Coronavirus should change how we all work

Industry

We have nothing to fear of the coronavirus except fear itself — and the virus itself.

The auto industry and its supply network have decades of experience dealing with the instant and sometimes lasting effects of natural disasters. But a potential pandemic threatens a wider swath of the global economy than local weather or human-error events — so the impact spreads well beyond manufacturing and logistics.

It means that some parts of the auto industry that otherwise might not pay much attention to the rest of the world need to listen up and take necessary precautions.

The outbreak that started in Wuhan, hundreds of miles west of Shanghai, struck a business hub that supplies companies well beyond automakers and suppliers. The pan-industrial nature of this epidemic is just one example of how we need to think of this crisis in new ways. Automakers, suppliers and retailers need to be on alert for new forms of disruption, such as not being able to replace a phone or computer efficiently.

Chinese officials have been able to slow the spread of the virus by forcibly shutting down parts of their economy as a precaution. That kind of heavy-handed strategy wouldn’t work in North America, but there are changes that all employers should implement immediately to limit contagion.

HR policies need to avoid punishing people who stay home when they’re sick. We can all appreciate those with can-do attitudes who don’t let anything get them down. But just because someone might be able to plug along doesn’t mean it’s a good idea: One extra day of limited productivity can be lost many times over if that person spreads their sickness, whether or not it’s as serious as COVID-19.

Similarly, it’s a good time to examine common habits such as shaking hands, which is friendly but fundamentally unnecessary.

Auto dealers, in particular, should consider some new business practices — perhaps implementing a temporary pickup and delivery system in the service department for housebound customers to get their vehicles maintained while they’re quarantined.

This crisis should be manageable: The virus appears to be spread similarly to the flu, though less efficiently. If people stay home when they’re sick, keep their hands clean and avoid unnecessary contact, the extent of the human and economic pain can be limited.

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