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Opening up businesses again: How to cautiously re-enter the market post-COVID

business reopening

By their nature, entrepreneurs and small businesses owners are bold, energetic and assertive. Their fearless, take-charge mentality is part of what drives them to succeed; without it, they never would have launched businesses in the first place. Indeed, the entrepreneurial mindset is powerful; however, it also clashes with the cautious approach governments recommend businesses take as they reopen post-COVID-19. The following offers tips for how business owners can maintain ambition while they work to cautiously re-enter the market.

A phased approach

For most companies, diving back in to “business as usual” isn’t an option. The need for rigorous safety measures, delayed supply chains and economic constraints plus yet-unknown repercussions of the coronavirus crisis call for a tempered approach to reopening.

That doesn’t mean businesses can’t achieve progress, but it does mean they should plan to do so within established safety guidelines to avoid potential setbacks. One approach is to mirror the guidelines presented in Opening Up America Again, a joint initiative by the White House and the CDC that recommends businesses reopen in phases.

Though Opening Up America Again has a primary focus on safety, companies can use it as a basis for setting their own reopening guidelines: they can follow the government’s recommendations, then add their own objectives for safe re-entry that spurs growth and fosters long-term sustainability.

Before reopening

Opening Up America Again calls for states to meet specific “gating criteria” before proceeding to phased opening. The criteria are:

  • Downward trajectory of flu-like and COVID-like illnesses reported within a 14-day period
  • Downward trajectory of documented cases and tests within a 14-day period
  • The ability for hospitals to treat patients without crisis care, plus the availability of robust testing programs for at-risk healthcare workers

Businesses might wait to reopen – or at least to allow in-store customers or face-to-face meetings – until their states or regions have met the gating criteria. In addition, before reopening they might want to ensure they meet the employer guidelines for all phases established through Opening Up America Again. Doing so will allow them to:

  • Safely reopen their businesses, increase productivity and yield profitability
  • Avoid setbacks and operational inefficiencies due to illnesses and employee and customer safety concerns
  • Convince customers to visit their locations by inspiring confidence in sanitization and safety measures

Ultimately, establishing policies that meet federal guidelines will empower businesses to forge forward, regain profitability and inspire sustainable business growth. The guidelines recommend employers develop and implement policies that address the following concerns:

Social distancing and protective equipment

Businesses need a plan to keep employees and customers socially distanced. They should also provide any necessary protective equipment to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Though supplying masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes is easy enough, purchasing such supplies can certainly impact the bottom line. For some companies, though, the real challenge lies in social distancing.

Take the example of a Toyota assembly plant that has delayed reopening, in part, so it can figure out how to keep employees six feet apart at a job that typically requires multiple people working on the same car simultaneously. One union leader said the only solution he could think of is to slow production.

Restaurants, especially small diners and pubs, face a similar challenge. If an eatery typically only seats a dozen customers, and they must cut that number in half to meet social distancing guidelines, they’ll need ask themselves whether they can be profitable once they open their doors.

Space constraints aren’t limited to restaurants, either. Small offices might struggle to fit all their employees under one roof and retailers might face capacity limitations that jeopardize profits.

Social distancing, then, might require businesses to get creative so they can maintain production and profits without sacrificing customer and employee safety. Some ideas include:

  • Reconfiguring restaurant tables and office layouts to accommodate the maximum number of people within the guidelines
  • Moving some restaurant tables outdoors to increase capacity
  • Reconfiguring manufacturing lines or adjusting schedules and shifts to maximize production under the guidelines
  • Purchasing advanced safety equipment, including full-body uniforms, so employees can work in close quarters without risking viral spread
  • Designating “in" and "out” doors and one-way aisles so customers never cross paths in retail stores
  • Limiting the number of customers who can be in a retail store or service shop at any one time
  • Allowing employees to work remotely or staggering shifts with limited hours to avoid employee overlap
  • Adding or continuing curbside pickup and contactless delivery services

Social distancing isn’t easy, but it presents an opportunity for business owners to flex their mindpower and develop solutions that bring business back in.

