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Research and Briefings

Struggling With COVID-19 Decisions? How to Use Data as Your Guide


Almost a year into a pandemic that has sickened millions, killed close to 300,000 just in the US, and upended normal life, new COVID-19 cases are trending upward across the country. As temperatures drop and more activities move indoors, health experts have warned that we are entering a difficult period.

Lockdown fatigue is setting in as we enter a period traditionally characterized by big gatherings. With the timeline for widespread availability of a COVID-19 vaccine still unknown, employers have an important role to play in protecting their people, organizations, and communities.

For senior business leaders, worsening case counts, overtaxed health care systems, and limited testing in many communities can mean greater challenges in keeping employees and customers safe — and their organizations afloat. Their success will largely depend on their ability to take specific actions, especially in the face of wide-ranging federal and local government guidance and rules intended to stem the spread of the virus.

As they make plans for the coming weeks and months, senior leaders should regularly consult with their legal, medical, and privacy professionals to look for learnings in their organization’s response to the pandemic to date. Those that have not already done so should consider conducting a gap analysis of their response so far and determine what worked well and should be iterated along with areas for potential improvement.

Those organizations that have already conducted such analyses have often uncovered several major pain-points, including:

  • The absence of a coordinated plan to address pandemics.
  • A lack of preparedness, including awareness, training, and exercising.
  • Insufficient and ineffective employee communications strategies.
  • Response and recovery plans that did not properly address the overall impacts that a pandemic would have on the business.

Make Data-Based Decisions

Much has been reported about COVID-19 since it was first identified at the beginning of the year. Data is plentiful, with numbers on daily new cases, weekly trends, deaths, mortality rates, and more published by multiple sources, sometimes with slight variations. The glut of information — and misinformation — makes it difficult for senior leaders to focus on the right information they need to make essential decisions. In order to use this data to make important choices, senior leaders will need to find the sources that are delivering the information they need for their organizations, and at the right granularity.

Data, however, is not intrinsically valuable. Rather, its value comes from the decisions it can help drive. And in order to understand how to use data effectively, senior leaders need to first articulate the business problems they need to solve — for example, what level of community spread would trigger the closure of a facility. It is a good practice to look back at the early weeks of the pandemic and determine what data would have been helpful. Then, they can seek the quantitative information that best provides them with the answer they are seeking, understanding that they might need to refer to more than one source of information.

Plan for Different Scenarios

It’s important that employers have a concrete vision of what they need to do in different scenarios, especially since conditions can change quickly during a public health crisis. Business leaders should establish thresholds that will trigger specific actions tailored to their specific operations. For example, a retailer might shift focus to marketing curbside pickup as soon as the positivity rate within its community reaches a particular threshold.

Many organizations assembled pandemic working groups earlier this year as the country started grappling with the virus. Ideally, those teams remained intact, but if not, now is the time to bring everyone back together at a virtual table to consider different scenarios and determine what actions need to be taken based on quantitative insights.

Each business is likely to have unique decision triggers, and these may differ from one site to another. As they look back at their early response, decision-makers can evaluate how specific situations affected their business. For example, a retailer can identify the positivity rate in the community at the time it started seeing a drop in foot traffic at individual stores. The same tactic can identify potential issues with your supply chain.

Employers would do well to look back at historical absentee rates during colder months, when seasonal illnesses ramp up. This data can give leaders an understanding of when their teams are more likely to call in sick or customers are more likely to pivot towards online interactions.

Their people’s health and safety need to remain leaders’ top priority. Senior executives should consider whether to slow down or pause plans to return to the workplace and revisit measures they put in place to better protect those who are in a physical workplace.

Senior leaders and pandemic working groups should also review their pandemic, crisis management, communications, and business continuity plans to ensure they can address the new reality brought by the pandemic. Consider, for example, how you can continue operating if stay-at-home orders are reinstated or a spike in cases leads to customer — and employee — discomfort visiting your brick-and-mortar locations.

Mitigation Enforcement Remains Critical

We are already seeing the winter spike of new cases, hospitalizations, and death that health professionals have been warning about for several months. Thus, employers should continue to enforce the mitigation measures that have been introduced over the past months. Mask use, social distancing, and strict hygiene measures offer a crucial layer of essential protection, especially in areas where data is showing an increase in cases.

However, some companies are struggling to enforce proper mask use, with managers tired of issuing constant reminders. Despite good signage encouraging employees to practice social distancing, many organizations are struggling to clear employee “choke points” including when clocking in and out.

It is thus critical for businesses to work with their legal, medical, and other advisors to carry out regular checks or audits that uncover any deficiencies in their mitigation methods, and to make changes to address them. In addition, employers should consider educating their people about the reasons behind these measures, including the importance of adhering to them outside the workplace. Some companies have even contracted with physicians to explain how the virus spreads, correct myths, and urge compliance with safety protocols.

In addition, the following considerations should continue to factor into senior leaders’ decision-making:

  • Colleague health and safety remains paramount.
  • Organizations must be mindful of their people’s privacy in relation to protected health information. Any changes to employment practices should be in accordance with applicable law.
  • For many organizations, much work can be performed productively and effectively through virtual work arrangements.
  • Organizations must comply with all applicable directives and guidance that may be issued by all units of federal, state, and local government and health authorities, such as the CDC.

Local conditions, including colleague sentiment, market needs, regulatory requirements, and cultural practices in a geography, are constantly evolving. Flexibility is key to balance colleague and business needs.

Finally, employers should start thinking ahead and setting their strategy for when a COVID-19 vaccine is available to their employees and life starts to return to normal. For companies with teams currently working remotely, it may be worth planning how vaccination will affect decisions on which employees return to work and whom they may come in contact with. Pandemic working groups should also consider how to address a return to business travel once the virus is under control.  

While this article may contain guidance and recommendations, all decisions in connection with the implementation of such guidance and recommendations ultimately must be made by your organization.

Marsh’s COVID-19 Insights Dashboard provides data to help you monitor the trends that could affect your business, employees, and communities.