and their people confront the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing is becoming increasingly apparent: the impact of the outbreak will linger. To manage and mitigate the impact on their workforces, businesses must take immediate action; start planning now for what comes next; and start thinking about what lies beyond.

The role of People and HR functions in shaping the organizational response can hardly be overstated: employee health and well-being are crucial to the organization’s continuity, its resiliency and its capacity to reframe its future in the new normal to come.

Organizations should follow an iterative lifecycle of understanding and assessing the situation people are in and the movement, protection and enablement of individuals and teams. We’ve divided the necessary tasks into five people themes that cover the range of topics, challenges and risks all organizations must manage.

As organizations focus on the immediate, they should take the time to think through the consequences of their actions. “Short-term responses should be built on a clear understanding of impact,” Bertolino says.


Chapter 1

Understand the impact on people and priorities

We lay out six steps to help define your people framework in a way that aligns with your purpose.

In the era of COVID-19, organizations must be clear on the values that align with their purpose and actively plan to protect these workforce values during these testing times. Good leadership and role-modeling will shine brighter than ever.

The non-negotiables are:

  • Top-down governance with decisive and creative leadership
  • Mid-level management and team leadership
  • Employee communications, policies and messaging
  • Accessibility and usability of health and safety information
  • Risk assessment and controls
  • Risk and incident reporting and investigation
  • Assurance, monitoring and reporting
  • Agility, flexibility and empathy
  • Employees equipped with the facts
  • A culture of inclusion
  • Adherence to local laws

Organizations should operate within a clearly defined framework through each stage of the crisis to deliver workforce resilience. The goal is to establish and align leadership capability to assess, plan, decide and communicate people strategies. There are six steps:

1. Assess people exposures and risks

Conduct a current state end-to-end risk assessment covering operational and geographical risks, health and safety impact, globally mobile employee implications, customer impact, cybersecurity, tax, payroll and reward impact. The end goal is a calculated risk index.

2. Define crisis scenarios

Identify best- to worst-case crisis scenarios, designed to stress-test your operation’s ability to manage disruption and evaluate the severity of impact of current gaps using risk assessment findings and data.

3. Identify workforce gaps

Identify essential business functions, high-value assets, essential jobs or roles, and critical elements within your supply chain. Activate existing crisis management policies and protocols in each disruption scenario to identify gaps within the current workforce model, including qualitative and quantitative impacts.

4. Develop a potential response

Define potential response triggers to prevent crisis impact or enable agile response to mitigate repercussions considering people, process and technology factors.

5. Test the potential response

Execute a simulation of crisis scenarios — particularly mass remote working — to test the effectiveness of defined potential responses to validate effectiveness against established success criteria.

6. Build intervention business case

Build a resiliency intervention business case to implement validated crisis response triggers, including requirements, solutions and the value proposition.


Chapter 2

Assess risk for local and globally mobile employees

Here are detailed criteria to help you assess the risk and impact of the crisis on your people.

As part of their immediate focus on continuity, organizations need to measure the impact of COVID-19 on the workforce. Start by quickly identifying which employees are mobile, both locally and globally, and then determine whether they’ve been in or near known pandemic hot spots for any reason.

  • Identify mobile employees (including assignees, contingent workers and global business travelers) and any accompanying family members who are in or have recently entered a crisis location whether in transit or as a final destination.
  • Consider the immigration impact on those affected by an outbreak in locations visited. Individuals may need to be quarantined or safe-housed and may be at risk of an involuntary immigration “overstay,” including prior to being relocated home or to a third country.
  • Assemble comprehensive information regarding all current globally mobile employees, travelers in transit, and any accompanying family members in crisis locations and surrounding locations.

Next, assess the impact of the crisis for global travelers.

