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Paul Vallée is founder and chief executive officer of Tehama, a virtual office-as-a-service platform that provides secure and compliant cloud virtual work environments, including virtual desktops from any connected location.

When pondering the business implications of the novel coronavirus – or any potential pandemic – it’s useful to consider the news surrounding Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp.

The Japanese firm made headlines last week after asking 200,000 of its nearly 300,000-strong work force to start either working from home or using staggered hours, to help prevent COVID-19 infections.

NTT did the right thing. Minimizing risk to both employees and the general public is paramount, and companies need to be flexible and quick to react in such a situation. In some cases, they may not have a choice – we’re already seeing governments around the world either contemplate or, as in China, implement mass work-from-home measures.

It’s probably fair to say most organizations in North America aren’t prepared to continue operating while sending everyone home, indefinitely, at a moment’s notice.

But whether it’s now, next year or in a few years, it’s only a matter of time before businesses in North America – even those with little or no international presence – will have to deal with a pandemic, experts agree. In the case of the coronavirus, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield says it’s likely here to stay and “will become a community virus” that will crop up regularly.

That’s why every organization needs to be prepared. Not doing so courts potential financial, reputational and operational damage, not to mention putting employees and the wider public at risk.

The World Economic Forum’s 2020 global risks report provided a bleak assessment of most countries’ level of pandemic readiness, noting that most health systems would be caught flat-footed in an emergency. Elements of globalization, such as international travel and multicountry supply chains, mean we’re more vulnerable than ever as a society.

Business readiness contributes directly to pandemic readiness, simply because of the huge role businesses play in people’s day-to-day lives. To that end, public-health agencies say it’s vital for businesses to establish and clearly communicate official sick-leave policies, including when employees shouldn’t come in to work (and when a doctor’s note is required, a usually needless demand that can further spread illness and stress the health system).

The CDC goes one step further, offering a preparedness checklist for businesses with overseas operations. (Health Canada offers pandemic planning resources, as well, but nothing quite as specific to businesses.) CDC’s best practices for business pandemic planning include:

  • Establishing and clearly communicating organizational policies around sick leave and when to stay home.
  • Developing guidelines and best practices for conducting business online or remotely.
  • Establishing pandemic co-ordinators and response teams at facilities, with an eye to supervising planning and implementation with a clear chain of command.

For some workers, it’s probably not realistic to work from home – health-care and manufacturing employees come to mind. It’s nevertheless important to remember that under regulations, including Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, employees can legally refuse to show up if they feel working conditions are unsafe.

Fortunately, working from home has become much more realistic for most, owing to a gold rush of digital tools. Collaboration and video conferencing platforms such as Slack, Google Meet or Microsoft Teams, for example, facilitate online collaboration in ways that weren’t possible (or, at least, inexpensively available) just a decade ago.

It’s clear the impact of COVID-19 will push more organizations to plan and invest in work-from-home technologies. Alongside the urgent health impact, this trend can also have profound side benefits, such as saving on long-term office infrastructure and commercial space costs. But it can also come at a price: Employees logging in to corporate networks containing sensitive IP, using residential WiFi, often on personal devices, is the stuff of nightmares for IT security.

The good news is that the technology ecosystem is responding with a crop of new tools to instantaneously permit secure, compliant work-from-home deployments, including always-ready, secure work environments in the cloud.

According to research and advisory company Gartner, these environments can “minimize the impact of business disruption or disaster by delivering services in a flexible manner, independent of physical work space.”

They come hardwired with advanced security, auditing and compliance features such as automated encryption, multifactor authentication, endpoint isolation, perfectly witnessed records and built-in compliance controls, all easily configured for privileged system and data access. IT teams can then spin up secure virtual offices for remote workers in a matter of minutes, instead of weeks or even months, getting end users back to work quickly even when organizations are at their most vulnerable.

These are just a few possible tools for businesses to consider when building a robust pandemic plan.

Because all employees should demand readiness from their employers. And employers owe it to their teams, customers and shareholders to rise to the challenge and be ready.

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