Gartner is advising its clients to plan for the coronavirus. It recommends a planning assumption of 25% absenteeism, an estimate based on the fallout from other viruses such as SARS and H5N1. Employers should prepare for remote work as well as services and support for employees.
Gartner isn't predicting a pandemic, but it is recommending organizations be ready for a disruption from the outbreak with a business continuity strategy just in case, a process often called pandemic planning. Much of that planning may fall on HR because of how it could impact employees.
"How do we use technology to have people not come into the office?" said Brian Kropp, chief of research at Gartner.
Coronavirus cases are increasing rapidly and it is being reported in more and more locations globally. There's no vaccine for it and treatments are still experimental. This threat prompted Gartner, Forrester Research and the Everest Group this week to issue pandemic planning assessments and advice. But considerable unknowns remain about the coronavirus, its severity and threat.
"We don't yet know the true size and geographic scope of this epidemic," said disease expert Jennifer Nuzzo at a U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing Wednesday. She is an associate professor and senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University. She said the surveillance efforts in some countries may be missing cases of the disease.
Evidence is mounting
An epidemic is different from other types of disasters, the research groups all noted. It is a longer-term duration problem, can shift from region to region and has a direct impact on workers.
"Many business continuity plans still over-emphasize technology disruptions as the most common scenario," Forrester said in its pandemic planning report, with lead author and group vice president Stephanie Balaouras. "A widespread disease outbreak will wreak havoc across human resources, procurement, production, and all other aspects of the business."
Forrester released its report Friday, putting remote access technologies at the top of its business continuity strategy recommendations. It was cited as the top contingency step by 88% of business continuity decision makers in its survey.
Gartner's Kropp said businesses will need to query suppliers, including SaaS providers, about their contingency plans. "But outside of asking for those contingency plans, there's really not a lot you can do," he said. "To be honest, you should have asked all those questions before you signed contracts with them."
The role of HR
Nonetheless, Kropp advises firms to look at the potential risk posed by all the providers in their supply chain.
If a payroll application, for instance, is being supported by a company in an affected region, "you have to start to develop your own plan B," Kropp said. That may mean a company performs that function itself or finds another provider to step in, he said.
Kropp believes HR should take ownership of pandemic planning.
HR "is responsible for the wellbeing, physical, emotional, mental performance of the employees," Kropp said. "IT is responsible for the wellbeing of the technology platforms in the organization, but that is just a subset of the employees."
Many firms rely on overseas applications and support services, including HR applications. But China isn't a major exporter of those services, accounting for about 3% to 5% of service exports globally, said Eric Simonson, managing partner in the research practice at the Everest Group.
The Philippines, which has a large call center industry, has experience in dealing with typhoons and has learned to manage when people can't get to their workplace, Simonson said. "Many of those measures would also be effective for something like the coronavirus -- as long as the impacts are fairly limited," he said.
Simonson believes that companies are more vulnerable today from an epidemic because of the rise in international travel and travel between offices generally. However, technologies and work processes have improved the ability of organizations to work in segregated ways, he said.