As states begin to implement post-COVID reopening plans, businesses continue to face significant challenges related to employees, customers and profitable operations. Indeed, there’s no such thing as “business as usual” in the coronavirus pandemic’s wake; still, companies can work to regain some semblance of normalcy by acknowledging obstacles and following a five-step action plan for post-COVID success.
1. Review (and follow) federal guidelines for employers
Opening Up America Again, a joint initiative between the White House and the CDC, delivers guidelines for returning employees to the workforce. The gradual approach is outlined in phases based on the number of coronavirus cases, people who exhibit symptoms and hospital preparedness in employer states. The guidelines stipulate that businesses can enter Phase One once the following “gating criteria” are met:
- Downward trajectory of COVID-like and influenza-like illnesses within a 14-day period
- Downward trajectory of COVID cases and positive tests within a 14-day period
- Hospitals have the capacity to treat all patients without crisis care, and testing programs for at-risk healthcare workers
Additional guidelines are recommended for each phase, as follows:
Phase One: State satisfies gating criteria
- Encourage remote work
- Return to work in phases, if possible
- Close common areas where employees congregate and interact OR enforce strict social distancing
- Minimize nonessential travel and follow CDC guidelines for post-travel isolation
- Consider special accommodations for vulnerable employees
Phase Two: State has no evidence of a COVID rebound and satisfies gating criteria again
- Continue to encourage remote work
- Close common areas where employees congregate and interact OR enforce moderate social distancing
- Resume nonessential travel
- Consider special accommodations for vulnerable employees
Phase Three: State has no evidence of a COVID rebound and satisfies gating criteria a third time
- Resume unrestricted staffing
Throughout all phases, Opening Up America Again recommends that employers develop protocols for social distancing, protective equipment, sanitation and other safety standards. Note that specific guidelines are listed for certain types of employers, including schools, hospitals, large venues, gyms and bars.
Though Opening Up America Again presents broad guidelines employers can follow, it doesn’t specifically address the need for businesses to acknowledge the stress of the situation and to communicate thoughts and plans to employees. The remaining action steps delve deeper to help companies think about what reopening means and how to make the transition as seamless as possible.
2. Plan to protect customers and employees
Once a plan is established to reopen doors and return employees to the workforce, businesses need to consider how they’re going to keep customers and employees safe. Here are some ideas companies can consider.
Employers should identify ways to maintain social distancing in the office and at other worksites. Retailers should determine how they’re going to keep customers properly distanced to prevent exposure. It’s important to think through new customer shopping habits and institute policies to keep customers safe: checkout line distancing points, one-way shopping aisles, in-and-out doors, for example.
Though certainly challenging in some environments, a creative approach can help businesses maintain operations while instituting social distancing policies. One strategy is to change the office, restaurant or store layout to tune the room to the desired behavior.
Businesses need to consider what protective equipment their employees need to protect customers and themselves. Masks, gloves and point-of-sale barriers are likely to be the new norm, at least for a while. Government mandates might also require customers to don protective masks when they enter businesses; if so, or if companies institute that policy on their own, businesses need to determine how they will monitor and enforce it.
Companies should consider how they’re going to monitor symptoms before they lead to a business-wide outbreak. Opening Up America Again recommends temperature checks, COVID tests and other monitoring so businesses can send symptomatic employees home. It also suggests contact tracing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus if an employee tests positive. Symptomatic employees must be isolated at home until they are cleared to return to work.
Sanitization and cleanliness
Though having a clean workspace or retail store is already important, it’s now more critical than ever. Not only will a sanitized space help prevent outbreaks, a clean environment will help encourage customers to come back. Businesses should consider how they’re going to sanitize their spaces: hand sanitizer stations, consistent cleaning with the right products (or contracting with a company that specializes in sanitation), and wipes for credit card machines and shopping carts, for example.
In addition, companies need to revisit equipment sharing policies or institute cleaning policies for copiers, printers, fax machines and other devices. The CDC offers disinfecting guidelines for facilities.
