In response to the coronavirus outbreak, state and city governments across the U.S. are continuing to announce school and business closures. California, New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Massachusetts, among other states, are shutting down bars and restaurants, allowing take out or delivery only. In NYC, schools are closed starting today. Several federal agencies have now issued work-from-home guidelines, and the CDC is recommending that all gatherings of 50 people or more be canceled.
Many companies are encouraging us to work from home — but it always comes with a qualifier: if you are able to. What if your job might be able to be performed off-site, but your company isn’t helping enable you to work from home in this crucial time? What can you do if your bosses and managers are dragging their feet on announcing a coronavirus work-from-home policy?
“There was no real stated policy for us. A few individuals said they weren’t comfortable coming in, and they were allowed to work from home,” one producer working in the entertainment industry in New York tells Refinery29. Finally, during a group meeting with about 15 employees, they spoke up. “I said that personally, if there wasn’t a work from home policy by the end of the day, I wouldn’t feel comfortable coming in tomorrow. Some people pointed out that it shouldn’t be on employees to say whether they were comfortable coming into work. That’s why it was so important to have a staff policy. And by the end of the day, they did deliver.”
Ask A Manager's Alison Green has been fielding many similar concerns lately. By a rough estimate, half of the coronavirus-related questions readers have been submitting to her are about the logistics of new work-from-home policies. “But the other half are people whose employers are not acting with any urgency at all,” she says. “It's bizarre how many employers seem to have their heads in the sand about this.”
She says that at this point, all employers should be implementing sweeping work-from-home policies. But if your company hasn’t responded appropriately, what can you really do about it? “I think people feel really vulnerable and really helpless, because their employers in a time like this have so much control over them,” says Green. “People are really dependent on their paychecks to be able to pay their bills and survive. And so they can't just say, screw this, I'm walking off the job.”
If you’re having trouble bringing up working from home with your manager, it’s time to get strategic.
Remember That There’s Strength In Numbers
“The biggest one now is that if your employer is not acting with any urgency, rather than trying to address it on your own, band together with other coworkers and push as a group, because it’s much harder to ignore a group of employees than one person,” says Green.
“You can try peer pressure — you can point to all of the large companies that have instructed everyone to work from home: Facebook, Google, Microsoft. You know, point out companies that are making it work. It is the responsible thing to do right now.”
Make An Appeal To Authority — And Self-Interest
“Share the CDC guide that they've put out with guidance for employers,” says Green. “You can even point out that some locales are starting to ban gatherings of over a certain number of people, and if your company is that size or larger and that comes to your area, it's going to apply to your company, and it’s better for them to figure it out now than to be in a mad scramble if that suddenly changes overnight.”
“I mean, obviously you want to talk about their obligation to their workers — but you can appeal to their self interest too, you know, if they let the virus spread in their workforce far more employees are going to be unable to work than if they take some precautions now.”
What To Do When No One Else Seems Worried
It’s one thing when you, your manager, and your colleagues are all concerned but unsure of what the appropriate measures are — but what do you do when you seem to be the only one worried by a public health crisis? Myths about coronavirus have been circulating widely online, and the idea that the virus could be a hoax has been perpetuated by the White House.
In the face of so much misinformation, Green recommends again that we share resources like the CDC guide and point to what big companies or competitors in your field are doing. “But I think, also, appeal to people as fellow humans,” she says. “Can you talk about how you or anyone in the office really could be in contact with someone who's in a higher-risk group, who's vulnerable?”
“I think part of the problem is that people, especially if they're younger, feel like, ‘well, you know, if we get it it'll be fine.’ And that's not really the point,” Green says. “The point is spreading it to people who won't be fine and overwhelming our medical resources. So I think sometimes you need to point that out explicitly to people.”
What If You Don't Have Paid Sick Leave Or Paid-Time Off?
Last week, it was reported that the CEO of Whole Foods has suggested employees "donate" their limited paid-time off to workers who need it for family emergencies (or to self-isolate and protect themselves against the virus), while two weeks PTO would be given to those who test positive for coronavirus.
"I think employers who really want to take this seriously, and handle it effectively in the long-term, are going to make it easy for people to stay home," says Green.
Green’s advice here applies less to workers, but to employers — some of whom we know need to hear this. “If you have someone who doesn't have any paid sick leave or who gets two days of paid sick leave a year, and they might need it for flu season in November, those people are far less likely to stay home if they're feeling sick,” she says. “An employer should want them to stay home. This is not the time to nickel and dime people on paid time off. This is a time where you really have to take a broader view, and figure out, ‘What are the factors as an employer that we have within our control?’”
How To Help Coworkers Who Can’t Work From Home
Within a single office, there may be differences in policy dependent on department or employment status. The nature of some people’s jobs might be deemed too difficult to perform at home — or certain vendors, freelancers, or others your company works with may not be offered pay during the outbreak.
“The more you each can send a message to other companies that you've worked with, especially vendors who want to keep you happy in some way — the more you can ask about what their arrangements are and do they offer paid leave and are they sending people home, that's generating pressure that's going to help the people who work for them,” says Green.
How Is Coronavirus Changing The Way We Think Of Work?
Coronavirus has disturbed most aspects of our everyday lives, and work is one of the biggest adjustments. Since 2007, Green has been giving advice on every possible workplace topic we could probably imagine, but the outbreak has brought her to more seriously contemplate some of the pressing workplace issues around empathy and inclusivity.
“We've always had an urgent need for paid sick leave, for example, but we're really seeing right now the life and death consequences of not offering it,” she says. On March 14, the House passed an emergency bill that included provisions for paid sick leave and family leave — but businesses with over 500 employees are exempt.
“And one point that I've seen people making a lot is that people who are disabled have been asking for a whole range of accommodations for years — working from home, flexible schedules — and have been told, no, we can't do that. There's no business way for us to make it work. And now that, suddenly, non-disabled people need those accommodations, we're figuring out ways to make it work. And that is a lesson that we need to hold onto.”
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.