Abubakar Kwame Essuman’s thoughts …Managing employees in a COVID-19 environment

Kwame Essuman

Since the dawn of time, history is replete with human beings going through one crisis or another. Crisis take various forms; financial, social, political, health, economic, etc. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Crisis as “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending especially one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome”. Examples are a financial crisis or a nation’s energy crisis. In an organizational setting, a crisis may be defined as a significant threat to operations that can have negative consequences if it is not handled properly. In most cases, crisis can create the three related threats below:

  • Public safety
  • Financial loss
  • Reputational loss

What is crisis management?

It is good management to seek to revert a crises situation to the status quo and so there is always conscious efforts made to arrest a crisis situation, seek to reverse the effects of the crisis in order to achieve equilibrium in the state of affairs and most importantly put in place measures to forestall future occurrence of such a crisis and seek to prevent it. In order words, it is part of management to manage crisis, but it is critical that managing the crisis does not worsen matters but rather makes the situation better. Crisis Management is the process by which an organization deals with a disruptive and unexpected event that threatens to harm the organization or its stakeholders. Failure to handle the crisis properly can result in serious harm to stakeholders, losses for the organization, or even end its very existence.

COVID-19 Pandemic

For most part of this year, the Novel Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has threatened life and our way of life as we knew it across the world. No part of our world has been spared and governments and organizations across the world are racing against time to find the best strategies to limit the deadly effects of this pandemic if not eradicate it totally. Sadly, it is becoming obvious that we may have to live with this virus for the foreseeable future. To quote the Director-General of the World Health Organization; I want to be straight with you: there will be no return to the “old normal” for the foreseeable future.” So, we must learn to live with this ‘new normal’ which calls for a total review of everything we did in the office in terms of policies, systems, structures, procedures etc. Our ability to adapt and do so with agility will determine our success in this ‘COVID War’.

We can safely say that COVID-19 presents all the three related threats associated with a crisis to a business. Thus, if the management of pandemic is not handled properly or in a timely manner, an organization can put their employees’ health at risk. This will automatically have a negative effect on the company’s reputation as both employer and a service or product provider. Consequently, it will be inevitable to experience financial losses.


Effects of COVID-19 on employees

It is not an exaggeration to state that this pandemic is causing high levels of anxiety in employees. A pulse survey conducted by MIT Sloan Management Review, CultureX and Josh Bershin, an HR Expert, to get a better understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on the workplace found that the issues on employees’ minds during the COVID-19 crisis include the following as presented in the figure below:

  • Job security
  • Personal health
  • Childcare and home schooling
  • Personal finances
  • Remote work
  • Visibility of their employer
  • Stress and mental health
  • Work life balance
  • Family health
  • Productivity
  • Social isolation
  • Managing schedule

With the foregoing, putting in place a well thought through crisis management strategy becomes axiomatic rather than an option.

Best practices for managing COVID-19 at the workplace

If the COVID-19 pandemic has not taught us anything, we can boldly say that it has taught us one thing, which is the fact that it is very dynamic and presents us with a very fluid situation that is changing all the time. As such, any prescription given here albeit largely applicable, are to serve as a guide but not to be taken as the holy grail or as exhaustive.

  1. Create a Coronavirus Crises Management Plan

Most organizations have Business Continuity Plans (BCP) in place to take care of crisis situations. However, a dedicated plan should be put in place to deal with COVID-19 which will obviously sit within the organization’s overall BCP. This plan should be driven by the science and take into account the government’s national strategy and expert advice from bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO). It should also reflect the regulatory framework and be in tandem with industry-specific practices. In the development, management, and review of this document, consult widely and involve the employees. A very important feature this plan should have is flexibility. As stated above, the COVID-19 pandemic is so dynamic that we must be ready to amend parts of this plan whenever the situation demands it. It is also important that this plan is shared with employees to create the much-needed awareness of what is required of everybody in the organization.

  1. Appoint a designated COVID-19 Crisis Management Team

Once again, most organizations will have such a team in place already but for those who do not, such a team should be constituted immediately. Even for those who already have, there may be the need for a review to ensure that membership have what it takes to tackle issues related to the pandemic. It is very important to appoint the right people who will be responsible for managing the coronavirus situation in the workplace. These people, before everything else, need to understand the seriousness of the situation and they have to be good communicators in order to keep the workplace aligned and safe. The team should have clearly spelt out terms of reference, must have regular meeting schedules and most importantly must be clothed with the authority necessary to be effective.

  1. Institute the Safest Protocols at the Workplace

According to some studies, the workplace is one of the high-risk areas of contracting COVID-19. However, with the right protocols put in place the risk can be reduced significantly. It is thus, the responsibility of the employer which has the duty of care to the employees to make the workplace as safe as possible. To this end, employees should be provided with the appropriate PPEs and there must be the implementation of policies that promote social distancing.

An important way of ensuring that the workplace is safe is to carry out a risk assessment of the workplace to identify all vulnerable areas and hotspots and then put in place the right mitigants.

The writer is the Head .Human Resources Bank of Africa

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