Long reads

How are people teams responding to coronavirus? ...International SOS

30 Mar 2020 By Siobhan Palmer

People Management finds out what employers are doing to tackle the logistical, financial and staff wellbeing implications of the global pandemic

The organisation

International SOS is a global company providing health and security risk management to international businesses, helping them protect their workforces from medical or security threats. Approximately 450 of its 11,000 global staff are based in its London office, many tasked with taking calls from clients and connecting them with relevant medical and security professionals for assistance.

The impact so far

While many organisations have had to suspend the majority of their operations because of pub, restaurant and shop closures, for example, International SOS is inevitably finding itself increasingly busy as the coronavirus outbreak disrupts global business.

“The volume of calls is huge at the moment,” says Ben Dale, HR director for the UK and Northern Europe. “There might be people who are in a particular country who are worried about how they are going to get back to their home country and are looking for help and advice, and then there are those who want an understanding of the current advised hygiene measures or need to get a renewed prescription. The calls are varied.”

Dale adds that the business is also helping organisations prepare for potential issues coming over the horizon, as well as providing crisis response, making it even busier. While high business demand is good news, in the current climate it also presents serious challenges for HR, says Dale. “We're trying to keep our people happy and healthy,” he says. But with increasing numbers of staff needing to work flexibly – whether to self isolate or to care for dependants – his team is working hard to keep key worker employees still at work in the office, and those at home, healthy and safe.

Home working

Given its medical expertise, the organisation was putting social distancing measures in place before government advice mandated it, Dale says. For many teams, such as sales and marketing, transitioning to working from home presented relatively few technical issues. But for staff who take calls in the business’s assistance centre, the transition proved more challenging.

A business continuity plan and pandemic plan were both implemented in the early stages of the outbreak. The organisation took a large shipment of laptops and started setting employees up with the systems necessary to work from home, prioritising parents and carers. Aside from a limited number of the organisation’s key workers, including doctors, nurses, security experts and logisticians, who continue to be based in the assistance centre with extra precautionary measures in place, most of the International SOS team are now working from home.

For Dale, the key is allowing staff flexibility and trusting workers to get the job done. “My view is it's better to have somebody that's at a slightly reduced productivity, at a time when resource is really critical, than losing somebody to unpaid leave because we can't figure out a way to help them work,” he says.

Virtual onboarding

Unlike many organisations, which have been forced to put recruitment on hold because of the coronavirus outbreak, International SOS, which is certified by the Top Employers Institute, is still onboarding new joiners and has recently undertaken its first digital induction of new staff. 

But new starters arriving at a firm where the majority are working from home presents further challenges. Training new recruits on how to handle calls has been going relatively smoothly, Dale says. But there are a few things that still need to be ironed out, including working out how to enable new starters working outside of the assistance centre to listen to calls. Dale is currently considering creating recordings for them to listen to, rather than them dialling in to calls live.

He says it is “too soon to tell” how successful the virtual training has been – the first cohort is only just underway. With social distancing measures still in full force, he is expecting all inductions in the coming weeks to be carried out in the same manner.


Dale and his team were in the middle of planning a new wellbeing campaign when the outbreak happened and were quick to adapt it in light of the pandemic, adding the key objective of engaging with mobile workforces. Strategies such as deskdrops and distributing leaflets are now no longer an option to launch the campaign, so HR has “had to think a bit more creatively”. Dale says the team has video content planned to support staff, as well as opportunities to take part in virtual yoga sessions.

Dale adds that at a time where there is so much uncertainty, communication is a key part of wellbeing. “There's more for people to think about outside of work as well,” he says, highlighting that as such it’s important not to overwhelm people. Email updates are restricted to three or four times a week, offering information in “bitesize chunks”, and the ability to stay in touch with colleagues via video chat is important.

Future planning

All the changes HR is navigating at the moment – including to its wellbeing programmes and onboarding practices – will be of benefit in the long term and not just during the coronavirus pandemic, Dale says. Ultimately, he believes the key to handling such issues at a time like this is to be adaptable and creative. “The prime minister comes out at 5pm every day to announce something new, and then we have to react very quickly to that… I think you have to be quite calm during these times because that obviously can transfer to people coming to get advice from you.” 

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