As COVID-19 fears escalate, some businesses institute remote work policies

With business leaders moving quickly to test and improve continuity plans as significant disruption related to COVID-19 appears likely, industry employers including Google Canada, Shopify, Klick Health and Abacus have already told staff to work from home.

“We have been taking extraordinary precautions due to the COVID-19 coronavirus,” said Klick Health president Lori Grant in a statement to The Message. The agency has “developed a number of policies, protocols, and continuity planning to help ensure the ongoing health and safety of our team members during this rapidly evolving public health situation. This includes encouraging our team members to start working from home as of March 9.”

Klick also shared its extensive safety and continuity planning document on a special microsite.

“We will be updating the planning documents regularly and hope we can be of service to the business community who use the plan as a template for their planning during these challenging times.”

Google said it its goal is to reduce the density of people in offices, which could, according to some experts,  slow down the spread of COVID-19, thereby reducing the burden on local health systems.

“This was a hard decision but the right one,” tweeted Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke. “Proximity is incredibly valuable for creative work. However, it’s possible for us to work together remotely and so we should.”

Toronto agency Abacus told all staff on Tuesday that they should work from home and only go into the office for essential reasons. “We actually spent a lot of time debating it. It’s not an easy call,” said co-founder and chief strategy officer Jeff Goldenberg. “We spoke to a lot of people and saw what other companies are doing and decided it’s more useful early rather than later. We want to be a part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

The Message reached out to nearly 20 agency presidents this week. Several said they are focused on preparation and continuity planning and taking cues directly from health authorities about how to proceed.

As expected, travel has been largely cancelled, and some are asking returning staff to self-isolate for 14 days. One agency gave all employees four simulated tasks to complete from home Tuesday night to test its system, while another is planning on having all staff work from home for a full day to ensure its systems are ready.

“We are not in any type of panic mode. But we are preparing,” said Scot Keith, co-founder and president of One Twenty Three West in Vancouver. “We are all prepared and ready to work remotely if COVID-19 progresses here,” he said, adding that the agency was not at that stage as of Tuesday.

“We’ll follow the guidelines of the Canadian and BC government and health experts. We’ll be in self isolation if we have to,” said Keith. “As far as business goes… we can easily work remotely. We can have daily all staff status meetings. We will be calm and move forward.”

Scott Knox, president and CEO of the ICA, said that COVID-19 preparedness has become a top priority in the past two weeks, with a primary goal of ensuring all agencies and business—not just ICA members—have the best and most up-to-date information and guidance about how to respond. The ICA created an open hub on its site with some of that information and resources.

As part of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, ICA has been receiving briefings directly from the Canadian government and the World Health Organization, including Dr. David Nabarro, who was named a special envoy on COVID-19 for North America and Europe.

The WHO is concerned about people getting information from social media and some mainstream media sensationalizing some of what the public needs to know, said Knox.

The WHO has a deliberate strategy to work with business leaders to get “really solid useful information out via businesses,” said Knox. Aside from ensuring that any employee with COVID-19 symptoms stays home, it is also calling for an automatic accommodation of any staff member who feels they need to work from home.

The ICA will not tell agencies whether or not employees should be working from home because that is direction that should come from local health authorities, said Knox

“But what we are also telling people they need to do… is you can anticipate that there will come a point where working from home will happen,” he said. “And you need to make sure that your IT infrastructure can deal with it, support it and that you’re having enough security in place as we move to this way of working.”

David Brown