The spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) has dominated headlines, and while questions about the ultimate scope and severity of the outbreak remain, the asset management industry will clearly be impacted. What are the conversations that managers and investors should have within their own organizations, and with their partners and suppliers? What can all firms in our industry do to safeguard their employees and their businesses?
1. Protect the Team
- The obvious first step is to put measures in place to ensure the health and safety of team members. Protective and preventative measures for individuals in the workplace, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), are relatively straight forward.
- Protections include frequent hand washing; avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth to prevent transferring the virus from a contaminated surface; and maintaining ‘social distance’ from other people (especially anyone who could be displaying virus-like symptoms).
- Businesses will want to ensure that they have good stocks of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes on hand. Staff may wish to disinfect their own workspaces (phones, mice etc.) and firms may wish to regularly disinfect door handles and other "frequently touched" areas in the workplace. Face masks can also be ordered, although a standard surgical facemask (rather than an N95 respirator) is not overly effective at preventing infection.
- Importantly, HR departments and COO’s should communicate these best practices to employees, be it by e-mail bulletin or in the form of informational posters around the workplace. An all hands town hall can be helpful - both to communicate actions being taken by the firm, and equally to provide a forum for team members to ask questions and feel that their concerns can be aired. One neat trick - IT can change everyone's computer lock screen to a message which reminds team members about the practical measures they can take to protect themselves from the virus.
2. Ensure Appropriate Policies are in Place
- Business Continuity Planning should be reviewed and updated. A formal BCP committee to respond to the Coronavirus threat will likely be helpful.
- Managers should be aware of their legal responsibilities with regards to the health & safety of staff and what measures are expected or permitted with regards to preventing their workforce from being exposed to illness. Laws and regulations will differ by jurisdiction.
- HR teams should review their firm's medical insurance programs (when applicable). Staff may have questions about their medical coverage - information can also be proactively communicated across the business.
- The key policy for many businesses will be to ask team members to work remotely at the first sign of illness, whether to themselves or to other members of their family. Firms may also wish to broaden work from home arrangements and encourage staff to work remotely, irrespective of signs of illness.
- As an extension of the above, firms may consider putting policies in place to explicitly support colleagues impacted directly by the coronavirus, either by way of their own illness, or that of a family member.
- Impacts on businesses may be indirect - a prolonged closure of schools, for example, could mean that team members with children will find it easier to work from home.
3. Consider Travel Restrictions
- As the situation develops, travel restrictions to or from China will likely already be in place (many airlines have already suspended all flights).
- Firms may decide at an early stage to suspend "non-essential" business travel to limit the risk to their staff.
- Firms should be sensitive to staff who personally feel uncomfortable with travel: a responsible employer should not force members of the team to take a plane if they have concerns around their health.
- Team members on a plane should bring disinfectant wipes and clean their seat and especially the tray table. (This may look silly if you are the only person in the cabin cleaning your tray - but that one action could prevent infection).
- Managers may wish to consider scenarios such as more widespread disruption to air travel. Can the business function, in a worst case, if all air travel was suspended?
4. Make Sure Virtual Communications are Working
- Businesses will need to lean into collaboration tools and teleconference / videoconference to fill the void left by face-to-face meetings. Does the firm have enough licenses for videoconferencing tools, and is internet bandwidth sufficient if all staff concurrently use video tools?
- If VPN connections to a corporate network are required to support remote work, does the infrastructure have the capacity to allow all members of staff to connect securely at the same time?
- Do all staff working from home have access to stable internet with sufficient bandwidth?
- If staff are working from home, does the firm need to consider purchases of additional computers to ensure that team members do not access confidential information using their personal machines?
- Cybersecurity protections must remain in place - which means that personal computer usage is strongly discouraged, even if there is a sudden spike in the number of team members working remotely.
While the above might appear common sense, it is worth ensuring that, from a governance and HR perspective, businesses follow these standard practices. Investors will focus on the policies in place within their own organizations and may also discuss steps put in place by their asset managers.
Above all, though, coronavirus is not a time for "gotcha" ODD. Rather, this is a time when everyone in the asset management community can collaborate to share ideas and best practices. Working together, we can help protect our colleagues and their families, and support our businesses across the industry.
Castle Hall Diligence.