Erica is a vice president of the health and safety department of a multinational microcosm tech company, which works with state and federal governments in the banking, financial and healthcare sectors. They operate under a lot of regulations, and meeting turnaround times is very important. Erica oversees multiple manufacturing and document-management facilities in many states and countries. They are considered essential. During the pandemic, through her leadership strategies, her company successfully implemented science-based, risk-assessment strategies and effective Covid-prevention protocols. They were able to stay ahead of the curve and operate successfully during the pandemic without a major outbreak.
Every year Erica’s company runs disaster exercises. The company goes through simulations of disasters, and plans how they would prepare and respond. Every two years, her company actually has pandemic exercises as well. A typical scenario would be simulating that 40% of the staff called in sick and then plotting out how they would recover their operations.
Having had experience with these pandemic exercises, when Covid-19 emerged on the world scene, Erica took an immediate interest. Despite being on maternity leave, she was obsessively checking numbers from foreign media outlets and watching for trends. When reports of cases started coming from America, she realized that there were inconsistencies with the numbers in America. Not enough testing was being done, and states seemed to be managing their activities independent of the federal government. She saw the signs that America was going to have a problem. She reached out to her coworkers and said, “This is happening.”
Her coworkers were not convinced. Many of her coworkers felt the virus was overhyped. But she could see that the evidence was saying that it was coming. They had to be prepared. She knew that putting in the investment and not needing the preparation was better than not spending and not being prepared.
“We had a pandemic plan, but there were gaps, there were things that people had not thought about in this type of scenario. So I worked on a risk assessment and put together a framework that we rolled out very quickly.”
In their pandemic plan, they had not thought about the level of personal protection equipment (PPE) that would be needed. Erica quickly contacted the facilities to put in orders for PPE. Later, while a lot of other companies were struggling to obtain PPE and hand sanitizers, Erica’s company was ahead of the game.
Data-driven risk assessment
They needed reliable information. At this time, a lot of misinformation was circulating on the Internet, and for whatever information she got, she had to verify the sources. Once they had found reputable sites with reliable data, they stuck to them, and started consolidating dashboards on the number of cases specific to the locations she oversaw, and she analyzed the trends.
CDC and WHO guidelines were changing constantly, and she had to stay informed, particularly about Covid-19’s transmission vectors. She also had to go to the websites of each state’s governors with her legal team in tow, which was painstaking. Each new executive order carried with it legal ramifications.
From that all, they determined their own internal policy.
Early on, testing was not available. There were so many scenarios where employees could have Covid-19 or think they had Covid-19 and not be able to get a test, but she still had to make a decision on what the risks were for keeping the employee there.
To aid in the decision-making process, she built a risk-assessment tool that allowed people to input certain criteria about an employee, such as the number of people on the shift, the frequency of close contact with others, and if the person had exposure to someone who had tested positive. Once all the data was inputted, an algorithm would calculate whether the company needed to quarantine the person for 14 days, quarantine a group of people for two weeks, or shut the entire site down and disinfect it.
“And I think very early on, we were more aggressive in quarantining people or breaking up groups of people and asking them to remain at home. We did have a few cases where individuals tested positive, but we had absolutely zero cases where that spread within any of our facilities, which I think was a really positive indicator that those risk assessments had worked very early on.”
Very early on, Erica implemented a number of protocols. Hand-washing and sanitizing stations multiplied. Social distancing was required. Masks became mandatory. There was resistance, particularly with the company mandating masks. Some of her HR business partners were getting so many complaints that they started granting concessions, like allowing employees who were 15 feet apart to not have to comply with the mask mandate.
“I said it can’t be that way. It’s all or nothing. This is a policy. We need consistent enforcement.”
With facilities in multiple states, some states like Iowa had such a small number of cases that they struggled with the protocols. They didn’t understand why they were held to the same standards as New York or Texas.
“Exceptions are the bane of my existence. Anytime I create an exception, I’m going to have a quality incident every time because people operate under certain conditions. And when you give them leeway, you give them an inch, they take a mile.”
If masks were mandated in New York but not Iowa, a situation could come where Covid-19 was encroaching on Iowa and the employees were blindsided by it. The next thing she would know was that her Iowa facilities were being shut down because they weren’t prepared. As a leader, she had to convey this scenario and help people understand that regardless of whether someone was in Iowa or New York, each could learn from each other. And in New York, they did have to shut down an entire facility for a short period of time because they weren’t willing to risk the health of their employees. Fortunately, they were able to divert the work successfully.
Erica made sure to convey the message that they were all in this together. Everybody had to be on board. It took time for her to convince everyone of the need for consistent protocols across all facilities. She made her pitch with a simple but blunt statement.
