The Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage in Pakistan and the rest of the world. However, with governments finally taking stands on the lives versus livelihoods debate, large businesses will need to get back to work sooner rather than later. And while these large businesses are suffering economically because of the pandemic, they still have resources that allow them to attempt to find a ‘new normal’ until a vaccine is discovered, and the world can go back to what it was.
For starters, businesses need to adopt work from home models as much as possible. However much of the workforce can work from home, must not just be allowed to do so, but be made to do so. This is despite the fact that, even though many soundbites and articles claim the contrary, productivity from home can often be lower. Businesses must mitigate this as much as possible by offering or subsidizing home office equipment like office desks and office chairs (no one lasts eight to ten hours on dining chairs).
People with existing conditions and low immunity and those over 60 should not come to work. Period. Arguably, businesses should have a cutoff at 50. For people who do come to work, it is the responsibility of large businesses to provide masks to everyone who comes to work even if they are not medical grade.
In absence of using a data led strategy and heavy contact tracing enabled by a sentinel surveillance system with government oversight, the only way to minimize impact from Covid 19 and slowing transmission spread in offices is corporate and worker rules, discipline, and governance.
If people do have to come to the office, HR has the option of using the 10-4 rule. The 10-4 rule hypothetically brings transmission rates to under 1, by focusing on latency period of the virus post infection. On average, there is a three day delay from the time someone is infected with Covid-19 and their ability to infect others.
Thus, if people work from home 10 days (including weekends) and for four days at the office, then by the time they become infectious they are at home where they cannot infect other workers. This strategy will require workers taking their weekends not on Saturday and Sunday, but in their 10 day stay at home period. This strategy also thins people in the workplace at any given time, which automatically restricts virus transmission.
In the absence of widespread surveillance and contact tracing the 10-4 rule may be one of the most effective ways for large businesses to keep the economy open while protecting their workers to the greatest extent possible.
Employers should remake workspaces to maintain 2 meter distances between people using floor tape if they have to. If you have many employees, stagger their times of coming and leaving from office evenly and switch to rolling times. First batch comes in at 7 and leaves at 3, second comes in at 8 and leaves at 4, third comes in your standard 9 to 5 while the last one comes in at 10 to 6. It is important that this is not left at discretion of employees because each batch should be even in number to lessen load at entrances.
Large businesses also need to be creative in how to lessen any possible transmission by creating one way entrance and exit walk-throughs only. They should open more entrances and exits to achieve this if possible.
If businesses bus in their employees, they need to sanitize all vehicles and drivers should be tested for fever before and after pickup. Ideally, seating should be one employee per row and masks should be mandatory and windows should be open.
Businesses need to invest in healthcare workers and a doctor on site, and ideally a 24/7 helpline where employees can report symptoms or request help and which can give advice based on best practices and provincial and federal regulations where applicable.
All employees must get two daily temperature checks, once while entering and once while exiting by healthcare workers or trained staff wearing full PPE gear, including N95 masks, which is disposed daily. Employees should be trained to check their temperature by themselves every morning so they can proactively decide not to come in if needed or call the company’s Covid-19 helpline or HR for next steps. Businesses will need to invest in high efficiency forehead thermometers to enable temperature testing at scale.
I personally feel that eventually the largest businesses need to be innovative and think about investing in high efficiency and sensitivity serological tests with finger prick lancet for random testing to identify asymptomatic carriers. Nowadays, these tests come with companion apps which turn any smartphone camera into a lab, thus allowing for immediate diagnosis at office. You simply scan with your smartphone camera and get a result.
If call centers are essential to your business, they need to be virtual. The technology exists to enable peak call center worker productivity while they work from home and businesses should task their CIOs to make it happen. Even before implementation of this tech every outbound sales staff based in call center need to work from home (A typical bank can have over a hundred). They work off of sales scripts mostly and any technology they use is easier to modulate.
Businesses need to disinfect offices every morning and evening without fail, and possibly even in the middle of the day if possible. They should ideally close cafeterias and any public gathering areas. Conference rooms need to use half or less of the maximum capacity they were built for, everyone must wear masks, and no one should ever sit across from another person. Businesses should provide hand sanitizers everywhere. They should also disinfect spaces like door handles every 30 min and have it noted on a sheet which should be inspected randomly and daily.
As much as possible, elevators should be closed and people should only use stairs while keeping distance from other people as they use them. If enough people are working from home and businesses have several floors in a building, they should close upper floors and repurpose lower floors for work to make this easier.
Procurement departments should ensure contactless office supply deliveries. They need to disinfect everything and build areas where items can be disinfected and left for three hours where possible. If items need to be refrigerated, they should be wiped down by disinfectant wipes.
Businesses need to avoid sending people to increasingly crowded bank branches. Even if SOPs are being followed on how many people should be inside a branch, how many are outside the branch is often a small crowd. In order to manage this, large businesses whose business is coveted by banks need to lean heavily on them to enforce State Bank’s PSD Circular No. 04 of 2020. This circular, dated March 28th, was issued “to combat the potential spread of COVID-19 pandemic by limiting person-to-person interactions”. The circular encourages banks to offer the following services to their corporate customers:
- Direct cheque deposit facility: A crossed cheque may be presented by payee/beneficiary directly into the paying/drawee bank, instead of their bank branches as per the existing practice, and funds may be transferred by the paying/drawee bank either through RTGS customer fund transfer – MT102 or Over the Counter (OTC) IBFT or Bank’s internal online system (in case both payer & payee banks are the same).
- Doorstep Cheque Collection Facility: Banks/MFBs may make arrangements to collect cheque from registered addresses of their customers upon their request.
- Drop box Cheque Collection Facility: Corporate customers may drop their cheques in drop boxes of their Banks, installed in selected branches and communicated accordingly to businesses.
The circular also recommends that “banks may allow their (corporate)… customers to send them the scanned image of the cheque along with relevant details of the Beneficiary either through registered emails or through mobile Apps of their banks to push funds from their accounts to the payee bank.” I feel banks who enable this via apps should have an edge in the battle of primary corporate accounts and they should treat this as an opportunity.
Even though the ban on domestic air travel is partially lifted, businesses should avoid air travel. Use video conferencing wherever possible. For inspections, hire third parties locally present in the city where inspection has to take place.
All of this applies to manufacturing units too, and additionally no more than 50% of the shift should come in (all applicable provincial and federal rules take precedence to this recommendation). Remember, a positive case will close down production for a lot longer as the manufacturing facility will be, at the very least, temporarily sealed.
Lastly, corporate communication teams should communicate often about the basics like social distancing, washing hands often, avoiding crowded areas when not in office etc.
Much about the virus remains unknown. Similarly, reopening the economy without massive data led decision making at the macro level to lean on carries its own unknowns. Everything related to reopening is experimental and it is key that senior leaders stay involved and constantly fine tune their approach to reopening. It is also imperative that they share their learnings, positive or negative, openly so the entire business community can benefit. This will be a long journey, and all Pakistani businesses are in it together.