The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a wide range of business activities being suspended. Companies from sports to entertainment, retail, food and travel, find themselves in a difficult position. Supporting your employees and keeping them informed during this time is vital to sustain your business in the meantime and enable it to resume normal operations when the bulk of the crisis has passed.

The Coronavirus Effect on the Business World

The coronavirus outbreak is primarily a human issue that affects millions of people; as of March 20, a global tracker developed by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering shows more than 255,000 people worldwide reported infections and there have been more than 10,000 deaths from the virus.

The situation has started to stabilize in China, where it began; but it’s rising rapidly in other countries, including the U.S., where it’s impacting nearly every aspect of modern life. It’s also having a major effect on the economy.

It’s unclear how this situation could ultimately develop, but some sectors of the economy have already taken significant hits. To make sure your company survives, you need to take specific steps right now to develop an emergency action plan for small business recovery.

Importance of Employee Support

Employee resources are the backbone of most successful companies, so support for them is vital in this time of difficulty. Your workers’ primary concern is likely their own and their families’ safety from exposure to the virus. Their financial stability—meaning your ability to continue paying them—during this period comes hard on the heels of that.

Make sure you address these issues first, and communicate your intentions to your staff without delay. Keep your cool—panic never helped anyone, but it can destroy the confidence your staff have in your ability to get through this.

Here’s how to prepare employees for change that will last long after the pandemic is over.

A woman sits at a desk in front of an open laptop, reading to support her team during the coronavirus outbreak.

Inform Your Employees

Keeping your workers up to date on what your plans are can help them understand why you’re making certain decisions. If you plan to limit operations for a specific period of time, make sure you explain this. Provide them with provisional dates for stopping and restarting activities.

While it might seem confusing to announce a stoppage until a particular date, companies are doing this currently to give their customers and staff facts they can rely on. For example, certain major retailers including Apple, Aerie and American Eagle, Lego, Lululemon and Nike have closed their brick-and-mortar stores until March 27. Even if that date ultimately gets extended, for now retail employees have a deadline for when they can expect the situation will either change or be reviewed.

It’s especially important for companies with multiple locations to determine how workplace information can be distributed to employees to ensure they get it in a timely fashion. In the Harvard Business Review article “Communicating through the Coronavirus,” it’s suggested to regularly post information “in a highly visible location”—such as email, company chat app or social media page.

Handle Layoffs and Suspensions With Compassion

Many companies are already being forced to lay off or furlough some of their workers. When revenue drops, so does your ability to guarantee employment. People understand this, but that doesn’t help them support their families. What can help, however, is to:

  • Handle the layoff or suspension in a way that fulfills the conditions for unemployment insurance, if possible
  • Reduce the working hours for people who might not qualify for social assistance; this allows them to work part-time and still earn some money
  • Reassure furloughed staff members that their jobs will be kept open for them when you continue operating

Implement Working from Home

Allow your remaining staff to work from home (WFH), wherever and whenever possible. This can include any of the following models:

  • Doing all work remotely
  • Doing a percentage of their work from home
  • Attending meetings virtually on Zoom or Skype
  • Collaborating digitally with colleagues using software programs such as Slack, Trello or Asana.

Employees who work remotely will need IT support to set up their access to your data and systems using a secure virtual private network (VPN). They might also need your help to pay for the Wi-Fi, telephone and broadband facilities that will keep them fully connected to your business.

A woman works on her laptop while sitting on the floor of her living room.

Maintain Staff Morale

As the number of cases rises and deaths increase, millions of people are feeling paralyzed with fear. Maintaining morale among your employees gets even harder when they—and you—are under pressure. Many are overwhelmed with the additional changes to their routine, such as working from home, the lack of childcare, concern for elderly family members, and the need to protect themselves when they go out in public.

Whether your staff are operating remotely or still coming into work, you can help them remain positive by:

  • Re-evaluating expectations and protocols
  • Be prepared to extend deadlines
  • Trust when an employee says they are sick, and work around this as much as possible
  • Forgive delayed responses, such as replies to emails by staffers working from home and caring for young children

Be as understanding and flexible as possible while your workers are trying to handle the huge changes to their lives. Try not to be rigid about anything as they navigate ways to take care of their families during the crisis.

Support On-Site Workers

At this point, restaurants offering take-out, drive-through and delivery are still operational. Grocery stores, banks, pharmacies and some manufacturing facilities, among others, are also still open to the public.

If you have workers onsite, set up the facilities they need to enable them to practice social distancing. For example, according to a recent BuzzFeed News report, Amazon is working on ways to increase social distancing among onsite warehouse workers, including not requiring all workers to attend daily group meetings and restructuring break rooms’ layouts.

Increase the cleaning and sanitation of the premises to include the processes recommended by health experts. You can also allow staggered work shifts, and look for a way your staff can get regular health checks or do self-assessments of their situation. Find out how to help employees manage stress under these types of circumstances, and bring in a counselor or another expert, if possible, to manage the process.

Reduce the risk of exposure for everyone by canceling any non-essential travel related to business, whether it’s your own or your employees’, and get anyone who has been traveling to self-isolate. If staff have family members who have traveled recently, it’s worthwhile to conduct an assessment to find out whether they could have been exposed.

Embrace the Changed World

COVID-19 has changed the world. It might not last forever, but the actions you take right now (and their results) will likely have a far-reaching effect. Use this experience as an opportunity to test-drive working from home, build respect and rapport with your employees and to kick-start disease management protocols in your company.

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