“If you guys are worried about service levels and meeting customer requirements, let me make it very clear. If you do not put the health and safety of your employees first, you will not have any employees in that building to meet those customer deliverables. So while safety should always come first, your business needs to put safety first if you want to deliver on your business and keep your business.”
After repeating the seriousness of keeping their employees safe enough times, she was able to drive the point home, and the team got on board. Her goal was to keep her people safe. She didn’t want a single person not being able to go home in the same condition that they arrived at work.
Erica was very passionate, and her relentless pursuit of safety paid off. Her company knew that people were not going to get away with ignoring safety requirements.
“You have to be passionate. You have to care. You have to understand as a leader [that] you have to make tough decisions and be willing to stand by them. And I was willing to stand by them. I was willing to take 15 people and put them in quarantine and risk missing a customer service level. I understood what that meant from a business perspective. And I had to take responsibility for that and stand up to some of the customers.”
Being an adaptable leader
Her risk-assessment tools used algorithms to build a baseline. It wasn’t perfect, but from the information, the company could land a decision, and they had to stick to the decision and move forward. Then the next decision would learn from the prior situation. They adapted and continued on.
“Staying on top of the information that’s new, being as current as you can – that’s the evolution of science. Science changes. We didn’t know a lot in March. We still don’t know a lot about the virus, but that’s how science works. You have to be an adaptable leader and to adjust your strategy to make sure that you’re always hopefully ahead of the curve, but that you’re smart about what you’re doing to guide people.”
She also has to adapt to and work around legal constraints. They are not allowed to mandate testing. Their policy is that if an employee tests positive, they cannot return to work without a doctor’s note. If an employee has symptoms, they will recommend that they see a medical provider and recommend that they get tested, but they can’t enforce that. However, nobody has refused. Anytime someone has been symptomatic, they’ve always run right out. Everybody wants to know.
To try to catch possible employee exposure, Erica’s company has designed a contact-tracing tool to keep track of who their employees interacted with. They use data from facility security cameras and from questionnaires employees fill out about the people they had contact with when they log in and out every day. If any tested positive, the company could just pull up the date and get a list of individuals that they may need to notify that were in close contact.
Even with testing, though, there are problems with false-positives and false-negatives. Erica wonders what percent of the asymptomatic people who are testing positive are actually false-positives. Then there are people fitting the Covid-19 symptoms but testing negative, and the person is authorized to return to work by their doctor. Erica’s not allowed to demand more information from these individuals, so she can only go by how willing they are to share. Fortunately, many will share.
Doctors are often inconsistent as well. She had an employee who was living with a Covid-positive individual continuously, and they tested negative on day three. The doctor allowed them to return to work. However, she knew they could have tested positive on day seven, eight, or nine. Still, she wasn’t allowed to discriminate against the employee or put in more stringent protocols.
They have to trust that doctors are competent and informed, but information is not always easy to find or available even for doctors. She had to deal with situations where people were authorized to return too early. On the other hand, there were also situations where the doctors were very aggressive and kept people out a very long time, more than what seemed warranted based on the information.
Having hand-washing and sanitizing stations everywhere, mandating masks, and requiring social distancing has helped to reduce the risk dramatically. However, for those specific individuals that she suspects have Covid-19 but cannot legally do anything, she monitors them really closely and just makes sure she knows what is happening.
One of the hardest parts of dealing with Covid-19 has been the new symptoms. They are screening people every day, and it seemed that every day a new symptom was added. It has added a lot of confusion. Seasonal allergies, the flu, and Covid-19 all share many symptoms. The loss of taste and smell was different, but the other symptoms could be experienced with hay fever. And there were people who were not honest during their screening because they thought they had mild colds or seasonal allergies. One person at her facilities reported some mild symptoms and a runny nose and said they normally had allergies during that part of the year. The manager let it go. When Erica finally got the report, she asked the manager why the person was still there and why they hadn’t gone to the doctor. The employee later got tested and was found to be Covid-19 positive.
Another problem comes up with wages and time off. Many of her employees might not have good health insurance coverage, and her company can only offer a certain amount of paid time off. If employees exceed that while there are still several months to go in the year, being asked to stay home could cause them to go unpaid. It’s a delicate balance to keep the employees protected through teaching them to be honest without having them feel like they’re being penalized.
Planning for the future
Erica is anticipating that the pandemic could be around for two years. There are a lot of questions about the safety and efficacy of vaccines and how many people will opt out. She envisions that they’ll have to maintain a lot of the protocols for two years until the evidence starts to change or the virus weakens. Her company is a microcosm of the U.S. and a good example of how leadership can impact the outcome.
“We’ll continue to keep the standards that we’ve established until there’s enough scientific evidence that would show that we could safely manage our employees and still safely run our business before we were to consider dialing back on the need for the controls that we have established.”
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