  • Assess the impact on each globally mobile employee and any accompanying family members.
  • Conduct a crisis risk assessment against their individual circumstances.
  • Review the immigration status of each globally mobile employee and any accompanying family members, including the visa status in current location; the status of other visas held; and passports held, including their expiration date of passports, their physical location and their validity.
  • Identify any impediments or restrictions to travel, relocation or remote work in location.
  • Consider any physical barriers, exit permits, flight bans, regulatory bans and other legal restrictions.
  • Assess the impact of relocation and any infrastructure requirements.
  • Consider the costs, any impact on operations, any contractual obligations (including force majeure), and compliance with legal requirements while evaluating appropriate legal advice at every step.

And finally, develop an action plan that addresses current and future travel restrictions and lockdowns.

  • Where lockdowns are not yet in force, prepare guidelines for working in each location and for traveling between sites and offices, including visitor and meeting protocols, visiting other locations and events.
  • Prepare your lockdown strategy.
  • Consider appropriate protective measures and infrastructure requirements.
  • Determine action for each globally mobile employee and any accompanying family members.
  • Understand remote working restrictions where business travelers may be grounded and any flexible government COVID-19 policy.
  • Assess the risk and potential impact to determine response measures and priorities:
    • Risk assessment of crisis in location
    • Personal/unique circumstances of individuals and any heightened risk factors
    • Visa and/or work permit status and travel opportunity of each individual
    • Travel impediments
    • Ability to make an immigration application amid government department closures and any flexible government policy toward an “overstay”
  • Use these assessments to make informed business decisions and to develop prioritized action plans.


Chapter 3

Protect your workforce

Here are three areas of focus for organizations looking to ensure employee health and well-being.

During this time of crisis, it’s important to focus on the overall environment, communication and employee well-being. In times of business disruption, leadership and communication are key.




Ensure that all of your working locations are following guidance from local authorities on managing health and safety on sites, in offices, while traveling and while working remotely. Monitor the impacts on technology due to increased remote working; where needed, increase support and provision of IT support and equipment. Review the employee environment for different employee segments, ensuring the inclusion of those employees with no option for remote working.




Align your communication channels globally, regionally and locally while allowing for flexibility, evolving updates and messaging. Review communication media to ensure that all employees and relevant stakeholders – contractors, suppliers, consultants, clients and customers – are included. Provide guidance on alternative ways of working while protecting productivity, performance and safety for each work location. Review your guidance on data security. For those who can’t work from home, discuss flexible and adaptive delivery models and alternative working arrangements for the short term.


Employee well-being


Ensure that employees know where to find information, guidance and support, recognizing the potential impacts on their physical, emotional and financial well-being. Encourage employees to continue to focus on self-development and learning, maintaining connectivity with colleagues and teaming while prioritizing family and community commitments. Establish communication channels and forums that allow employees to express their concerns, be heard and resolve their most pressing issues. Start with the right tone from the top and make sure that prejudice and unconscious bias are addressed and eliminated.


Chapter 4

Enable your people

These steps will help your workforce maintain productivity through extended remote working at scale.

Travel bans, collective and self-quarantines, corporate lockdowns and related implications for child and elder care are likely to lead to protracted periods where business continuity and productivity will depend on alternative, inclusive and flexible ways of working.

The transition to remote working at scale involves three stages: preparation, execution and experimentation.


1.  Prepare


Is your organization ready for remote working at scale? Start with a rapid people impact assessment, with heads of teams and support functions as well as remote working enablement leads. Then:

  • Identify and conduct an impact assessment for each employee segment (e.g., roles, shifts, customer-facing, operations); agree upon needs and priorities for each group.
  • Test remote working with line managers and employee teams to adapt and gain buy-in.
  • Prioritize projects and other teamwork along with core business requirements.
  • Run dedicated team prep session(s) that:
    • Establish team rules of the road and call out ways of working, expectations, concerns or risks, and opportunities.
    • Test the technology or tooling and ways of working before remote deployment if  possible. Identify those who can be relied upon as experts.
    • Map shifts and work patterns and agree upon ways to refine them as the team learns from experience. Make sure to include personal experience (caring for oneself and others, personal support networks) as a factor in your thinking.
  • For critical work or outcomes, consider a tabletop or role-play exercise to project into a failed or failing situation and work backward on how to prevent those things from happening.
  • Use tone at the top whereby leaders start referring to and using tools, apps and working channels in advance to raise the profile of what is to come.
  • Assess the associated risks around taxation, payroll, reward and cybersecurity.
  • Implement special measures for functional and operating teams.

