Flu fears mean changes for business

Barbara
Barbara Dean-Simmons
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Heavy hand-washing is the new norm and handshakes are out

"I've never been so happy to be a teleworker," says Susan Hollett, who operates a consulting firm from her home in Shoal Harbour. She connects with clients by e-mail, fax and phone, as well as in person. With more and more people in the province coming down with H1N1 and developing flu-like symptoms, Hollett said she's able to maintain her work schedule and commitments while reducing her interactions with others.

That's not to say her business hasn't faced challenges as fear of the virus grips the provincial community.

Susan Hollett owns a consulting firm in Shoal Harbour. She says telework comes in handy when everyone's trying to minimize interactions due to H1N1. - Photo by Barbara Dean-Simmons/The Packet

Clarenville -

"I've never been so happy to be a teleworker," says Susan Hollett, who operates a consulting firm from her home in Shoal Harbour. She connects with clients by e-mail, fax and phone, as well as in person. With more and more people in the province coming down with H1N1 and developing flu-like symptoms, Hollett said she's able to maintain her work schedule and commitments while reducing her interactions with others.

That's not to say her business hasn't faced challenges as fear of the virus grips the provincial community.

"The challenge we face is trying to set up any meetings or focus groups during November. Everyone wants to do it electronically using Skype or webinars instead of getting together," she says.

For other kinds of companies, however, it's not so easy put distance between them and their customers.

Shoppers at most retail outlets are now greeted with a reminder of the importance of cleanliness.

Hand sanitizers are positioned prominently at main entrances and reception desks, and disinfectant wipes are available at shopping cart corrals.

At grocery stores, produce workers are wearing latex gloves when handing fruits and vegetables.

"We've also noticed more customers wearing masks while they're shopping," noted Dave Drodge, senior grocery supervisor at the Clarenville Co-op.

Most people are hyper-aware of the risk of infection, says Todd Organ, president of the Clarenville and Area Chamber of Commerce.

"Some people I'm talking to say they have never washed their hands so much before."

The flu has also made people think of the consequences of things that, in the past, seemed inconsequential - like a formal handshake as a means of greeting.

"I had a client in yesterday and we went to shake hands to introduce ourselves; then we both stopped, realizing, maybe we shouldn't do that," notes Organ.

Prevention and planning

Meanwhile, there is an underlying worry among small businesses - those with just a handful of employees - about how their operations will be affected if their employees get the flu.

"I was talking to one business a little while ago and they have only two or three key employees. If they all get sick, it puts a tremendous strain on the business," Organ noted.

Productivity is also an issue for some businesses, he said, with employees having to take time off to look after sick children and other family members.

"I haven't heard yet of any business that has had to shut down," he said, adding, "I still think we are really just starting to see things happening."

Thanks to the arrival of H1N1, he adds, workers who develop a cough, fever or chills are more likely to stay away from the workplace for a few days, until they feel well.

That's certainly a different mindset than in past flu seasons, when people tended to cough and hack their way through their daily chores.

"I know I've been here 12 years and if I've had one day in those years for illness, that would be it," Organ said. "But now, if I get flu-like symptoms, I may have to stay home.

Now, he says, anyone who starts to get flu symptoms is more likely to stay away from the office or workplace for four or five days until they recover.

The virus has already caused the cancellation of some fundraising events by local organizations.

Organ hopes that as more people are vaccinated, the worry will subside.

"It's scary to think a virus can cause such havoc around the world and it makes you realize how small this planet really is," he said.

"If you look at government, they're changing daily with how they approach this. I think it's new territory for everybody. It's really hard to know what to do to prepare, or to expect."

Telework as an antidote?

Meanwhile, Hollett thinks telework remains a possibility for more workers.

As far back as the late 1980s and early 1990s, Clarenville appeared to be poised to be the trendsetter for this province. The Clarenville Telematics Strategy aimed to connect people with the Internet and show them how productive work could be done from any location, as long as they had a computer, modem and access to the web.

At conferences organized by the Telematics Strategy, business people from around the world, and representatives from government organizations, talked of how teleworking could strengthen local economies by enabling rural workers to gain employment.

Those promoting the telework idea were pointing out how businesses and agencies who embraced the home office concept would even help reduce CO2 emissions by allowing commuters to switch from the asphalt highway to the information highway.

"But that's completely off the radar now," says Hollett.

The Clarenville Telematics Strategy centre, which operated from the College of the North Atlantic, is no more.

And while teleworking has evolved a little bit, she says, thanks to the availability of the BlackBerry, she doesn't think it's anywhere near where it could be.

"For a lot of people who don't have to deal with customers across the counter, they could very easily be teleworking."

But it's not being encouraged, she says.

"There's no IT strategy anymore; it's almost like it's up to individual managers to deal with this."

Hollett figures there's still a mindset that employees can't be productive unless they are within eye and earshot of the boss.

Businesses in Europe are 20 years ahead of us, she said.

"They're encouraging teleworking in terms of reducing emissions and saving on the need for, and cost of, office space."

Hollett says it's a concept that needs to be considered again.

That's not to say teleworkers are immune from viruses.

Hollett, herself, was feeling sick last week.

"If I had to go out to a job, I would have been off all last week," she said.

"Because I work from home I was able to work at least part-time. It was as simple as walking downstairs."

Organizations: College of the North Atlantic, Clarenville Co-op, Area Chamber of Commerce Telematics

Geographic location: Clarenville, Shoal Harbour, Europe

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