Sanitation and disinfection

Companies also need to consider how they will keep spaces and equipment clean – particularly shared equipment that has the potential to spread the virus. Ideas include:

  • Providing disinfectant wipes for shopping carts, credit card machines and door handles
  • Training employees to wipe down surfaces such as credit card machine keypads between every customer
  • Training employees how to properly disinfect common and high-traffic areas, or contracting a cleaning service to sanitize retail shelves, restrooms and other spaces
  • Instructing office employees to sanitize shared equipment such as printers and even vehicle steering wheels and door handles before and after each use
  • Placing hand sanitizer stations at entrances and exits as well as checkout aisles

These initiatives not only keep employees and customers safe, they can also help companies boost sales when they use marketing and other communications to tell customers what they’re doing to help protect them from the coronavirus.

Workforce monitoring

The federal guidelines call for businesses to institute policies for temperature checks, testing, isolating and contract tracing. The expectation is for companies to monitor the workforce, send symptomatic employees home until cleared to return by a medical provider, and to enact contact tracing procedures that enable them to identify who has been in contact with any employees who test positive for COVID-19.

To comply with the guidelines, companies can:

  • Purchase digital thermometers and require employees to get their temperatures taken before they enter the workspace
  • Educate employees about coronavirus and influenza symptoms and instruct them to report if they are symptomatic
  • Send any symptomatic employees home and require medical approval for their return
  • Implement contact tracing and a system to notify any employees who might have been in contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus; send employees who have been in contact home until it is determined they have not contracted the virus

That last bullet point – contact tracing – could prove challenging for businesses since formal contact tracing procedures might not yet be established. Companies can reference the CDC’s contact tracing page for training programs, digital tools, guidance and other resources. They can also investigate burgeoning technology, such as contact tracing apps that promise to notify people if they’ve been in contact with someone who tested positive.

Business travel

Opening Up America Again recommends businesses adopt policies for safe business travel. Though sales calls and business conferences are on hiatus, it’s a good idea for companies to establish plans for keeping employees safe once travel reopens. In addition, some businesses can’t avoid travel, including shipping companies and distributors that often place employees inside multiple businesses every day. Such businesses can maintain operations and minimize risks by:

  • Providing protective masks, gloves, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer to travelers and drivers
  • Establishing a sanitization protocol for every trip, such as wiping down delivery carts and steering wheels
  • Requiring traveling employees to wash hands and sanitize uniforms before returning to the office
  • Eliminating all non-essential travel: sales calls and meetings, for example, can be conducted via videoconferencing and other collaboration platforms

Most customers won’t mind phone calls, videoconferencing and digital collaboration, especially when such measures help keep them safe. Businesses can take advantage of the opportunity to establish a new norm wherein customers anticipate remote sales and video meetings, which can help companies save big on travel expenses over the long haul.

man working from home

Phase One

Businesses can confidently reopen after addressing the previous recommendations. Once open, they should continue to follow the recommended phases so they can keep customers and employees safe during their return to operational efficiency. Here’s what the government recommends for Phase One:

Encourage telework

A remote workforce has quickly become the new norm for many businesses, and Opening Up America Again suggests businesses should continue that trend after reopening. Doing so minimizes risk associated with employee contact, and it can even save businesses money.

Still, allowing employees to work from home presents security, productivity and collaboration challenges. Businesses can meet those challenges by:

  • Establishing robust and stringent security protocols for emailing, document sharing, remote server/platform access and home-based networks
  • Requiring employees to install time tracking tools and other software designed to measure work time and/or productivity
  • Adopting company-wide collaboration tools that mitigate security risks and make it easy for employees to work together remotely

Companies that require employees to be on-site can evaluate how many hours they must be present, institute split shifts or limited hours and workdays, and practice social distancing. If remote work is an option, it can prove a powerful way to maintain operations and influence sales regardless of government-imposed business restrictions.

Return to work in phases

Calling the entire workforce back at once could be a recipe for disaster, especially for businesses that have many employees who work in a single location. A better strategy might be to:

  • Return the most critical employees first: those who are responsible for maintaining operations and interacting with customers, for example
  • Start with a certain percentage, such 25% of the workforce, and identify inefficiencies or potential issues with the reopening plan. Solve problems before the rest of the workforce is invited back
  • Call the next wave of employees back – perhaps an additional 25% – and continue to monitor and resolve issues
  • Once it’s established that operational efficiency and safety can be maintained within the guidelines, return the next wave
  • Consider outsourcing any essential tasks in the interim, such as marketing services

Though returning employees in phases will limit productivity in the beginning, it will also help business owners resolve issues before they become major setbacks. Slow growth is better than no growth – or a shutdown due to another outbreak.

