How HR teams are creating new task forces after Covid-19

After Covid-19, crisis management experts say that HR should have a plan for viral outbreaks.
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5 min read

After two years of unprecedented tragedies and costly disruptions due to Covid-19, many HR leaders have started taking a closer look at public health data—particularly where viruses are concerned.

Clare Rock, associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, told HR Brew that this summer’s headlines—namely the continued spread of Covid-19, as well as the monkeypox and polio outbreaks—highlight how “what’s happening in one part of the world has huge potential to impact globally.” In light of this, Rock said, HR teams should proactively apply lessons learned from Covid-19 to create task forces dedicated to monitoring “health and safety, and infectious disease” so that companies are aware of public health situations that might “rapidly escalate.”

Such task forces aren’t entirely new: Since 9/11, many companies have created cross-functional crisis response management teams to predict threats, prepare plans, and pressure test corporate responses. Often, HR professionals sit at the helm.

HR Brew talked to experts to learn how infectious disease preparation is increasingly being folded into these emergency response plans, as viral awareness becomes part of what Rock calls corporate America’s “new normal.”

9-1-1, we’re predicting an emergency. In the wake of Covid-19, Eric McNulty, associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI) at the Harvard School of Public Health, thinks more crisis response management teams will include infectious diseases in their “threat matrix” of concern and be “much more attuned to…watching globally to see what kind of local outbreaks might portend something bigger on a national or global scale.”

The name of the game, he explained, is figuring out which ones will escalate.

“It’s about talking to either your local or state or other public health experts,” McNulty said. “How frequently do you think things are going to happen and how bad do you think they’re going to be? Where might they emerge?”

Like the scouts, we’re always prepared. Though teams may include colleagues from departments including IT, security, legal, and logistics, they are typically led by HR. Once a viral threat is identified, John Dooney, knowledge advisor at SHRM, said that it’s HR that should craft a response plan. He explained that this is because HR is responsible for the company’s compliance with OSHA’s general duty clause, which requires employers to safeguard workplaces from threats, including illnesses.

“As we…learn more about different diseases…HR would be the one [team] in the organization to step up, make policies, and create awareness so that employees feel that the company is taking care of them,” Dooney said.

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Luckily, public health experts said HR doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel for every virus.

“The principle for managing infectious diseases remains very similar,” Amitabh Deka, VP of Aon’s health transformation team, said. No matter the illness, infectious disease control in the workplace, he said, boils down to hygiene, diagnosis, contract tracing, and reporting.

McNulty agreed, stressing that this is a good thing: “Never use the word ‘unique’ around these incidents, because if something is truly unique, you don’t need to learn from it…but there’s a pattern to these things,” McNulty explained.

HR can keep an “internal risk register,” he said, documenting not only formal protocols and checklists of emergency-response action items, but also the contact information of the employee who oversaw the last response. He suggested that new corporate leads call their predecessors to ask for advice and lessons learned.

Muddy with misinformation. One element that may change, McNulty and Leonard Marcus, co-director of the NPLI, said, is employees’ willingness to follow the playbook. “We saw during Covid that when public health officials told people what to do, a lot of them didn’t like it and didn’t do it. [Companies] had to think…‘Okay, so what are we going to do?’” McNulty said.

One of the reasons people balked at public health guidance during Covid-19, he said, was misinformation. In the age of social media, McNulty suggested that HR share accurate, reliable information with employees from the earliest stages. Doing so, he explained, can lend credibility to the company’s emergency response plan and ensure employee trust and compliance.

The process of identifying viral threats, preparing response teams, and rolling out communications is not a once-in-a-career event, Marcus said. “For anyone who’s in a corporate leadership position, crisis leadership is part of the job.”

It’s a job HR leaders have told Dooney they feel prepared to do after the past two years.

“They just felt more comfortable [managing crisis]. There was more understanding [that] this is their role.”—SV

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Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.