The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in our healthcare systems, with governments around the world grappling with it to contain its spread. It has likewise shown how most businesses have poor emergency response measures while others innovate rapidly to keep up with new developments. Having said that, there is no need to panic. Black swan events like the COVID pandemic have the potential to bring a new wave of innovation, and your business can ride the same bandwagon to attain sustainable growth.
We’ve collated tips on how to manage and lead your business successfully through this crisis based on expert advice and what has worked in economies further along in the containment trajectory. Read on to find out more.
Adopt Flexible Remote Work Models
Keeping your employees safe and containing the spread of the virus through social distancing is paramount. To ensure business continuity, allow all your employees who can work remotely to do so and complete their daily tasks as usual. Train your managers so they conform to normal working hours and do not expect their workers to be available 24/7. This will considerably reduce the friction of the switch to remote work.
In case of employees who must work on-site, introduce shifts and reduce workdays in order to do your part in flattening the curve. This will ensure that work does not halt completely and exposure risk is reduced as much as possible.
If your operations have not closed down since you are in an area that is not severely impacted or you provide essential services, take all appropriate measures to ensure the health and safety of your workers. Provide sanitizers, paid compulsory leaves for those exhibiting symptoms, face masks, first aid, and anything else that may be needed. Get frequently touched surfaces regularly disinfected. Supor, China’s largest kitchenware manufacturer, initiated health checks, procured preventative equipment, created guidelines for limiting exposure, and developed an emergency response plan. They were able to reopen some production lines by the second week of February as a result of taking these preventative measures.
In the long run, supplanting local employees with remote workers scattered all over the globe will reduce your risk exposure. A local crisis will then affect only a certain portion of your workforce and not bring everything to a grinding halt. A hybrid model has served many businesses—including IdeasUnlimited—well during this pandemic.
Adapt Employee Roles Instead of Laying Them Off
Think about switching the roles of employees instead of laying them off due to lower staff needs. Engineering supply firms have switched to helping the government acquire the machinery it needs to combat the virus and keep the hospitals from crumbling under the immense pressure of a large volume of patients. Carmakers Ford and General Motors, as well as home appliance manufacturer Dyson, have drawn the focus of their engineering teams to designing and manufacturing cost-effective ventilators for use by coronavirus patients. Their research and production are funded by their respective governments; and their engineering and production teams are working through the pandemic.
Assign those who have demonstrated strategic planning capabilities to response planning. Loan them to other businesses that are continuing operations in your locality. Restaurants in China lent their staff to O2O companies like Ele, Meituan, and 7Fresh as well as online businesses that witnessed a surge in online purchases. Online stores like Amazon, remote communication companies like Slack, grocery chains like Kroger, and delivery companies like UPS have seen such big surges in demand that they are hiring a large number of workers. By lending your staff in this manner, they will have paying jobs and you will be earning revenue as well.
In case your revenues and cashflow do not allow you to keep on all workers, consider reducing hours across the board rather than letting workers go. Focus on reducing the impact on workers with greater financial responsibilities. Your employees will understand that you are trying to support them in a bad situation.
Hire Overseas-Based Remote Workers
In the worst-case scenario, if you have to lay off most of your workforce since the payroll costs are bankrupting your business, hire remote workers based overseas. You will easily find cost-effective resources with the experience your business needs. Best of all, they are already acquainted with remote work collaboration methods and ways to ensure productivity. This will ensure your business survives these tough times instead of going under. Not only would you be able to hire workers at a fraction of the basic pay which you’d have to pay in your home country, you would also have to pay less in taxes for hiring them.
Utilize Better Collaboration Tools
The COVID-19 crisis has illustrated without a shadow of doubt the need to employ better digital collaboration resources. Not only do you need a robust and secure internal communication tool like Slack or Microsoft Teams, but your business needs to use a platform for tracking productivity as well. Depending on your business model, you can use a CRM like Salesforce, a project management tool like Trello, or a productivity tracking platform like TimeDoctor. Zoom Meetings can replace in-person meetings. Huazhu, a large hotel chain in China, successfully leveraged its internal communication app Huatong to ensure that timely information updates were cascaded to all employees and franchises.
Bolster your existing communication and information technology infrastructure to withstand the stress of remote work. Remote work, and in turn business continuity, is only possible if your employees have all the tools they need. Allow your senior employees to take their computer systems home and give the responsibility of remotely managing the network server to a manager in your IT department.
Create an internal communication channel in which all lower tiers of management get important updates right away. Allow them to then adapt new policies to their own localities in terms of local government laws and their nature of operations. Top management policies may not be granular enough to apply to each local scenario, so this step is crucial.
