First, there were government-mandated quarantines, in one country after another, each creating new levels of concern for the public. Now, a business-led version of these steps is emerging with a key question: How well can it be implemented?

To fight the coronavirus, some companies across the globe are imposing self-quarantines, with clearly defined rules about who can come to the office, who can’t, and what travel arrangements are allowable or advisable. The rules typically rely on information from the World Health Organization and local health organizations, and few question their need—just how they will be imposed in the realities of many operations.

The self-quarantines move beyond a ban for the sick, possibly asking employees to work from home regularly and forgo nonessential visits to customers. For many workers, that will be a new phenomenon. Only around 3% of workers in the United States work remotely as a routine, although far more do so occasionally. While many people find working in the office more productive because they aren’t as distracted as they would be at home, the viral outbreak changes the equation. “The inconvenience should be seen in the context of the health risks,” says Amy Gadsby, Korn Ferry’s director of human resources for EMEA and a veteran human resources executive.

Of course, remote working works well for many knowledge-based jobs, including coding, research, and consulting. That’s because the majority of employees have the technology to stay connected. But not all businesses can send their workers home and continue as if little has changed. If manufacturing and hospitality companies sent the workforce home, that would effectively mean a temporary shutdown of the business. “Those are sectors where remote work means everything comes to a grinding to halt,” says Kirsta Anderson, Korn Ferry’s global leader for culture and engagement. In simple terms, waitstaff can’t serve meals if they aren’t present in the café or the restaurant. Likewise, autoworkers can’t build cars if they are not at the workplace. Car companies are used to annual two-week shutdowns, so it is still possible for that to happen although not for indefinite periods, experts say.

Gadsby says leaders need to recognize—not ignore—the issue, by considering it in their business continuity plans. More importantly, she adds, they need to “communicate with employees how they are going to address these concerns.” Already the overwhelming majority of employers are stepping up to pay all or some of the normal salary to employees who can’t do their job because they’ve been asked to stay away from the workplace, according to a recent survey.

Interestingly, some experts do see a long-term benefit from the stay-at-home movement. Traditionally, making corporate sales in everything from banking to auto parts, for example, has involved sending individuals to the potential buyers’ headquarters. But the virus-induced corporate travel bans may push sales professionals to make greater use of high-quality video technology to close deals. “A good video conferencing system can work better than most people think if they are forced to use it,” Anderson says. And it has the added advantage of zero time or cost spent traveling. “The virus could force a shift in behavior.”

Amy Gadsby
director of human resources, emea
Sign Up for our 'This Week in Leadership' email