How COVID-19 is infecting businesses across North America

Judy Slutsky is Goldbeck Recruiting’s Certified Professional Human Resources consultant. We asked for her thoughts and analysis regarding the likely economic and operational impacts of the Covid-19, or Coronavirus outbreak. Her expectations were, at times, sobering, but also included a hopefulness that some long term benefits would result.

“No business should be carrying on as usual.”

Judy Slutsky, CPHR

Goldbeck Recruiting: What industries do you think are most vulnerable to this situation?

Judy Slutsky: In terms of vulnerability for reduced employment or lack of employment, it’s going to be sectors where there are storefronts, retail sales; any place where people are gathering for products, services, social events, any gathering spots. Online is a different story. Because of the nature of this virus, social distancing is now becoming a reality, impacting not just sales of goods, but also services. Anywhere that has groups of people of more than 8-9 people at any one time, they’re going to be suffering.

GB: Do you think it might be the opposite for online businesses, that they might benefit from the situation?

JS: They may. And I think other businesses that have an e-commerce opportunity are going to be beefing that up with different strategies. Some of my clients that have an e-commerce platform are going to be focusing their messaging and marketing on that.

The issue will be where they get their products from. If we get our products from a country that’s under advisory right now, that’s going to be a problem. So if some companies ramp up their sales, they have to see where they’re getting it from, how it’s going to get shipped, and finally, their fulfillment of the order. So, I do think there’s an opportunity for e-commerce sales if the whole supply chain is still intact. But right now, it’s pretty scattered.
Because of this hoarding mentality, there is a crazy amount of sales in the food and supplies industry. We can’t get toilet paper or paper towels. As you know, there’s a massive demand now for disinfectants, for wipes and tissues. Pharmaceutical sales, over the counter sales – services like these are going to skyrocket.

GB: For companies that are hit hardest, is this going to affect more senior or head office staff? Will these companies be changing their hiring behaviours?

JS: Yes, it’s going to affect entire organizations and organizational structures. In downsizing – or rightsizing – you try to reduce your staff members based on need and performance of individuals. There will potentially be a ripple effect in all businesses.

GB: How much long-term economic damage do you think there’s going to be?

JS: I think the sense is that people are bracing for the next 6 months to a year. There’s a new normal in the workplace and our lives. There’s a reduction in sales and services. Once people leave your service, or they leave your product, something else might fill the void —so it’s not a given that everyone is going to come back to work the way that they were here in the first place. I think we’ll be bracing for a good year. We also think that a big milestone will be when a vaccine is available. If a vaccine were available and distributed in a couple months, I think we’d feel a bit better, but right now, we don’t hear that.

GB: Do you think that government stimulus packages will be sufficient in stemming the tide?

JS: That’s the big question. I heard about the stimulus package in the US, which seemed pretty nominal given their population. I haven’t gone through the Canadian stimulus package. I know $1B or $1.1B was put towards assisting those people who were not able to work due to the virus, so that’s helpful. I just don’t know how much it’s going to boost an individual’s take home pay if they apply for EI.

GB: So there’s going to be a serious concern in a lot of household budgets?

JS: Yes.

GB: In your experience from the HR management side, to what extent should businesses be carrying on business as usual?

JS: No business should be carrying on as usual. They can carry on, but it needs to be in a different way. I think that as this pandemic moves through the world, we all have to take it seriously. Employers have an obligation to protect the safety of their employees. Whatever measures people feel that they need to take, whether it’s social distancing, remote work, ensuring there’s enough hand sanitizers and cleaning of high touch points in companies, that’s an important piece. Educating people on what to do if you are ill at work. What happens? If you have coughing, what do you do? If you have a fever , what do you do? That’s important, so it’s not just business as usual, there’s lots of education required. I think that there needs to be disaster prevention strategies, just like earthquake preparedness. That’s exactly what I’m doing with a few of my clients. We’ve had several strategy sessions where we outlined what the policies are, and what preventative measures we’re putting into place.

There’s also one other issue that’s interesting and new in HR:as a preventative measure, HR is now obliged to ask employees about their travel plans, specifically where they’re going. Not just where they’re travelling, but where they’re transiting through. And we’re also asking people to voluntarily let us know if their kids or family members or people close to them have been infected. So we’re really delving into a lot of — I don’t want to say freedom or human rights issues — but we’re asking more detailed information about their lives. In the past, we never did. We didn’t ask where people went on holidays, other than in passing. Now we’re pretty firm about knowing exactly where people are. I don’t know what will or won’t be challenged, but that’s what I see happening in terms of a standard practice. It’s a slippery slope.

