As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, businesses are looking for ways to protect their companies and employees during this uncertain time. Small businesses are impacted hardest by emergencies such as these. According to FEMA, 40% of small businesses never reopen after a disaster. And, of those that do, only 29% were still operating after two years. It’s critical, therefore, that you consider creating or revisiting your emergency preparedness plans to safeguard your business today and into tomorrow.
This article explores the key areas to consider in your coronavirus contingency planning.
Put employee health and safety first
The COVID-19 emergency is dynamic and far-reaching. To address your organization’s needs and risks during this time, establish a task force to include representatives from different functions, such as HR, communications, legal, sales, health and safety, supply chain, and operations.
The team should monitor and heed the advice of government authorities such as the CDC, HHS and the World Health Organization. Pay attention to announcements from state and local governments, too. Many jurisdictions are ordering non-essential businesses such as restaurants, bars, stores, and entertainment venues to close or shift to take-out, drive-through, or curbside pick-up models.
Also, be sure to notify and remind staff of any current travel restrictions. If your employees travel for business purposes, particularly to high-risk areas, introduce policies that limit movement and consider alternative communication and collaboration solutions such as video conferencing.
If your place of work is at high risk of virus transmission, meaning employees work in proximity or interact frequently with customers and suppliers, create additional management oversight to prevent transmission of respiratory illness.
Finally, your task force should establish procedures for staff to report if they are feeling unwell, are absent, or if they suspect exposure to the coronavirus or infection.
Assess the impact on operations
Assess your essential functions and the reliance that your customers and community have on your products or services.
To maintain critical operations, you may need to change your business practices. To prepare for this eventuality, run through several scenarios, including best- and worst-case, and develop contingency plans for each. For example, if critical personnel became sick or had to look after family members, how will your business accommodate these changes? Try to identify others who can step in and learn key tasks such as retirees, family members, or independent contractors.
If government authorities require that you cease or adjust operations, what adjustments could you make to protect employees, revenues, and continue to serve customers, such as shifting your business online?
Are your customers closing for a few weeks/months? What impact will that have on your revenue forecast and sales cycle?
Working from home
Remote working has become a new normal for many during this pandemic, catching many businesses by surprise. Any disaster preparedness plan should include contingencies for telework, including employee access to the right technology and collaboration tools. The plan should also articulate procedures and expectations for employees who work from home.
Cybersecurity is a big concern when you have a remote workforce. Vulnerable home Wi-Fi networks and an uptick in email scams can put your business at risk. Ensure you have the appropriate cybersecurity controls in place and educate employees on how to detect scams. This guide from the Small Business Administration (SBA) can help you assess your cyber risk and take steps to improve your security posture.
Examine supply chains
Supply chain disruptions could be another potentially big impact to your business. Reach out to suppliers to solve bottlenecks, consider alternative sources if you can, or put in place interim solutions to address demand.
Be transparent in your internal communications
With anxiety at a high, it’s important to forge trust with your employees so they feel safe and know what to do – whatever the emergency.
Create an internal communication plan that identifies the key messages you want to convey in clear, simple terms. Your plan should include emergency contact information and summarize company policies (healthcare coverage, paid time off, payroll continuation, travel, etc.).
Include details on how the COVID-19 outbreak has or might impact your operations, services, travel, customers, business continuity, and so on, so that employees can plan accordingly. Once developed or refreshed, share a summary of your current pandemic or emergency preparedness/contingency plan.
Last, consider all the communication vehicles available to you for providing regular updates and responding to employee questions and concerns. Update your employees frequently but be mindful of news and hype cycles. Think critically about the information you share and the source. If you’re not sure, ask employees what is worrying them. Their fears may not be the same as yours. Use this insight to frame the content you share.
Plan your external outreach
Be sure to include external stakeholders in your communication efforts such as customers, partners, investors, suppliers, and your local community. Keep them informed of your business policies at this time and how you plan to keep meeting customers’ needs. Ready.gov has resources to help your business develop a crisis communications plan.
If you are in the healthcare industry or want to help educate your community with messages around social distancing, personal hygiene, and mental health, the Ad Council has released a Coronavirus Response Toolkit that includes PSAs, social media assets, and more, that you can leverage.
Evaluate your finances and take advantage of relief
Any emergency or contingency plan should account for financial risk and impacts. Regularly update and track your cash flow forecast and look for opportunities to reduce non-critical expenditure. Also review your accounts receivable and assess any credit risks. Do you have discretionary spend that can be redirected to help ensure cash flow?
A financial safety net like a business line of credit can also be useful during times like these. You can draw on funds when you need to and repay at any point in time, unlike a bank loan which has a fixed monthly repayment.
Alternatively, consider small business financial assistance programs to help you cover business expenses such as those administered by the SBA. Under the CARES Act, the SBA is providing low-interest disaster recovery loans up to $2 million to businesses impacted by the situation. These loans, funded by banks but guaranteed by the SBA, can be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills. Long-term repayments up to a maximum of 30 years keep payments affordable.
The CARES Act also offers small business owners a $10,000 advance on an Emergency Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) that does not have to be paid back. The program provides loans up to $200,000.
In addition to SBA loans, the federal government is also offsetting paid sick and paid leave costs for employers with an employer tax credit, equal to 100% of benefits paid.
Stay on top of the fast-changing compliance landscape
Keep an eye on shifting developments at the government level that directly affect your work such as filing documents and turnaround times. Many Secretary of State offices have eliminated expedited services, while others have removed or greatly restricted counter service. Keep abreast of Secretary of State availability and other impacts on our COVID-19 resources page.
Having a remote workforce can also introduce new state compliance requirements that must be considered such as state payroll and income tax filing, or the need to register to do business in a new state.
Be prepared for the light at the end of the tunnel
With your employees safe and healthy, and your operational and financial impacts mitigated as best you can; take stock and think about how you’ll successfully restore operations when the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
This is likely to be a life-changing event that could bring a wealth of new opportunities for innovative business owners. Look for immediate gains like renegotiating contracts with suppliers and vendors. Listen to your customers and find ways to show renewed appreciation for them. Find ways to introduce greater efficiencies into your business, such as reducing your physical footprint by making permanent your work from home policies. And consider your financial situation. Are there measures you can take to ensure you have healthy cash flow and a safety net going forward?
None of us knows what’s coming next or if we’ll face a pandemic like this again in our lifetimes. But it pays to have a business continuity plan to bring your business through emergencies like COVID-19 and ensure it’s in a strong position for recovery once it has passed.