(This post originally appeared on Philly.com)
As many of the region’s small businesses get ready to reopen, some are wondering what to expect in this new, post-pandemic world. Will customers return in force? Will employees be willing to return to work? Will life ever get back to normal? How will my business be different?
No one has the answers to these questions. But the “essential” businesses that have been allowed to operate over the last few months can give us a preview of the coming months. These small-business owners have already learned important lessons.
And the biggest takeaway? It’s all about your employees. Making them a priority will go a long way toward a successful recovery. So how did these businesses look after their employees?
For starters, they changed the way they worked. Don’t expect that your employees will come streaming in the doors at 9 am, sit at their desks, and pick up from where they left off. The essential businesses that stayed in operation made significant efforts to keep their employees safely distanced from each other and comfortable in the office. That meant staggering shifts, requiring masks, encouraging frequent hand-washing, moving around desks, limiting access to common areas, and overall reducing face-to-face interactions.
Many essential businesses — such as SP Industries, a Warminster-based supplier of equipment to the health-care industry — altered work schedules to accommodate more people working from home.
“In some cases, this has necessitated shift changes as well as procedural modifications, and our employees have really stepped up and embraced doing whatever is necessary to keep everyone safe,” said Shirley Miller, a marketing executive at the company.
At Standard Energy Solutions, an energy management firm in Maryland, both shifts and hours were changed.
“We organized senior management shifts where the office and warehouse would always be physically open from 6 am until 6 pm,” said Bobby Young, chief operating officer. “One member of the senior staff is consistently in the office so someone was here to receive packages, mail, and material shipments, as well as support the field teams.”
Besides changes in employee work hours and procedures, offices had to be much, much cleaner. Essential businesses that operated at the height of the pandemic made great efforts to follow the most recent safety guidelines issued by both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Owners assigned the responsibility of doing this to a single person or team who made sure to schedule deep cleanings and sanitization of their offices, which included common areas, door knobs, copy machines and restrooms.
The owners of Klein’s Supermarket, an independent grocery in Fairmount, implemented strict procedures to ensure that all high-touch areas are constantly getting disinfected. “We’ve installed plexiglass dividers between our cashiers and the customers, and the mural arts program gave us floor markers for social distancing,” manager Andrew Klein said.
Other companies are limiting interactions and cordoning off parts of their offices. Standard Energy has implemented controlled access systems to restrict unnecessary movement in the offices, “thus minimizing shared surfaces,” Young said.
The reopening of your business will also require a review and likely upgrade of your technology so that people can work as productively as possible. With more employees working from home, many essential businesses have already doubled down on their online and cloud-based software investments — such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet, as well as document, project and customer relationship management applications — to make sure that their employees can access the files and data they needed remotely.
Young’s company has changed its information technology infrastructure and upgraded its customer relationship management system to encourage team interactions and allow employees, dealers and customers to track their solar projects remotely.
Klein’s Supermarket turned to the internet, “ramping up” online ordering and curbside pickup as well as facilitating deliveries of new products, such as precooked meals.
SP Industries’ Miller said that technology will continue to play “a big part” in its operational model even as many employees work from home. “We are relying on technology to keep us connected with each other and our customers through virtual meetings, email and phone calls,” she said.
Finally, owners of these essential businesses have been doing all they can to increase communications and take whatever measures possible to raise employee morale and help them through these challenging times. “We routinely check in with one another and their families,” Young said. “We support each other and insist that each of us gets plenty of time away from corporate operations, to rest, decompress, and stay rejuvenated.”
Jessica Williamson, a Delaware-based human resources consultant, said she believes that sensitivity to employees’ personal situations is the key to maintaining sanity during these unprecedented times. “It will be important for business owners to be flexible with their employees and handle each employee’s needs on an individual basis,” she said.
Williamson said it will be important to provide clear communication about the precautions that are being put in place to ensure the health and safety of the workplace. “Employees may be uneasy about returning,” she said. “Many will continue to deal with child-care issues, mental-health issues and other challenges.”
Who knows what life will be like over the next few months. For most small businesses, things will certainly not be the same. The good news is that many essential businesses that operated during the pandemic made the necessary changes to keep going. The ones that got it right focused on having a positive perspective and putting their people first.
“These are extreme times and entrepreneurs are usually the last to embrace their own needs and care for themselves while they are caring for their employee family,” Young said. “From the very first day, our team has taken an attitude of thriving, not just surviving.”