Coronavirus, the biggest global event in more than fifty years, put CEOs in position of balancing employee safety and business continuity. I know that I make different decisions now because of lessons that I’ve learned the hard way over the last ten years. I’m sharing the story where I learned that my business responsibilities begin with employee health responsibility in the hope that other leaders will avoid making the same mistake.
In 2011, a historic snowstorm was predicted to bury Chicago with over 20 inches(0.5 meters) of snow. Having grown up in Chicago and living close to the Elevated train, which is above the fray of snow clogged streets, I viewed this as an event to experience, not one of risk.
We had phones to answer and clients to serve so I viewed my role as chief of business continuity. Back then, few companies had the necessary equipment for everyone to work from home so a snow day was basically a day off.
The storm began in the afternoon, but I didn’t close the office down because I thought that there would be no problems getting home later in the day. What I didn’t realize was that not everyone had reliable public transportation to get home. This only became painfully obvious when I watched the evening news that night.
As the winds blew and the snow piled up, a few employees boarded buses to go home after work. Due to a confluence of bad luck and bad decisions, the bus that those employees boarded became stuck in a traffic jam on Lake Shore Drive, pummeled with 60 mph winds. After waiting two hours for the bus to move, those employees took action and left the bus to run home a mile in the blizzard, putting themselves at risk.
Even the next day, I arrogantly required people who could to be in the office. I shoveled the snow in front of my house three times over 12 hours to be able to get to work that morning. Once I arrived at the office, I started hearing the stories about employees who had trouble getting home the previous night or were stuck in their houses that morning due to snowdrifts. Only then did I realize the magnitude of my poor judgment. That day lives in my memory as a reminder that nothing is more important than the safety of our employees.
Because of that previous experience , when a historic cold spell was coming to Chicago in 2019, I didn’t hesitate to announce that we were closing the office for two days to wait it out. No way was any single workday in the office worth putting at risk the health and well being of my fellow employees. Even when the weather gets fairly cold, but not historic, we offer taxi and Lyft reimbursement to increase safety transporting from home to work and back. A small price to pay.
Today, we face the Coronavirus crisis. When I understood the growing risk to our employees health and safety, I pushed to move to a fully remote workforce. When the US government was planning to block air travel between the States and mainland Europe, I immediately contacted two employees to initiate their return travel home as soon as possible and at any cost. There was no question in my mind that their risk of being stuck in another continent was not acceptable.
Although my actions during the snowstorm are still seared in my memory as one of my biggest mistakes, I choose to use that lesson to make better decisions in the future. I hope that sharing this story helps leaders to put their employee’s safety first when faced with balancing employee safety and business continuity in a crisis.