GB: We’ve talked a lot about what businesses are doing and decisions they’re making based on the health of their workforce and the communities that they’re in, but what do you think that businesses should be doing in terms of actual operational functions? Do you think there’s anything to consider there?

JS: Operational functions are changing every minute. If the need isn’t there, if they just don’t have customers or clients buying a product or service, then most leadership is going to move into a strategy mode where they’re looking at questions like: How can we maintain our business? How can we get new clients? What are the opportunities in the marketplace for us right now? I think that leadership everywhere are having strategy sessions about the impact of sales on their operations.

Another huge factor that’s happening at exactly the same time is a changed workforce. If companies are being preventative and doing remote work, they may still have the same workforce, but now they have to manage it differently. This means different technology, and they have to make sure their systems are intact, so when people work remotely, they can get access. And then the other layer on top of that is privacy, as well as security of documents. And I think all of that impacts how operations happen on a day to day basis. The old process of walking around and having everyone in the office, doing the huddle, and everyone going on with their work doesn’t seem to be the reality today.

We’re doing virtual interviews for new positions. All operations are changing. They’re likely changes that would have happened anyway, but it’s been accelerated. Day by day, clients are saying, ‘we’re changing the way we do business tomorrow.’ Managers have to scramble to figure out how they can manage people in a different world. Your standard operating procedures change, your processes change, your communications change. Now the big change for managers is to learn new strategies to effectively manage a remote workforce instead of a physical group of people at one or several locations. Managers may also be dealing with a reduction in their head count, reduced employee work hours and /or employee job sharing.

A remote workforce is made up of a combination of ages, but younger people grew up this way. My generation did not grow up this way, but the workforce that I’m looking at moving to a remote situation are all embracing that, and love the idea of working from home. It’s the management that has to figure out how they can retain those goals, and how they can retain performance while people are physically not there. If a manager is not an effective, articulate communicator, then they’re not the right manager. We need managers that can manage a remote workforce. Not just a younger workforce, but a remote workforce.

GB: I’ve heard a lot of information that backs up what you’re saying about remote work, and people in San Francisco and Silicon Valley saying that they think that the understanding and methods and processes around remote working are potentially going to jump around by a decade, because people are forced to try it when they wouldn’t have otherwise.

JS: It’s going to be like a river that changes its path because of a flood. We’re going to push through because we had to, and then when everything settles down, there’ll just be a different expectation. The other thing is, there’s a real opportunity in terms of technology. If people work remotely, we all need laptops, sometimes printers at home, we need cell phones, everybody’s going to need to be on Wi-Fi. So we need technology to manage a remote workforce, and set up home offices, and if that technology doesn’t exist, we’re going to buy it.

GB: So you foresee these changes having long term implications?

JS: I think that employers are taking this as an opportunity to really evaluate their talent and make changes. What’s the next step? Given what’s happening with this, what else can we offer that’s more relevant than what we’re offering right now? After 9/11, tons of businesses developed security departments, and other kinds of businesses developed because of that catastrophe. Businesses are still strategizing for the future, but a different one.

It’s during downtimes like this, during recessions and wars and other public emergencies, that those people who can embrace the change and move through the change with their employees come out on top and grow substantially

People should plan for the future now—businesses have to. If you stop planning for the future, you’re obsolete. Remote work can include both the day to day operations and special projects where there was little time to focus. I think we will see more Innovation and creativity from employees who have the time to think things through when working remotely – away from day to day distractions of the office. I also think we will see new skills and abilities demonstrated by employees working at home.

This drastic and massive change will be a little uncomfortable, but as you know, all change is uncomfortable. Not all change is good, but I do think on the business side, this will be good for us, this will produce something better than we had before.

There’s confidence out there that there’s going to be a new and better reality, a new normal at the end of this. And it’s going to be better, not worse. I think there’s an understanding, or at least I have an understanding, that this will fade and pass, and then businesses will get back to business as usual, and they will need employees.

As my mother says, we’re in the best time ever to be sick, because we know the most about medicine and technology that we’ve ever known. We just got caught off guard, but I’ve got full faith that we’re going to be able to rally, and move into a better reality for people, not a worse one, but a better one. My mom survived the war, and she completely knew what to do, in terms of rations, and water, earthquake preparedness, but she also did social distancing right when this was announced.

Our generation has never done this. We don’t know what lack of food is, not having enough toilet paper on the shelf, instead of buying two rolls, we’re used to buying five cases at a time. I have three children, and they all live in different places. I said to them that this is a learning experience, and they need to take heed to what’s going on in the world, take it seriously, and learn from this, because it will help them in the future.

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