Maintain Transparency with Customers
Your customers need to see your business doing its part to keep its employees and customers safe since your COVID-19 response can make or break your brand image. A vast majority of customers are understanding of shipment delays and stores closing down to contain the epidemic. However, you have a role to play as well. If production or delivery is delayed, tell customers as soon as possible and give them an estimated timeline. Feel free to qualify the timeline with a disclaimer that this can change if the situation worsens.
Reassure your customers and keep them close. In this economic climate when income is so uncertain for most households, retaining current customers is key. Gaining new ones is an uphill battle unless your business provides one of the necessities required to combat this pandemic. Your loyal customers—if kept regularly apprised of new developments—will stick with you and pull your business through these challenging times.
Focus on Retaining Great Community Relations
This will indicate to your stakeholders your business’ knowledge and acceptance of the climate in which everyone is living. Your business must illustrate to all its stakeholders—particularly the local communities in which you operate—that you are doing responsible thing. Luxury product sellers cannot blithely continue selling to the wealthy. Instead, creating and maintaining goodwill is paramount. Luxury goods manufacturer LVMH used the perfume production lines for Givenchy, Dior, and Guerlain to manufacture and donate hand sanitizer to hospitals in France.
If you continue with business as normal, you may be irreversibly harming your company’s goodwill. On the other hand, doing your part in mitigating the social impact of the crisis is not only the ethical thing to do but has lasting positive reputational impacts as well. Show responsible leadership by informing your stakeholders about what you have done.
Microsoft has offered its Healthcare Bot service to organizations on the frontline of the COVID-19 response to help screen patients. This has greatly decreased the strain on our healthcare system so only those requiring immediate medical attention get treated by healthcare professionals.
Charity is an important response. The Alibaba Group established a $144 million medical supply fund for hospitals in Hubei Province. Yelp announced a $25 million relief fund that is focused on supporting independent local restaurants and nightlife businesses.
Do your part in helping non-profit organizations and community outreach programs in whatever capacity possible. It does not have to be a large donation. You can even create corporate volunteer programs for your employees to encourage them to assist as well.
Adjust Your Product and Service Portfolio
Try to add needs products to a wants portfolio or supplement your needs portfolio with other necessities. In China, gas stations started selling groceries. They introduced a no-contact system wherein you ordered the groceries ahead of time, parked near a gas meter, and an attendant filled up the gas and loaded up the groceries. Pakistan’s clothing stores have started creating and distributing cloth masks. In France, luxury manufacturers such as Dior etc. have created and distributed millions of free masks. IKEA is helping to kit-out hospitals in affected areas.
Think about the raw materials you have, the infrastructure in place, and the workforce you have at your disposal and strategize about using them in different ways not only to keep your business going but also assist the community at large.
Adapt Operations to the Changing Times
Your business can contribute to the local community while staying open if you adapt your operations according to the needs of the hour. In a time when stores have switched over from in-store purchases to drive-thru pickups, courier services have introduced curbside delivery, Yelp is teaming with GoFundMe to allow people to support local businesses they love, you cannot stick to your old business model and expect to come through this pandemic unscathed.
Can your app or website be modified to allow customers to purchase goods and pick them up from the store later? Do you need to invest in better online store management so your website can withstand the heavier traffic? Can you switch in-store employees to call handling so they can take orders online or provide the services virtually? How about offering an online-only discount to encourage customers to order online instead of visiting the store? That will reduce the exposure of your employees and keep them safe. A few of the leading businesses who have successfully done so are mentioned below:
The Leon fast food chain changed its restaurants to mini supermarkets and allows its customers to book delivery slots. This way they are ensuring business continuity and also doing their part in supporting their local communities.
Microsoft is working with Hong Kong schools to digitally deliver interactive lessons. Their #FutureReady Limitless Learning Program allows students and teachers to use Office 365 Education and Microsoft Teams on a complimentary basis. They are working with local schools to set up and use these tools.
Master Kong, an instant noodles and beverage producer in China, moved its focus away from offline to ecommerce, O2O (Online to Offline), and small stores that still stayed open during lockdowns. They also tracked reopening days for stores and adapted their supply chain accordingly. This allowed them to supply 60% of the stores that reopened a few weeks after the outbreak, so they were miles ahead of their competitors. Adapt similar approaches in your business so you are not forced into a multi-month hiatus from which recovery is not possible.
