Social distancing is a strategy that the federal government has included in the response plans for an H1N1 epidemic. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services states in its Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to the 2009 – 2010 Influenza Season:

“If severity increases, public health officials may recommend a variety of methods for increasing the physical distance between people (called social distancing) to reduce the spread of disease, such as school dismissal, child care program closure, canceling large community gatherings, canceling large business-related meetings, spacing workers farther apart in the workplace, canceling non-essential travel, and recommending work-from-home strategies for workers that can conduct their business remotely.”

The guidance also states:

  • “Explore whether you can establish policies and practices, such as flexible worksites (e.g., telecommuting) and flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts), when possible, to increase the physical distance among employees and between employees and others if local public health authorities recommend the use of social distancing strategies. Ensure that you have the information technology and infrastructure needed to support multiple workers who may be able to work from home.
  • Identify essential business functions, essential jobs or roles, and critical elements within your supply chains (e.g., raw materials, suppliers, subcontractor services/products, and logistics) required to maintain business operations. Plan for how your business will operate if there is increasing absenteeism or these supply chains are interrupted.
  • Set up authorities, triggers, and procedures for activating and terminating the company’s response plan, altering business operations (e.g., possibly changing or closing operations in affected areas), and transferring business knowledge to key employees. Work closely with your local health officials to identify these triggers.
  • Plan to minimize exposure to fellow employees or the public if public health officials call for social distancing.
  • Establish a process to communicate information to workers and business partners on your 2009 H1N1 influenza response plans and latest 2009 H1N1 influenza information. Anticipate employee fear, anxiety, rumors, and misinformation, and plan communications accordingly.”

The impact on the business can be significant if the enterprise has not planned ahead. Key communication and collaboration tools (e.g. e-mail, instant messaging, web conferencing, and team workspaces) should be identified and evaluated for capabilities to help an enterprise to continue to function in the event that facilities are closed and large numbers of employees in certain geographic areas are ill or have to work remotely.

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