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The Man With an H1N1 Plan

November 20, 2009
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Related Topics: Global Business Issues, Health and Wellness, Policies and Procedures, Featured Article, Compensation
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Mike Claver remembers well the two bouts he has fought with influenza. As a 6-year-old swept up in the pandemic of 1957, he was so sick the family doctor told his mother to “consider making plans.”

He recovered. But several years later, his parents contracted Hong Kong flu, leaving them extremely weak, shaking and sweating. For a week he cared for them, worrying the whole time they’d never get well.

They did, but Claver’s attitude toward influenza changed forever.
Now the superintendent of administrative services at Bloomington, Illinois-based State Farm Insurance Cos., he is responsible for thinking through the company’s response to all potential health hazards and disasters, including the global outbreak of H1N1 flu.

“I take pandemics very seriously,” says Claver, 58. “I’ve already dealt with two.”

In part because of his own experience, Claver has taken an aggressive and comprehensive approach toward preventing the spread of flu in State Farm’s 700 offices throughout the country.

The insurer’s plans involve many of the same steps taken by other businesses, including a public awareness campaign to educate employees on the signs and symptoms of flu and stepped-up efforts to prevent the spread of germs through more frequent cleaning of the company’s public spaces and handrails and the widespread use of hand sanitizers.

Work from home
But the centerpiece of State Farm’s approach is a comprehensive work-from-home initiative. Claver says the company is insisting that employees stay home if they have a fever and is scheduling phone conferences as much as possible this flu season.

State Farm also has taken steps to ensure the business runs smoothly if a critical mass of employees needs to work from home. In August, the company held a work-from-home test, having 1,200 employees, about 10 percent of the workforce at its headquarters, take their laptops home and log in to the computer network.

While no one can say how many employees might be out sick at one time during an outbreak, the exercise gave leaders confidence that operations could continue and that the company could fulfill its obligations to customers in a crisis, Claver says.

John Challenger, chief executive of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, says he is encouraging more firms to introduce similar work-from-home options.

“It’s just prudent business behavior to have clear policies for dealing with absenteeism to assure the proper work flow,” Challenger says. “And telecommuting is the ideal strategy [for handling a pandemic].”

Yet working from home has its drawbacks, not the least of which is making sure that the company’s communication systems, especially its computer network, can handle all the remote traffic.

State Farm determined that its network can handle only 60 percent of its 68,000 employees nationwide logging on remotely at any one time. It has now determined which business units should get priority to work from home during an outbreak. It may also scatter shifts to reduce the number of people on the network at the same time. And it has cross-trained employees so more people can fill in for one another during a crisis.

Claver says the company looked at more aggressive measures, such as taking people’s temperatures to ensure no one comes into the office sick. The company opted against that, fearing it would appear too intrusive to employees. It also considered bringing in masks, but scientific research seemed to indicate that the masks would not be effective in preventing the spread of the virus and might also unnecessarily alarm employees, Claver says.

State Farm also has done something else a lot of other businesses haven’t: sought the wisdom of outside experts.

Early this fall, it sponsored a summit meeting for roughly 100 Bloomington leaders from schools, businesses, hospitals and public safety departments to discuss responses to a pandemic. During the meeting, school officials addressed questions some business leaders hadn’t yet thought through, including when schools might be forced to shut down and how that would affect parents in the workforce.

“We just had a very good, open dialogue with everyone,” Claver says.

Brent Paterson, senior associate vice president for student affairs at Illinois State University, which is based in Bloomington, attended the summit meeting.

“It was extremely helpful,” Paterson says. “Many of our kids are the sons and daughters of State Farm employees. What we might do certainly might affect them and vice versa.”

The fact that the virus has infected so many younger people already has the company especially worried that, even if most of its workers are spared, those who are parents will need to stay home to care for ailing children.

For that reason, company leaders are keeping the dialogue open and considering new options as the flu season progresses.

“My gut feeling is we’re going to see a lot of people sick,” Claver says. “Businesses have to be creative, perhaps more creative than they’ve ever been. They have to think things through, like how do you get people to do their job from home, or from a remote location, so you can still get your customers what they need?”

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