Gartner conducted a survey of 800 HR execs to assess how companies are handling the pandemic. The survey, conducted on Tuesday, found that 88% of employers encourage or require telecommuting, and nearly all (97%) have canceled work-related travel. But in what may be the survey’s most surprising finding: 48% of employers require employees to use their sick leave first, followed by vacation leave, and lastly, potential PTO.

“Every HR executive across the world is wondering what to do about COVID-19,” said Brian Kropp, chief of research for the Gartner HR practice, “and given the brand new nature of this global pandemic, they are operating without a playbook. What executives want to know more than anything is what are other companies doing, and should I be doing what they are doing? This survey was designed to answer that question.”

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

As officials nationwide impose or issue edicts for social distancing and isolation, organizations struggle to reconcile the safety of staff and the company’s financial realities. One of several methods 20% of businesses have used is an increase in PTO for those who are sick and/or caring for a sick family member, and 18% of organizations are granting additional PTO for parents caring for children whose schools have closed.

“The speed that companies have been operating at to respond to this crisis is faster than anything we have ever seen,” Kropp said on Thursday. “Just 10 days ago, only 15% of companies had put restrictions on travel, that number is 97% now. At this point, one of the other most interesting findings is that companies are doing everything they can to minimize reductions in force. This is in stark contrast to the global financial crisis where companies were quick to reduce headcount. While many companies will have to reduce headcount, they are trying every other lever they can potentially pull to avoid doing that.”

The survey showed most employers plan to cut costs and to reduce the impact to try to pay employees when possible.

The main cost-cutting measure 70% of companies plan is a more effective use of technology, which is a sound choice since so many employees are being required to work remotely.

Unfortunately for job-seekers, nearly half of organizations plan to freeze new hiring.

Companies are putting the financial needs of their staff over those of consultants/external partners, as one-fifth of businesses plan to stop or limit spending on consultants, and/or reduce contract workers.

Only 10% of employers plan to reduce work hours, and only 6% are asking employees to take unpaid leave.

The survey included Gartner recommendations for how HR leaders should manage remote talent, culled from a mid-February paper on devising an HR pandemic plan:

  • Provide direction, confidence and resilience. Employees rely on business leaders to take action, and to set the tone. Communications between leads and staff should prioritize associate health and business sustainability, and communicate with employees regularly. Gartner’s February survey found that 56% of organizations had a plan of action in anticipation of the COVID-19 outbreak.

  • Contextualize coronavirus for the organization. Leaders should provide only accurate and up-to-date information on coronavirus and its impact on the organization; this means, don’t use information from social media, but rely only on trusted resources such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cite organization-related information and data.

  • Encourage intentional peer-to-peer interactions. Notably, as staff are telecommuting, encourage them to continue personal and professional interactions. The Gartner February survey also found that 40% of organizations have set up additional virtual check-ins for employees with managers and 32% of organizations introduced new tools for virtual meetings.

  • Establish team guidelines. Recognize employees have different needs/requirements, based on several factors, which include working from home while homeschooling, in-home activities, increased cooking and eating at home, and continuing to maintain social distancing, within their social circle. Encourage employees to adapt to each others’ time constraints/demands. Suggest “core team times,” when all team members are available.

  • Provide flexibility for employees’ remote work needs. Employers need to prepare for the return to the office, and make considerations for their needs and comfort. Whenever possible, let employees choose when to return to the office. Let in-office essential employees vary their hours, and to work around peak commuter hours.

“We will work through this crisis as a society,” Kropp concluded. “But right now, we are running the largest pilot ever in the history of the world about changing how people work. This is a global experiment in remote work. And there will be some fundamental changes to how work gets done coming out of it. For example, out of all of the employees that could do their job remotely, only about 5% do so. Once this is all said and done, it is reasonable to think that upwards of 30% of employees will work remote full time. The technology will be better, managers, will be more comfortable having their employees work this way, and more employees will simply prefer to work from home.”

Image: Sompong Rattanakunchon / Getty Images