There are now more than 245,000 cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the United States and new cases are being reported every day. The virus has caused panic and disruption throughout the country, causing grocery store shelves to empty and stock markets to plummet.
For small business owners, the coronavirus outbreak can seem overwhelming. It has caused uncertainty and fear at just about every level from Washington DC to local business communities. But while it might seem like the world as we know it is coming to an end, small and medium-sized businesses can and will outlast the disease and come back stronger than ever. They just have to develop the right approach to managing the outbreak and weathering the storm.
Challenges from the Coronavirus Outbreak
Small business owners are well aware of many of the challenges posed by the coronavirus outbreak. But you have to properly diagnose the problems if you are going to overcome temporary challenges to your business. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest issues that small and medium-sized businesses face during the coronavirus outbreak:
Supply Chain Disruptions
One of the biggest challenges that product-based businesses face from the virus is the disruption of their supply chain. Trucking infrastructure, from restaurants to truck stops, is getting shut down across the country and trucking routes are threatened by potential travel restrictions. If your supply chain is not suffering yet, odds are that it is just a matter of time until you will run into more serious issues getting finished products or raw materials to fuel your business. So stock up on inventory while you can, especially if you have storage space and the goods will not go bad.
On the other hand, medical supplies and other goods are in greater demand than ever and governments are taking steps to expedite their shipment, including lifting hourly restrictions for truckers. This can be good news for trucking companies and small business owners in relevant industries.
Workforce Management Challenges
Small and medium-sized businesses of all stripes have to overcome temporary workforce management challenges from the coronavirus outbreak. This respiratory illness poses a threat to employees’ health and safety and employers have a responsibility to protect their employees and slow the spread of the illness. At the same time, they have to keep their businesses running. Balancing these priorities is one of the greatest challenges that business owners have to overcome.
Whether they have coronavirus or any other illness, sick employees are less productive. As the respiratory illness spreads across the country, odds are that some of your employees will become ill. This can hurt your business, especially if you do not take steps to prevent the affected employees from infecting the entire team. You may be able to compensate for a few sick employees, but your whole team getting sick at once could cripple your business.
At the same time, you may find employees’ performance dropping even if they are in perfect health. Scared, preoccupied people tend to do less work, after all. If you are not taking the right steps to protect and inform your team members, they are more likely to be less productive and could start harboring resentment against you as an employer. Prioritizing productivity and “business-as-usual” amid the outbreak can end up backfiring and hurting your business more than being proactive and protective of your employees.
When you are moving towards remote work – which is a good idea for small and medium-sized businesses that are not brick-and-mortars – you will have to adapt your business to work on a work from home basis. If you do not normally allow employees to work from home, the adjustment will be harder to make. And even if you do have flexible work policies, your business is probably not set up to be 100% remote and you will still have to revamp your project management. You may see some process challenges and drops in productivity initially, though we will explore how to smooth the transition later so you can let your employees stay at home while keeping your business operations running efficiently.
Decreased Business – Especially for B&Ms
As stock markets drop and the economy contracts, many if not most small and medium-sized businesses will simply do less business. Everyone gets more conservative with their spending during a health crisis, from everyday people who stay home to companies that hold off on expansions and new partnerships. The coronavirus outbreak will hurt brick-and-mortar business owners the hardest, as customers may stop coming at all and storefronts might be ordered shut by local governments or even Washington DC.
Finding alternative revenue sources, engaging loyal customers, and acquiring funding will become a life-and-death matter for many small business owners over the coming months. There’s simply no sugar-coating it. But just about any small business will be able to overcome temporary drops in demand with the right funding (especially with lowered interest rates) and the right business strategy. While customers might stay home and save today, they’ll have that much more to spend once the respiratory illness has breathed its last.
Silver Linings for Small Business Owners
We won’t lie, things are looking pretty grim for small and medium businesses. But there is reason to hope and even some serious silver linings to the coronavirus outbreak that are worth remembering.
Many small business owners are seeing their revenue dry up, their supply chain break to smithereens, and their business operations grind to a halt. But some are experiencing just the opposite. If you are lucky enough to offer solutions to problems people or businesses face due to the respiratory illness, then your business could be booming. After all, imagine what it would be like to be a face-mask or alcohol-based hand-sanitizer company right now.
Yeah, those guys have it made. And if that’s you – we’re not quite sure why you’re reading this article: go out and help those out in need!
But you don’t have to be a literal face-mask-salesman to find business opportunity amid the outbreak. Just think about how you can position yourself as a problem-solver in the outbreak-market. What pain points are people and companies facing that you can help with? As you know, business owners are hurting right now: if you offer B2B solutions, you can grow your business right now. And people might be scared and unwilling to spend right now – but if you offer them any security or comfort, they will gladly give you their business. It sounds crass, but scared people will spend more of their money on things that will help them in this crisis. Or on gift cards that help them look forward to brighter days.
