What if You Can’t Work From Home During the COVID-19 Outbreak?

Wednesday 18 March 2020
Many managers and employees cannot suddenly switch to homeworking. They will rely on excellent advice and support.
Empty train carriage

Millions of people are shifting to homeworking, grappling with IT systems, collaboration apps and the new psychology of remote working.

But what about those people whose jobs can’t be switched to a remote working or homeworking model? You may be working in frontline public services, in retail, in vital parts of the manufacturing sector or in a multitude of other jobs. How are you coping? What are the key considerations for you personally, and for your teams? Over the past few days we’ve been talking to many CMI members, managers and business leaders about the unique pressures that will be facing the workforce that’s still having to front up in the public arena.

Take Nadia Howell. She runs her own specialist food supplier, L’Aquila, importing ingredients mainly from Italy that go into dishes sold at supermarket and through other retailers and food outlets. Her company employs ten people in Park Royal, west London.

For office staff Nadia already had contingency plans in place, a requirement of being in the food business. “But warehouse staff can’t work from home,” she says. And delivery drivers bringing food into L’Aquila – they can’t work on a remote basis either.

For Nadia and team, it’s all about taking the key government safety advice – handwashing, social distancing, immediate self-isolation if anyone got ill. Other changes are coming into force. Coffee breaks are now staggered. Italian lorry drivers bringing in supplies are told to stay in their cabs while the L’Aquila team unload the lorries. And – sorry drivers! – you can’t use the toilets on site.

The mood among L’Aquila team members is “good but the atmosphere is eerie,” says Nadia. “Everyone’s waiting for something to happen.” And they’re all aware of their own behaviour and not getting too close to one another.

These situations are being repeated in thousands of workplaces around the country. A primary school teacher in Essex told us that as well as increased hygiene measures, the school’s precautionary steps include cancelling assemblies and parents’ evenings and staggering lunch times to reduce foot traffic in the canteen.

The food sector is right at the frontline in the Coronavirus pandemic. As Sainsbury’s CEO, Mike Coupe said in an address to his online customers: “Our colleagues are all working incredibly hard to ensure we can continue to serve our customers well.”

In fact, they’re having to work harder than ever. Speaking to the BBC, former Waitrose boss Lord Price explained that stockpiling and panic-buying will load increasing pressure on employees in the food sector because the supermarkets’ ordering algorithms will keep responding to increased demand, ordering more and more stock, and placing more and more pressure on workers. In the past few days I’ve personally talked to many frontline retail staff, including at Churchills Pharmacy in west London. You can see the haggard look on their faces. “We were working till very late last night,” the store manager told me before having to cut short our conversation as the queue built up. And of course they have to think about the wellbeing of their own staff.

Of course, your first priority as a manager or leader is to ensure the health and wellbeing of your people. And that includes their mental health. Many people all over the world will be concerned for their health, jobs, their families. Our CMI chief executive Ann Francke also highlights “the anxiety of uncertainty.” This will hit very hard on frontline workers, so do take a look at this powerful advice from Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA).

Looking After Yourself and Your Team

If you’re working in an environment that doesn’t support remote working, speak to your manager and colleagues about any concerns for the upcoming change in working conditions. If you’re a manager, keep in mind one of the core rules in a crisis situation: communicate. As CMI’s chief executive Ann Francke advises today: “if in doubt, over-communicate.”

Employees need to make sure they are still receiving the legal amount of breaks and following the company’s health and safety guidelines in terms of using ladders and lifting heavy goods in warehouses. And, of course, follow the recommendations from the NHS for washing your hands and avoiding lots of skin contact at work wherever possible. See if you’re allowed to wear gloves during work hours, go for regular breaks to wash your hands, and avoid touching your face.

Around the country there’s a lot of innovative thinking going on. One of the most interesting trends that seems to be happening particularly in professional and financial services firms, is deploying A and B teams on a rotating basis. At the investment bank JP Morgan, the Financial Times reports, “they’re dividing staff across different parts of the business into an A and B team, according to people familiar with plans. One will work from home for two weeks while the other will continue to work in the main Tokyo office during that time. At the end of that period, they will switch but under strict conditions that members of the A and B teams have no physical contact. The two-week period is based on the presumed incubation period of the virus.”

Right at the other end of the scale, the owners of the east London cafe Sazzy and Fran is making sure it adheres to the recommended health and safety measures of social distancing and increased hygiene practices, while also retaining their customer base:

“In the next few days, if you feel nervous about coming in, text us your order and we will get it ready for you to pick up,” they wrote on their business’s social media account, going on to say they’ll accept card payments and will bring your order to the cafe’s front door.


But of course the organisation that’s most affected and most critical in this crisis is the NHS. Managers and employees here will be under profound strain themselves as well as trying to help the general public. You’ll have heard the NHS advice many times on how to avoid spreading the virus as well as how to look after yourself, but it bears repeating:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water often for at least 20 seconds at a time, using hand sanitiser if soap and water are not available
  • Always wash your hands when you get home or into work
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze , put used tissues in the bin immediately and wash your hands afterwards
  • Avoid close contact with people who have symptoms of coronavirus
  • Only travel on public transport if you need to and work from home, if you can
  • Avoid social activities, such as going to pubs, restaurants, theatres and cinemas
  • Use phone, online services, or apps to contact your GP surgery or other NHS services.

The CMI is committed to supporting its members and the wider community of leaders through the Coronavirus crisis. So we’re going to be releasing twice-weekly newsletters with fresh insights and experiences from other frontline managers.

Share your thoughts and concerns on any of our social media channels using the hashtag #BetterManagers.

Our chief executive Ann Francke will be holding regular Friday webinars and hangouts to support members of the CMI family. These will be an opportunity for us all to share challenges and advice. The first one is this Friday (20 March) at 1.15. Here’s the link to join her.

Image: Unsplash