Craig Elliott’s job title, listed on his HVAC company’s website, is Chief Executive Optimist. But when it comes to COVID-19, more commonly known as coronavirus, the realist in him comes out. That’s why his team has been busy making plans to deal with the pandemic.
And Nice Heating & Air in Springfield, Va., is as prepared as it can be.
“We’re ready to move,” Elliott said Wednesday afternoon, on the day the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic.
The coronavirus is different from the flu because it is more contagious and potentially more deadly, humans lack immunity to the new strain, and the effects have the potential to overrun the healthcare industry’s ability to treat those who contract the illness.
The truth is, no one knows how severe or widespread the outbreak will become in the United States. The risk to non-healthcare workers is, at this point, considered low. But because the trades are public-facing occupations that require visits to customers’ homes and businesses, some preparation is wise.
It’s uncharted territory, Elliott said, but Nice Heating & Air will remain ready to serve its customers.
“We always made a commitment — no matter what — to be out there and serve clients,” said Elliott, a ServiceTitan Torch Member. “We’ve become accustomed to dealing with tough weather. We have some big trucks, big tires, we’re ready for that. This one, we never planned for, never anticipated, so we’re trying to take our normal approach to weird things that pop up and work as a team and coordinate.
“We’ll take the appropriate actions.”
Elliott didn’t wait for the WHO declaration, though. His company had already started planning.
“We decided there is a significant risk, and we all deem it significant as a team,” he said. “We’re going to be working from home and we’re going to have trucks on the road. That’s the plan.”
But what if your company hasn’t planned yet? What should you be thinking about for your trade company? You’ll want to protect your employees, your customers and your business, and minimize the impact. How you respond needs to be flexible enough to adjust to the severity. And it should be communicated clearly with employees, and tested if possible.
Monitoring state and local health organizations is strongly encouraged. As we have seen with Seattle and Italy, outbreaks can affect geographic areas both large and small.
Employees with symptoms of acute respiratory illness should be encouraged to notify management and stay home if they are sick, not returning until they have been free of fever and any other symptoms for 24 hours, without medicine that would suppress symptoms.
Employees who develop those symptoms after starting work should go home immediately.
Beyond that, the Centers for Disease Control offers guidance:
On prevention of spread of the illness …
Are you encouraging employees to stay home when sick, cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, and practice good hand hygiene, including washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds?
Are tissues, soap and hand sanitizers available for workers?
Are you providing adequate, routine cleaning of your office, including the availability of disposable wipes for employees to use on frequently touched surfaces such as desktops, door handles and keyboards?
On sick leave and the policies that govern it …
Through the lens of the outbreak, are your sick leave policies punitive?
Are employees likely to ignore illnesses and report to work for financial reasons? Should sick leave policies be altered in the short term to allow for longer illnesses and help employees?
Does your policy for employees caring for sick relatives need amendments should more time become necessary? Are you up to date on the rules of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?
How would you handle an employee who had to quarantine for 14 days or longer? Or one who has childcare issues because of a school closure?
Have you considered how to inform employees or customers of their potential exposure to COVID-19 by an employee while staying in compliance with the confidentiality provided by the Americans With Disabilities Act?
On operating your trade business differently …
Do you have a way to communicate quickly critical information your employees need?
Are there jobs in dispatch or other office functions that could be done remotely?
Will you instruct dispatchers to ask customers if anyone in the home or business is symptomatic (i.e. cough, fever, shortness of breath), to allow for additional precautions on the job site?
What essential functions could be impacted by higher-than-normal absenteeism? Is there training you could do to mitigate the risk?
How would you prioritize customers in the event of short staffing related to an outbreak? Are there parts of your operation that would, or could, be suspended?
Could your supply chain be interrupted? Are there alternative suppliers?
Communication, not panic, is key to keeping employees informed and safe
Elliott’s advice to other leaders in the trades is to communicate well without being alarmist.
“At this point, try not to be too drastic,” Elliott said. “Have good conversations with the team, good discussions about what’s going on. That way at least it’s an idea, a strategy brewing up.
“Just have a discussion, a few what-ifs, contingency plans, but not taking any major actions right now. Wash your hands, cover your mouth — all the normal things grown-ups should know anyway.”
He suggests having those discussions in person, and as part of a regularly scheduled meeting if possible.
“The right thing is a face-to-face discussion,” he said. “That way the tone of the room can be addressed. If someone is concerned, you can read that out and dig a little deeper. We do face-to-face for stuff like that, so you can get a vibe.”
But balancing an emergency response with the health of the business isn’t part of his equation, Elliott said.
“Unfortunately for the business, there is no balance,” he said. “The safety of our team and our customers is paramount. The idea is to have a good business that’s profitable and be able to weather these storms, whether it’s tough weather, lawsuits, or something like this.
“The goal is to take care of the team and take care of the customers, but there is no balance. You’ve got to put safety and health first.”
Nice’s strategy: Have employees work remotely, balance safety with customer need
A big part of Elliott’s plan to do that is having the company’s 21 employees work from home.
“Most of the service techs and installers take their truck home,” Elliott said. “We can do dispatch from home to limit interactions. Our phone system is in the cloud, we’re using the best software available, which we can use from anywhere on any device, and every team member has experience and practice to work from home, or pretty much anywhere.”
Technicians could be concerned about going into homes where customers could be infected, and Elliott is sensitive to that. He’s trying to balance customer service with that concern.
“We’re not going to ask (customers) if they’ve been specifically diagnosed,” he says.
“We will simply ask people about the health of the home,” he says. “We don’t want to scare people or worry them. We feel like everybody knows about it now. We don’t feel like we have to say the word to mold the same type of thought process.”
And Elliott said Nice Heating & Air will serve those in need. Even if the situation deteriorates substantially.
“If it does come to that point,” he said, “a few key members with proper protection will have to go out and take care of our clients in certain circumstances only. Everyone else will have to stay home.”
Elliott, like the rest of us, is hoping it doesn’t come to that.
“I consider myself an optimistic realist,” he said. “My head’s not in the clouds, but I expect the best and plan for the worst. … Whatever pops up, we’ll deal with it with that optimism that we’ll get through it and get past it.”
The bottom line
If home services companies prepare for the worst when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, they can best provide for the safety and welfare of their employees and customers and minimize the impact on their business.
What other issues are you worried about pertaining to coronavirus and your business? Email us, and we’ll help find answers.
Take Our Coronavirus Preparation Survey
ASHRE’s guidance on coronavirus preparedness
Key takeaway: The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers has developed proactive guidance to help address coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) concerns with respect to the operation and maintenance of heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems.
Forbes: How to prepare your supply chain for disruption
Key takeaway: Next steps? Build an action team. Deploy supplier development teams to map the location of first, second and third-tier suppliers. Make contact and offer help. Prepare plans for alternate sourcing.
Harvard Business Review: What are your legal obligations regarding coronavirus?
Key takeaway: Many leaders are specifically wondering about their legal risk. Not having adequate communicable-illness policies and response plans could expose them to a laundry list of HR-related legal concerns.
CNBC: When working from home isn’t an option, how to keep workers safe
Key takeaway: David Barron, a Houston-based labor and employment attorney at Cozen O’Connor, says companies may also need to be more flexible in how they administer their existing paid time off policies.
CNBC: How to protect your small business in the midst of coronavirus outbreak
Key takeaway: One of the most important things you can do is communicate with your employees. Many are likely concerned about their health and how they can continue working as more things get shut down.
Authoritative sources for coronavirus news
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
European Center for Disease Prevention and Control
Red Cross: Coronavirus safety and readiness tips
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