Many businesses have already added curbside pickup, delivery services and contactless delivery during the pandemic. Companies need to decide whether to continue these practices or if they should add them to their service offerings. Contactless commerce not only keeps customers and employees safe, it can help businesses inch closer to normal revenues because customers are likely to demand the convenience and safety these options offer moving forward.
Transparency and communication
Companies should be transparent about their efforts to protect employees and customers. Step-by-step guidelines can be issued to employees so they know exactly how to protect themselves and customers. Employees should also be trained on how to communicate and enforce policies without upsetting customers. Communication at all levels is key.
It is important for businesses and employees to recognize the stress of the situation: not only are customers worried about their safety, they’re also concerned about being told what to wear, where to stand and how to shop. A sensitivity to those concerns can go a long way toward keeping customers happy. A good start is to post signage that explains the measures businesses are taking to keep customers safe and lists policies for entering.
3. Review and revise HR policies
Human resources will play a critical role in returning to normalcy post-pandemic. For small businesses without HR departments, that role will land on the shoulders of owners and managers. Either way, companies need to determine which policies need revised and how they will communicate them to employees.
Many businesses intend to continue remote work once stay-at-home orders end. A remote workforce limits human contact and saves companies money; moreover, the work-from-home “experiment” has proven that many companies can maintain operations with a remote staff.
Businesses need to determine what their work-from-home policies will be. They also need to consider which collaboration tools are needed to bolster efficiency and productivity. Security will be paramount, especially for companies that handle sensitive data, so businesses must determine how to securely empower a remote workforce.
Employee time tracking will be important to some companies, while others might rely more on production as a barometer of employee engagement. Payment policies might need to be revisited as well, especially for companies that typically hand out paper checks and want to transition to digital payment options.
Accommodations for vulnerable employees
Even when employees have the green light to return to work, the environment might not be safe for those who suffer from preexisting conditions that make them more susceptible to the coronavirus. Businesses should make accommodations for such employees to ensure their safety without limiting their ability to work.
Working from home is one idea; if that’s not possible, perhaps companies can give vulnerable employees their own offices or workspaces situated far from others. It’s important for businesses to speak with employees and understand best practices to keep their workforces safe.
Some companies limited or cancelled benefits during employee layoffs and furloughs. Now, businesses need to determine whether they’re going to return to pre-COVID benefits or make adjustments – and they need to communicate any new policies to employees.
Health insurance and retirement plans are obvious benefits, but companies also need to consider additional benefits to address employee needs. For example, sick day policies might need to be revisited, especially since symptomatic employees must be sent home.
Childcare benefits, where companies either offer childcare on-site or offer pay or credit to help offset the cost of childcare, is another important area for consideration – especially since it’s likely employees will be able to return to work before their children can return to school or childcare centers. If children have nowhere to go, employees cannot return to work and companies risk losing top talent if they don’t institute flexible work-from-home policies that enable employees to balance parenting with work.
Benefits management is another area of consideration; in many companies, employees must interact face-to-face with HR departments to sign up or make changes to benefits programs. Businesses can limit such interaction by adopting self-serve benefits management systems that allow employees to do it all online.
Hiring is another process that often requires face-to-face meetings. Companies can limit exposure by adopting remote hiring processes that enable applicants to submit paperless resumes, fill out digital applications and even conduct video interviews online. Such practices not only lessen the risk of causing an outbreak, they can save businesses time and money.
Again, communication is critical to a smooth transition. Businesses need to determine how they will communicate policy changes with employees. They also need to update employee handbooks and ensure every staff member has access to them. Digital communication is a good option: emails and online handbooks eliminate the need for contact and reduce costs.
4. Project cash flow
It’s no secret many businesses have taken enormous financial hits during the pandemic, and returning to normal operations won’t immediately get companies out of hot water. Thus, it’s critical for businesses to accurately project cash flow so they can stay in the black while they recover.