2.  Execute

As the plan meets reality, organizations and their people will need to learn and adapt.

  • Clarify and prioritize work, removing non-essential items.
  • Adopt the right balance of working hours, taking personal commitments into account.
  • Check in with employees via team and one-to-one meetings.
  • The questions to ask: What remains unchanged, what is changing and what is the impact?

Safety and well-being are paramount. Organizations should offer guidance on safe remote working and risk assessment and encourage employees to use the time they spent commuting on their self-development and well-being.

Executives should focus on tone from the top, which will make an enormous positive impact in terms of productivity, care and engagement. And they should enable their employees to express wider concerns as well as specific work issues.

3.  Experiment

Once the organization has established a working rhythm, it’s time to fine-tune the new ways of working.

  • Ensure there is regular bite-size learning and knowledge share on use of remote tools and apps, led whenever possible by peer leaders or the “go to” people in the team.
  • Identify and allocate team roles to support the way in which work is produced and shared. Develop protocols to support new hire orientation, understanding of performance requirements and strategies to minimize unintended issues.
  • Give express permission to experiment and celebrate people trying things differently to improve working, employee engagement and outcomes.
  • Find time to bring people together virtually with leaders to maintain culture and connectivity.

Chapter 5

Maintain capability and capacity

By managing costs now, you can help protect the organization’s resiliency and ability to transform.

Balancing cost in the short term, particularly in turbulent times, is critical to protecting long-term strategy. Impact will be felt around reduced revenue due to disruption of supply chain and customer purchasing, increased cost and loss of productivity due to absences, travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines, workforce absences due to long-term school closures, and unexpected spikes in health care costs. 


We are not resilient when:

  • Workforce costs are not visible
  • The workforce mix is not deliberate
  • There are gaps in technology and process to enable remote and automated work
  • The workforce cannot adjust to dynamic conditions
  • Employees face financial ruin from absence or health care costs

We are resilient when:

  • We understand the seven drivers of workforce cost
  • We have the ability to remix staffing
  • Workforce costs are visible
  • We deploy virtual talent and leverage intelligent automation
  • We have an agile, flexible culture
  • Employees have the needed tools and financial means to deal with the unexpected

Given the increasing complexity and multiple factors involved in workforce strategy, a longer-term view of the likely impact of market volatility, in addition to the outcomes of multiple intervention strategies, will demand a more robust, quantitative workforce planning approach.


In order to provide a complete view of workforce resilience, the four key pillars of workforce planning and optimization, namely capacity, capability, cost and composition (or the four Cs), should be considered.




Anticipating future workforce size requires organizations to consider potential impact from leveraging digital technology like automation in existing roles and at the same time strategically redeploy displaced workers.



In order to remain competitive in light of ongoing disruption and generate value for the business, managing costs is imperative. It is critical to have the right mix and number of workers at the right place. Consider how the economic impact of the crisis may alter reward and retention policies.




The best way to prepare the prospective workforce is to understand the organization’s future skill requirements. This is critical for job holders, since as roles evolve, they will need to acquire new skills.




To source critical skills that can be deployed rapidly across the business, organizations need to leverage the wider talent ecosystem. This is driven by scarcity of skills, emergence of new talent platforms and changing generational expectations.


The global COVID-19 outbreak presents significant challenges for an organization’s workforce. ­By putting people first, creating safety and enabling new ways of working, companies can navigate this highly disruptive period and emerge stronger and more resilient in the long-term. 

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