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Survey Report

North American employers launch multipronged response to COVID-19

2020 COVID-19 Employer Survey Key Findings

Talent|Integrated Wellbeing
COVID 19 Coronavirus

March 12, 2020

A survey of 158 national and multinational organizations highlights key actions organizations are taking to address the COVID-19 epidemic.

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About the survey

A total of 158 U.S. companies, of which 64% of the respondents were multinationals, participated in the Willis Towers Watson COVID-19 Survey, which was conducted in mid-February. Respondents employ nearly 1.5 million workers.

An early look at how companies in North America are responding to the COVID-19 epidemic reveals that organizations are deploying a range of measures to protect employees and minimize business risks. A recent Willis Towers Watson survey of 158 national and multinational organizations highlights the key actions — from restricting travel to increasing flexibility for remote work — that organizations are taking to address this unfolding situation.

Protecting people and the business

To help stem the spread of the virus and reduce the risk of business interruption, employers are launching an array of initiatives in key areas:

Many organizations have restricted travel to and from Asia (61%) and identified at-risk employees (45%), deployed communication campaigns (59%), quarantined travelers returning from Asia (43%) and reviewed business continuity plans (37%).
Figure 1. Actions taken by employers

What actions has your organization taken or planned to take to address the COVID-19 epidemic?

  • Restricting travel and identifying at-risk employees.
    Travel restrictions are a critical frontline defense against this respiratory disease. Over half of employers (61%) are restricting travel to and from Asia. Nearly half (45%) are taking proactive steps to identify which employees might be at risk for COVID-19 based on their travel while more than two-fifths (43%) are implementing quarantines for employees returning from Asia.
  • Enhancing communication.
    Effective communication is essential to helping employees understand the measures employers are taking to protect the workforce and continue business operations. Over half (59%) of employers have deployed communication campaigns aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.
  • Addressing business continuity and related issues.
    It’s critical to develop and execute business continuity plans to help maintain ongoing business operations during health emergencies such as the COVID-19 outbreak. Our findings indicate that there is room for improvement in how employers are addressing business continuity and related issues. Only slightly more than a third of organizations (37%) indicate that they have reviewed and/or revised their business continuity plans with another 20% planning to do so. Similar percentages of employers have reported to the board regarding organizational readiness (34%) and reviewed insurance coverage (27%).

In addition, employers are striving to protect employees from exposure to the virus in the North American workplace by increasing access to hand sanitizers (44%) and disinfecting worksites (25%). Fewer organizations are procuring supplies of protective equipment such as masks (22%), offering supervisor training on communicable diseases (16%) or improving access to counseling (12%). And only 5% are evaluating and/or reserving for potential increased health plan liabilities.

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Adapting HR policies and procedures

As cases of the virus continue to rise in North America, almost two-fifths of organizations (38%) are reviewing and/or revising HR policies and procedures. Employers are examining options for working remotely, which the CDC encourages where feasible. Nearly half (46%) have increased flexibility for remote work while another 13% are planning to do so.

Other policies employers are implementing to address the COVID-19 epidemic include required screening for visitors or employees who have recently travelled (30%) and clarifying pay policy if worksites are closed or employees are furloughed (28%).

Considerations for international business travelers

Companies are taking special measures to protect North American employees who travel internationally for business. Many have already cancelled planned business trips (63%) and conferences (47%) in selected countries. And over half (55%) are encouraging the use of virtual meetings to reduce the need to travel.

Many companies have cancelled planned business trips (63%) and conferences (47%) in selected countries. 55% are encouraging the use of virtual meetings to reduce the need to travel. 43% require employees or visitors who recently returned from China to stay out of work for 14 days
Figure 2. Actions for North American employees who travel internationally for business

What actions has your organization taken for your North American employees who travel for business?

Additionally, over two-fifths (43%) require employees or visitors who recently returned from China to stay out of work for 14 days. More than a third of organizations (37%) have implemented such a policy for employees or visitors who have recently travelled from Wuhan, Hubei province in China.

Assessing the business impact

As part of a series of pulse surveys related to COVID-19, we collected information from benefit managers beginning on February 19. Their initial expectations on the economic impact were muted with 15% of firms expecting COVID-19 to have a moderate or significant negative impact over the next six months. In the second survey, focused on variable compensation implications and conducted entirely amid the market correction that occurred during the week of February 24, compensation managers put that number at 34%. While this may reflect differences in the responsibilities and perspectives of the respondents, it is also aligned with the growing concern reflected in the market reaction during this period.

Is your organization prepared?

The following questions can help you determine your organization’s readiness to address the COVID-19 outbreak:

  • Do you need to revise your organization’s policies around international and domestic business travel?
  • Has your organization launched ongoing communication campaigns aimed at preventing the spread of the virus?
  • Do you need to review and revise your HR policies including increasing flexibility for remote work? Have you clearly communicated pay policy if worksites are closed or employees are furloughed?
  • Have you reviewed and updated as necessary your business continuity plan and insurance coverage? Are you keeping your board informed regarding organizational preparedness and business implications?
  • Are you taking measures to help ensure a healthy work environment, including increasing access to hand sanitizers, disinfecting worksites and providing supervisor training on communicable diseases?

It’s important to regularly review and revise your organization’s plans as appropriate in this rapidly evolving environment.


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