Change your sales channels. If you can no longer sell to customers directly in-store, move the same employees to provide impetus to online sales. Increase your telemarketing efforts. Encourage your employees to sell to their social networks and create new commission plans or sales rankings to motivate them. Lin Qingxuan, a cosmetics company, closed 40% of its physical stores but employed beauty advisors from those stores to engage with customers on WeChat and other online tools. Sales saw a 200% rise in the Wuhan region as a result of this new strategy.
Take some time and plan how your operations can be similarly adapted and quickly put the plan in place.
Treat This Time as a Thirty-Day Free Trial of Your Products or Service
A lot of businesses are taking the opportunity to generate goodwill and loyalty by allowing their paid services to be used for free for the next 30 days. This gesture is meant to give anxious people who are self-isolating something to calm their nerves and divert their attention. Authors Neil Gaiman and Sarah McLean, and online libraries Scribd and the New York Public Library, have allowed their books to be checked out for free for 30 days. The Berlin Philharmonic and Budapest Festival Orchestra have allowed their back catalogues of digital concerts to be available for free.
Actions like this build lasting loyalty in a customer, and a gratefulness towards a business that understands their state of mind during these times. Not to mention, allowing a 30-day free trial of services available for millions of people sitting at home, with the time available to explore these services, means that you will likely have many more paying customers once the pandemic is over. Small businesses can follow the same strategy locally; by focusing on loyalty and free trials right now, you will likely get customers who will stay loyal to you in the future.
Make Your Supply Chain More Robust
Focus on creating a more diversified and sustainable supply chain, with multiple vendors across geographic regions. This way you will not be dependent on one area alone and your production will not be impeded if that area is hit by COVID-19 and forced into a lockdown. Supply chain resilience also entails having alternate suppliers and even substitute raw materials planned out. COVID-19 has resulted in bans on freight via any means in certain areas of the world. You must prepare for delays in shipment of indeterminable duration. Your business must have enough buffer inventory of inputs and crucial parts to be able to carry out production in this case as well.
Maintain Sufficient Operational Funds
In these uncertain times, you must make sure that your business has sufficient operational funds. At least have enough cash on hand to last you up to 3 months so you can cover salary and debt payments. Furthermore, look into loan extension options today, to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
Keep yourself apprised of government-sponsored relief programs and how you may benefit. Ask your accountant how the recently announced payroll tax cut in the US will help you pay your employees’ salaries. The newly approved stimulus package will also supplant the salaries that you are able to pay out while keeping your business afloat. See which employees qualify for it and factor in the expected delays in receiving checks to calculate how much cash you must have at hand to pay your employees till then.
Most importantly, run an analysis of how your customers and major stakeholders will be impacted and, in turn, how that would impact your business. Prepare for at least 3 months into the future so you can better adjust to any new developments. Since predictions of the economic impact of COVID-19 vary greatly, prepare for the worst but don’t expect it to unfold.
Keep yourself apprised of the latest updates and always keep in mind the veracity of the source of information. Update employees regularly as changes are needed instead of assuming that they have access to the same information as you do.
Create Worst-Case Contingency Plans
The COVID-19 crisis has underlined the importance of creating contingency plans and strategies for handling crisis situations. We have seen unexpected events like sudden lockdowns, unanticipated quarantines due to travel history and contact with an infected individual, and much more in these last few weeks. Your business needs continuity plans that constantly look ahead and evolve quickly in response to changing circumstances.
Businesses on ground zero of the pandemic and those in the worst-affected countries have witnessed the merits of a cross-functional team managing scenario and contingency planning. Remove the bureaucratic hurdles and create a small trusted team of top management officials to quickly formulate and implement tactical decisions. This will circumvent all delays caused by internal coordination. Such a team must consider the pandemic’s impact on employees, manage finances, the supply chain, and marketing. Not only do you need this team to plan out your business’ response for the next few weeks but you also need this team to create scenarios for different trigger events in order to be better prepared for the future.
Most importantly, don’t be resistant to changing plans rapidly. During pandemics, changing plans do not indicate indecisiveness but rather a fast response to new developments. Time-stamped live documents are the best way to go. Don’t delay your business’ response so much that the underlying information becomes outdated.
Document any key learning points and scenario responses to ensure that the company is prepared for the future. This way you will not have to start from scratch if you ever face a similar situation in the future.
There is good news on the horizon. If people and goods have started moving again in China 6 weeks after the initial outbreak, we can expect improvement in other regions of the world as well. However, it is absolutely crucial to learn from the companies who have successfully weathered the storm and not make the same mistakes as others did before us.
Feel free to suggest any other tips that may help businesses cope with the COVID-19 pandemic in the comments down below. Stay safe!