How to plan for continuity in the face of the coronavirus

The coronavirus (COVID-19) is spreading quickly and many businesses are likely to be affected in the coming months. Each accountancy practice will face unique challenges if they are affected by the virus.

Here is our guide to continuity planning in relation to the outbreak, how to help staff work effectively from home, and five points to consider when you are drawing up a strategy.

1. Assess your exposure

What is your current situation, and does your business have any contact with the most severely affected countries? You should be advising staff members to self-isolate if they have been to an affected country and/or are showing signs of the symptoms of coronavirus.

If the UK is forced into a total shutdown, what plans do you have in place to help your staff to continue working? If you are an owner/manager, what can you do to ensure the business continues to run smoothly if you are ill and forced to take time off?

“If employers have a staff member who has been advised to self-isolate, they would be best advised to allow that person to stay at home,” says Danielle Ayres, partner, and employment specialist at Gorvins Solicitors. “They not only have to think about the health and safety of that one individual but the rest of their employees too,” she says.

An employer can instruct an individual not to come into the workplace – the employee’s contract may contain an express provision that the employer can oblige them to stay out of the workplace (such as a garden leave clause), or if they have the health and safety of that individual or their workforce in mind. 

2. Communicate with staff

Explain the sickness policy, emergency procedures, the measures you are taking to reduce risk, and what staff can do on a personal level to stay well. Let them know what your procedures are for sick pay, what the workplace healthcare plan covers, and how you will support them if they need to take time off to care for sick dependents.

“Any absence from work by an employee who self-isolates should be treated as any other type of sick leave,” says Danielle Ayres. “If an employer obliges the employee to self-isolate, this would be seen as a form of suspension from work, and in those circumstances, the employee would be entitled to receive their normal pay for any such period,” she says.

The only issue is the risk that an employee comes into work, even after being given medical advice to self-isolate, as they do not wish to lose out on pay.  ACAS is, therefore, advising that it would be ‘good practice’ regardless of the party enforcing the self-isolation for the individual to receive normal pay during their absence.

“No matter how many employees the SME has, they should consider altering the workplace to take precaution,” says Lisa Townsend, Consultant Solicitor of Employment Law at Richard Nelson LLP. For example, including posters in bathrooms advising employees and visitors on how to correctly wash their hands, and offering hand sanitising stations to all who enter the building. 

3. Review your remote working capabilities

Do you have the necessary IT infrastructure for all your staff to work remotely? It is time to review your data protection and IT security to check that your business is not exposed to data breaches, especially if employees use their own laptops or home networks.

It is important to try to keep staff motivated and productivity high. Employers should check to see if their employees are contracted for a minimum number of working hours per week and are fulfilling those working hours at home and are available to be contacted, says David Sheppard, a senior associate in Capital Law’s employment team. 

As an employer, you will need to find ways to ensure productivity remains as close as it would in an office environment.

Employers should also stress and remind employees of their data protection policies and the need to uphold these standards at home,” he says. There are several measures they can put in place to avoid security and data breaches.

These include ensuring that employees use private and secure wifi connections, that any personal and other confidential information stored on a device is encrypted, that paper documentation is stored securely in a locked cabinet when not in use, and that business telephone or video calls are taken in a quiet room or home office, away from other family members or residents.  

4. Monitor government and global health advice

There are regular UK government updates on guidance within the UK and advice on travel from the FCO on places it recommends Britons do not visit. Make sure you are up to date on health and travel advice and communicate any new information to your staff.

Mini Setty, a partner in employment law at Langleys Solicitors, has the following recommendations for employers:

  • send guidance to staff on the best ways to stop the spread of the virus
  • provide tissues and hand sanitisers for staff to use
  • monitor whether work-trips to areas hit by the virus should proceed
  • ensure that anyone who comes back from an infected area does not come into work if they are symptomatic
  • consider the safety issues of ‘high risk’ individuals such as the older people, those with underlying medical conditions and pregnant women.

5. Uphold your duty of care

Most employees usually only work from home for ad hoc short periods, such as childcare cover. But with the prospect of having a longer duration of home working as a result of the coronavirus, both employers and employees need to be aware of their legal obligations when working from home for prolonged periods, says David Sheppard.

Employers owe a duty of care to ensure their employees’ health, safety and welfare “so far as is reasonably practical”. Most home working is usually low-risk office-type jobs. Nevertheless, employers should ensure that appropriate risk assessments are conducted at the start of a homeworking arrangement and periodically thereafter.  

Equipment and liability insurance

As with working in the office, employers might have to provide equipment as part of reasonable adjustments for employees with a disability when working at home, he says 

In terms of insurance, employers will have compulsory employee liability insurance, protecting them from workplace accidents. They need to check these policies, to consider whether any extends to accidents occurring in the course of work undertaken at home and using equipment supplied to the employee.

If there is any gap in their insurance cover, employers should consider extending it, or request the employee to make their own home insurance arrangements to cover such risks and agree to meet any additional premium as an expense that can be reimbursed by the employer, he says.

In summary

Points to consider from Steve Thompson, Founder of Forward Role – a marketing, digital and technology recruitment agency. 

  • Think about what might happen if the outbreak gets worse.
  • Identify any employees who may be at a higher risk from the virus and take extra steps to minimise their risk in the workplace.
  • Communicate all of the health advice coming from the NHS on how to protect yourself and others from transmitting coronavirus.
  • Ensure your tech is up to scratch to keep your business moving. Platforms that allow video conferencing, such as Skype, would offer an effective solution to canceled face-to-face meetings; even interviews could be held remotely.
  • Can your team access the files they need with a remote connection to your server? Do they have the kit and internet capabilities to be able to set up a home office so they can keep working?
  • Have an action plan in place to ensure you’re ready to adopt more cloud-based way of working, whatever level the outbreak might reach.

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Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.

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