Here is a ten-step approach to reaching an informed, balanced and rational decision.
Owners and operators of businesses, schools and institutions face a daunting question presently. How should we respond to the outbreak of COVID-19? Do we close our doors and send everyone home? Do we stay open because the risk seems low? Is there something in between?
It’s a question that seems way beyond the scope of things we were trained to do.
Here is a pragmatic approach to help you make an informed and balanced decision for your organization. It’s the process we used at my own company, Riffyn, and we also provide a copy of the policy that resulted.
It took us a few hours to do this from start to finish. We’re a fairly simple operation of 45 people providing software and global services. Your situation may be more complex, but with the right leadership in the room, you can still get this done quickly. It’s worth the effort. Creating this policy put a lot of employees at ease, including us – as leadership – with a lot riding on our good decision-making.
Step 1: Understand the basics of COVID-19 outbreak
A few articles from the WHO and CDC will suffice. You can’t become a virologist. And you don’t need to read the myriad of articles that restate what’s already been said by the WHO and CDC. We’ve compiled a few of those articles and statements from them here for your reference.
Step 2: Gather concerns from the leadership team of your organization
Meet with your leadership team to capture all the concerns they or their reports have expressed, and their ideas for how the organization might respond. This will inform your next steps.
Step 3: Define 3 to 5 options for how your organization could respond
The options should range from mild to extreme response and can be constructed using a simple table as shown in this example. Each row represents an individual action you could take to reduce risks of infection and other impacts at your company.
Step 4: List the potential risks to your company of the outbreak and the potential mitigations
You should be able to come up with 10 to 20 risks very quickly, and that’s probably enough to make a good decision. The risks and impacts to Riffyn that we identified are outlined in this spreadsheet in the green area on the left.
Step 5: For each risk and mitigation in your list, estimate the cost if it occurs or is done
Record it in a column next to your risks such as this example. The tricky part of this is to choose the timeframe over which the risk may be realized. Is it one month? Two? More? For our purposes, we assumed one-month timespan of impact. This is based in part on the fact that China has returned to more normal economic activity after a month of extreme measures, disease stabilization and implementation of ongoing control measures. We suspect we will see a similar pattern in our own countries. Your judgement may be different than ours.
Step 6: For each risk in your list, estimate the chance of occurrence
You will estimate these probabilities for each possible response option you defined in Step 3. To get these chances (probabilities) you can use data on the disease statistics gathered by the WHO and Chinese scientists. You can also very reasonably use your intuition. An example is provided in the blue columns in the spreadsheet here.
Step 7: Calculate the expected cost impact of each response option
You generally want to choose the option with the least expected cost. This accounts for both the risk and mitigation costs to your employee’s well-being and to your company, so it’s an estimate of overall impact. The calculation is shown in the purple section of the example here. You may choose to override this cost-based selection based on additional factors in Step 8.
Step 8: Reconvene with your organization’s leadership team and make a decision
Discuss everyone’s proposed responses. Then present the best option based on your risk analysis. If the analysis and intuition don’t agree, ask why. Identify the risks in your sheet that feel to be have the severe discrepancies with your intuition. Make the call and record your rationale.
Step 9: Translate your selected option into a policy document
An example of a document is here. It should be in plain language and punchy. Communicate the policy widely on every comms channel the company provides. Don’t forget to post it to an internal wiki or directory where people can find it as a resource.
Step 10: Reconvene weekly to review the current data
Go back to step 1 and adjust your analyses and decisions according to current data.
Given the uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation and the seemingly endless barrage of confusing news, it almost seems like you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Close the doors and you may cause irreparable harm to your business, possibly resulting in layoffs and economic damage to the very employees you are hoping to protect. Keep the doors open and you may pose physical or even mental (anxiety) risks to your employees.
The approach here will not find you any perfect answer. There are none. But it takes the guesswork out of the process, and it will lower your anxiety because you will know that whatever policy you choose, you did it with the best information and the best reasoning you had available.
Tim Gardner is the Founder and the CEO of Riffyn. He was previously Vice President of Research & Development at Amyris, where he led the engineering of yeast strain and processes technology for large-scale bio-manufacturing of renewable chemicals. Tim has been recognized for his pioneering work in Synthetic Biology by Scientific American, the New Scientist, Nature, Technology Review, and the New York Times. He also served as an advisor to the European Union Scientific Committees and the Boston University Engineering Alumni Advisory Board. Tim enjoys hockey, running, mountain biking, and being beaten by his sons in almost everything.