Plan to pay employees and other expenses
One challenge businesses face is how to pay employees in the absence of revenue over the past few months. Add potential production costs, marketing and other overhead, and it’s easy to see how companies might struggle to stay afloat until revenues are back to normal (or close to it). That might mean operating with a reduced workforce to start or taking out loans to cover payroll and other expenses in the interim.
Cut costs wherever possible
Companies should audit their budgets and identify ways to cut costs wherever possible. In a world of contactless commerce, perhaps they don’t need as much square footage as they once did. Energy-saving lights could keep utility costs low. Remote employees might eliminate the need to operate devices and machinery on the company’s dime, and business travel can be reduced or eliminated altogether with now-universal acceptance of video conferencing.
Businesses should ask themselves which expenses are necessary and which are luxuries – then cut the luxuries to save as much money as possible while they recover from the crisis.
Accurate sales forecasts help companies project cash flows and institute business-saving policies. Though it might be difficult to determine exactly how much revenue businesses will earn as they recover from the pandemic, current figures can serve as a starting point.
Companies can make projections based on historical marketing investment, then err on the conservative side to help ensure they have enough cash to maintain operations until revenues are back to normal. It might be worth speaking to a business consultant to help forecast sales and project cash flow. The Small Business Administration offers free business counseling through nationwide business development centers.
If cash flow projections come up short, businesses should consider seeking funding. Potential options include the Paycheck Protection Program and EIDL loans offered through the SBA (if still available). Companies can also investigate the Main Street Lending Program, a Federal Reserve initiative designed to help businesses acquire loans. Other ideas include small business loans and business lines of credit secured through traditional banking.
5. Identify new opportunities
The coronavirus crisis has changed the world. Businesses have struggled – and some have failed – in the virus’ wake. Adapting to a new age of business means more than simply maintaining operations, protecting liquidity and adjusting policies; indeed, many companies are poised to take advantage of new opportunities that could propel them to new levels of profitability.
Prepare to pivot
Companies should consider what new market conditions mean for their businesses and how they can pivot to cater to demand. For example, a company that sells webcams might have historically relied on millennials for revenue; now, they might target baby boomers who have embraced video conferencing to keep in touch with friends and family. In this scenario, a simple shift in marketing could introduce the company to a lucrative new market.
Companies that can’t quite get back to business can investigate new revenue streams. For example, a home decorator might create online courses, seminars and ebooks that teach people how to design their own living spaces if they can’t do the work on location. This, in turn, presents an opportunity to earn semi-passive income that augments the company’s primary revenue stream.
Service the “shut-in economy”
Previously touched on, businesses can cater to contactless commerce and expand services to include delivery and curbside pickup. Retailers that do not have ecommerce stores – or do not effectively market them – can bolster their online presences, which might be critical to survival. Non-ecommerce companies can likewise revamp their online efforts to get in front of customers who will no longer find them via other channels.
On-demand and concierge services stand to make waves in the near future, as many customers will demand their convenience and safety factor. Remote sales calls conducted via video could replace business travel as a cost-saving safety measure. Again, businesses should consider new shopping and decision-making habits to inform next steps in a new world.
Explore new supply chains
The coronavirus shut down and delayed critical supply chains for many businesses, particularly those that relied on overseas shipping. Now is a good time to explore new, closer and more reliable supply chains. Locally and regionally sourced products might be the new trend; and despite domestic pricing, they could represent a cost savings compared to global shipping fees. Current conditions also provide new opportunities for manufacturing, warehousing and distributing startups.
Plan for disaster
The coronavirus also presents an opportunity for businesses to revisit (or develop) their emergency response plans. Many experts predict another wave of COVID-19 to hit during the flu season; if stay-at-home mandates and business shutdowns are ordered, companies could find themselves right back where they started – albeit without the benefit of capital to hold them over. Thus, businesses should take advantage of the opportunity to prepare for the worst so they can maintain operations if disaster strikes again.
Though returning to normalcy presents challenges, the outlook isn’t bleak for businesses that take a strategic approach to resuming operations. In fact, with proper planning, many companies can position themselves to not only weather the storm, but also achieve new levels of success post-pandemic.
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