‘What has surprised me about the coronavirus crisis’

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Could empty offices be here to stay?
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On 5 March the 21st Pandemic Planning for Employers conference heard from a series of health and business experts on the likely course of the coronavirus outbreak and how companies could mitigate risks. It seems a long time ago, before the idea of a lockdown gained real traction.

Here, Adam McCulloch asks some of the key speakers from the forum for their reflections on subsequent developments, including what has surprised them the most. The conference was organised by Business Forums International.


Richard Stephenson

Chief executive of crisis and continuity technology firm YUDU Sentinel

When I told the conference that we should now be preparing staff for working at home for as much as a few months, sections of the audience thought I was scaremongering. It is testament to how fast things have changed in such a short time that this is now accepted as fact, the changes have been so fast.

I have been surprised by quite a few things. Firstly how some intelligent people have difficulty in interpreting the impact of Novel CoV-2. They focus on selected facts such as “it only badly effects a small proportion of the population” and we are therefore overreacting. They miss the fact that a major outbreak will totally swamp a health service, and any society that does not have access to care is a non-functioning society.

I have been surprised by the massive scope of the financial support the UK government has put in place. It is quite extraordinary but very much needed to avoid catastrophic job losses.

When I told the conference that we should now be preparing staff for working at home for as much as a few months, sections of the audience thought I was scaremongering” – Richard Stephenson

Finally I have been surprised at how seamlessly we at YUDU Sentinel moved from office based to working from home. We did some good advanced planning and I cannot see any fall off in efficiency or energy of the staff. Will we go back to the way we were? I suspect only 50% or less of the time.

I suspect this will be common across businesses. Once the capability to WFH is built, commuting on overcrowded trains and wasting valuable time travelling will seem inefficient and a token of poor work/life balance.

This episode will have a profound effect on our infrastructure planning and use of expensive central city space, generally for the good.


Vince Toman

Employment law specialist and barrister, Lewis Silkin

My talk was prepared a week before the conference and even by the time I was giving it, I had had to abandon most of my slides.

Although I anticipated people being prevented from travelling and the onset of quarantining, the size and speed of the implementation of these restrictions has been surprising. The prime minister’s announcement on Monday 23 March [in which he said people should only travel to and from work, when absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home] has resulted in many businesses having to move more quickly to remote working and lay-offs.

I did not expect the government to provide the assistance it has to British businesses via the Furlough Scheme. I did expect some intervention, as I mentioned in my talk, around legislative change, but that was to deal with those that became sick or at risk, but nothing on the scale that has happened.

What I did predict was the imposition of restrictions on people and the suspension of civil liberties. And I feel there may be more restrictions to come.


Dr Anthony Renshaw

Medical director of medical & travel security services firm International SOS, Northern Europe

In many regards, I am not surprised it’s developed in the way it has. In the back of our minds when we do pandemic planning exercises, this is the endgame that we try to get clients to plan for. However, this crisis has perhaps brought home more acutely the whole concept of prolonged isolation, and the importance of preserving mental health. I might have emphasised this aspect more, despite how remote it may have felt at the time… it was something that companies were focusing more on in Asia, where our teams had already started delivering proactive support and communications on this. What this crisis has shown us perhaps more than ever is that there’s a real need for public health inputs into business decisions.

It is important for companies to be mindful of employee concerns and not to underestimate the stress this situation is creating” – Dr Anthony Renshaw

The Covid-19 outbreak has shown we need to examine the format of healthcare that organisations and employees will need to access healthcare in the future. Whether in lockdown, just home-working or in self-quarantine, employees need access to remote healthcare more than ever and organisations need advice and assistance in identifying and managing health issues, whether it’s from Covid-19 or other issues.

This is where telehealth and teleconsultation services are becoming increasingly important, so that there is access to see a local doctor face to face but in a virtual environment, with the ability to prescribe locally if needed.

The breadth of physical quarantine measures being put in place globally has surprised many of us. With millions now working from home, some with the prospect of having family members around, others in isolation, this poses a threat to the mental wellbeing of the workforce. While it is currently planned to be a matter of months for many, for some, this could be a catalyst for the evolution of the workplace and the way of the future, if the opportunity is grasped.

It is important for companies to be mindful of employee concerns and not to underestimate the stress this situation is creating. There is an element of the unknown, and situations can change quickly. In these circumstances, it is important to provide access to timely, accurate, verified information. International assignees can also feel increasingly isolated and vulnerable. Media overload and a large amount of unverified news can be overwhelming. Offering support and providing up to date accurate information can help alleviate this.

What this crisis has shown us perhaps more than ever is that there’s a real need for public health inputs into business decisions” – Dr Anthony Renshaw

There are very likely to be more future occurrences of significant novel viral infectious outbreaks that become a threat to people and impact business continuity and sustainability. We don’t know what these look like yet, in form, timeframe or impact, but preparedness is essential. With the right planning and measures, organisations will be in the best position to respond and protect their people and preserve their business.

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