Companies search for balance to do business while fighting coronavirus

Milwaukee skyline
Milwaukee skyline

Last updated on March 18th, 2020 at 12:47 pm

With coronavirus causing massive shifts in the economy, it seems reasonable for businesses to ask: Should we even have employees at the office at all?

Guidelines issued Monday by the Trump administration encouraged people to work or engage in schooling from home whenever possible. During a Tuesday briefing, Trump noted that health care workers, manufacturers and food service employees, among others, don’t have an option to work from home.

“They’re showing up and standing up to provide us with the goods and service we need,” Trump said.

Trump’s guidelines specifically noted that those in critical infrastructure industries like health care, pharmaceutical and food supply “have a special responsibility” to maintain their normal work schedule.

“You and your employers should follow CDC guidance to protect your health at work,” the guidelines say.

But for jobs where remote work is an option, companies are increasingly encouraging employers to stay home.

Menomonee Falls-based Kohl’s Corp. said in a statement it is encouraging employees at its headquarters, photo studio, digital center and design office to work from home if possible.

“Kohl’s associates are advised to work directly with their managers on the arrangements that work best for their individual teams,” the statement said. “Given the density of population at our corporate offices, we want to take steps in accordance with social distancing guidelines – and take advantage of work from home arrangements where possible.”

At stores, the company said it is working with employees to accommodate schedules based on employee preferences. Kohl’s is also limiting store hours to 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. to make sure stores are well-staffed and cleaned during peak times.

Johnson Controls spokesman Fraser Engerman said in an email that the company’s Milwaukee area campuses remain open to make sure the company meets customer commitments.

“However, we know many employees may need to work from home if they are high-risk or need to care for family members so we are providing flexible working arrangement options for these Johnson Controls employees,” Engerman said, adding the company has increased the frequency of cleaning and sanitizing at facilities, activated contingency plans and suspended all non-critical and non-customer air travel two weeks ago.

In an email to clients and partners, Milwaukee-based Eppstein Uhen Architects said it had asked employees to work from home for the next two weeks “out of an abundance of caution.”

“We are encouraged that significant action is being taken by many organizations to reduce the possible impact of this virus, and we want to do all we can to help reduce this impact as well,” Rich Tennessen, president of EUA, wrote.

George Bureau, vice president of consulting services at WMEP Manufacturing Solutions, said companies should look at restricting outside visitors and emphasizing personal hygiene. He also noted manufacturers could be in a better position than other industries, like call centers, where workers are in closer proximitiy to each other.

Bureau noted there is uncertainty about how the virus will play out and companies will need to protect their core production capabilities and employees. He said employees should be encouraged to stay home if they don’t feel well and employers might need to look at how their policies treat employees missing work to make sure workers are comfortable missing work.

He also suggested companies need to look at their supply chain and communicate early and often with vendors and customers about potential issues.

“The good news of it is we’re all in the same boat,” he said, noting partners will likely be more understanding of potential issues.

Bureau said with the potential economic impact of the virus looming will be important for companies to look at their expenses but added it isn’t time to hunker down and not spend at all.

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Arthur Thomas
Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He spent also five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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