Close common areas or enforce social distancing

Federal guidelines recommend that businesses close common areas where employees congregate or enforce strict social distancing during Phase One. With proper planning, doing so does not need to negatively affect operations or productivity. Ideas include:

  • Closing break rooms and cafeterias, and instead instructing employees to bring their own lunches
  • Positioning break room and cafeteria tables to maintain proper distance between employees
  • Removing office water coolers and coffee pots, and instruct employees to bring their own beverages
  • Opening outdoor spaces for breaks and lunches, weather-permitting, to allow safe social distancing
  • Establishing an enforcement policy for violating social distancing protocols

This is another measure designed to keep employees safe, and a healthy staff is a productive workforce.

Minimize non-essential travel

Business travel has already been addressed, but Opening Up America Again also recommends following CDC guidelines for post-travel isolation. Companies can require employees to:

  • Stay home for 14 days after international travel
  • Report any influenza-like or COVID-like symptoms
  • Obtain medical clearance to return to work if they experience symptoms

Again, the best policy is to reduce or eliminate travel as much as possible, especially in an age when digital tools often negate the need for face-to-face interaction.

Make special accommodations for vulnerable employees

Some employees are more susceptible to the coronavirus than others, including elderly employees and those who have certain pre-existing conditions. Companies can make special accommodations for them without limiting productivity by:

  • Allowing vulnerable employees to work from home
  • Giving vulnerable employees separate, socially distanced workspaces and offices
  • Not requiring vulnerable employees to operate shared equipment
  • Providing additional safety equipment and sanitization products
  • Allowing vulnerable employees to remain home, even if not working, until it is safe for them to return to work
  • Requiring all other employees to wash their hands and wear protective masks and gloves when interacting with vulnerable employees, even when social distancing is practiced
  • Speaking with vulnerable employees to find out what they need to feel safe when they return to work

Keeping vulnerable employees safe is the right thing to do, but it’s also a protective measure that can prevent bad publicity for businesses that do not offer special accommodations to those who need them.

Phase Two

Opening Up America Again recommends businesses enter Phase Two after their states exhibit no evidence of a coronavirus rebound and satisfy the gating criteria a second time. Companies might develop their own Phase Two criteria, such as:

  • No employees who test positive for coronavirus
  • All safety concerns addressed for employees and customers; in particular, those that weren’t identified until the business reopened during Phase One
  • All operational inefficiencies discovered during Phase One addressed

During Phase Two, the government recommends employers:

  • Continue to encourage telework
  • Keep common areas closed and enforce moderate social distancing protocols
  • Resume non-essential travel
  • Continue providing accommodations for vulnerable employees

The key differences from Phase One are that moderate, not strict, social distancing protocols should be enforced; and that non-essential travel can be resumed. What those mean depend on each individual business, but examples include:

  • Reopening previously-closed manufacturing lines or allowing more employees to work in the same spaces to boost productivity – while maintaining safe distances
  • Resuming face-to-face client meetings and sales calls, but continue practicing social distancing and proper sanitization
  • Reopening previously closed distribution and delivery services, supply chains and routes
  • Relaxing, but not eliminating, enforcement policies for social distancing violations

During Phase Two, companies can continue to communicate the measures they’re taking to protect employees and customers. That practice, coupled with a sound marketing strategy, can help businesses make significant strides during Phase Two.

Phase Three

Under the proposed guidelines, businesses would enter Phase Three once their states have no evidence of a rebound and meet the gating criteria a third time. In this phase, businesses can resume unrestricted staffing of worksites. In other words, it’s back to business as usual (or as close to it as companies can get), with a few caveats:

  • Companies should remain cognizant of the potential threat, and they should maintain proper sanitization protocols
  • Workforce monitoring, contact tracing, sanitization and business travel protocols should remain in place throughout Phase Three
  • Certain employers should dedicate ample resources to sanitization, including hospitals, nursing homes, restaurants, sporting venues, places of worship, bars and gyms

Though businesses can resume full operations in this phase, it’s important for companies to continue to take measures that could help prevent another outbreak – which could devastate many businesses, especially those that do not have time to build enough capital to survive a second shutdown.

Meeting government guidelines might prove challenging – and even expensive – but mirroring the Opening Up America Again plan with a phased approach to safe reopening can enable entrepreneurial-minded business owners to maintain operations and even grow their companies during uncertain times.

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