With a creative mindset and correct positioning, many small and medium-sized businesses can overcome temporary hurdles and thrive during the outbreak.
Not to mention, it is hard for everyone right now. That means that all you have to do is handle the outbreak better than your competitors and you will set yourself up to dominate the market when things start returning to normal. That includes investing in your business while interest rates are low so you hit the ground running rather than having to rebuild your business operations.
The biggest silver lining to the outbreak has to be the economic stimulus coming from Washington DC and some state governments. The White House recently directed 50 billion new dollars for Small Business Administration loans. The Small Business Association (SBA) partners with lenders like Strategic Capital to offer lower-interest, safer loans. By reducing the risk for lenders by guaranteeing the loans, the SBA helps small businesses qualify for bigger loans and better interest rates. Now that there are another 50 billion dollars available as part of the program, small business loans are easier to get than ever.
Those 50 billion dollars will help small business owners not only overcome temporary challenges but grow their businesses in the long term.
In addition to the Small Business Administration funding, Washington DC has approved an $8 billion emergency funding package for small businesses. Some of this money goes to the SBA, while most of it goes directly to small and medium-sized businesses.
Perhaps more significantly, the Federal Reserve (the Fed) slashed federal funds rates to between 0% and 0.25%. That’s the lowest they have been since 2015 and about on-par with the rates that the Obama administration established to help the economy recover after the 2008 crash. It also means that it is the perfect time for small business owners and private citizens to refinance their loans and to take out new financing.
Protect Your Team
Your top priority should be to protect your team members from the respiratory illness outbreak and take particular care not to expose them to unnecessary risk. Not only is it employers’ moral responsibility to protect their employees during the pandemic, but it is the right business decision as well. Employees will remember how businesses behaved during this crisis and you must put your best foot forward. Plus, sick or scared employees will not work as effectively as healthy, happy employees.
So, how can you protect your team without overly complicating your business operations?
If You Can, Let Employees Work from Home
The best way to protect your employees and remove any risk of being responsible for them getting sick is to let them stay home while they work. Adopting flexible work policies or closing your office and making employees work from home is the right choice if you have the luxury to make it.
You will also be surprised by how many meetings really could have been an email. Flexible work is the way of the future for many businesses and you won’t see your business operations fall apart just because your employees stay home – so long as you set up the right work from home processes.
Minimize Risk in the Workplace
Some small and medium-sized businesses are not able to let their employees stay home. Brick-and-mortar stores, restaurants, construction companies, and other, generally service-based, businesses need their employees to interact with clients directly, handle raw materials, or go out into the world to get their hands dirty. If that is the case for your business, you should stock up on alcohol-based hand sanitizer and prepare to minimize the risk of exposure in the workplace in every way that you can.
In every case, follow CDC, local government, and Washington DC guidelines for how you should handle business operations and protect your staff. Implement rigid cleaning guidelines, provide ready access to alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and enforce social distancing procedures including requiring that employees stay six feet away from each other and customers whenever possible. If employees need to interact directly with customers, such as manning a register or handling delivery, make sure they have hand sanitizer handy and use it regularly. And consider reducing and rotating your staff to minimize each employee’s exposure.
Direct them to the Proper Resources
Your duty as an employer does not end with making sure you aren’t responsible for infecting your employees. You should do everything you can to protect and inform your team members even when they are not at work. That includes communicating proactively and effectively with them to update them on any changes to company policies, government recommendations and regulations, and any relevant information that could help them stay safe and secure.
For example, make sure that your employees have access to the CDC Guidelines for protecting themselves and their families from the respiratory disease.
Also, provide moral leadership and comfort throughout the current crisis. Your employees will be scared, and they will be looking to you to reassure them that everything will be okay. While you do not want to downplay the coronavirus outbreak, you can inform your team members of any positive developments and all measures that you are taking to make sure that their jobs will be secure, no matter what.
Protect Your Business
You may already have a good idea of how to protect your business from the coronavirus outbreak from what we have covered so far. But the challenges that small and medium-sized businesses face is existential, so we thought that we should cover important steps that you should take to overcome temporary challenges and even grow your business.
Most small businesses are finding that customers are choosing to stay home and save rather than buy their products. While there may not be much that you can do about this, you can reassure them to the best of your ability so that they feel comfortable giving you their business.
Reach out to your loyal customers to remind them that you are here for them during this crisis while simultaneously assuaging any fears you may know they have about working with you. For example, explain your safety precautions to show them that any products they buy will not result in an infection. Or explain how your products will help their businesses or their families weather the coronavirus outbreak.
You should also provide them with the best practices in handling coronavirus. As with informing your employees, this will help them stay healthy (which means they can give you their business) and show them that you have their best interest at heart.
Finally, remember that many people want to support small business owners right now. So, show them how they can help. The solutions will depend on your specific business, but options include ordering products for delivery or purchasing gift cards to use once the outbreak subsides.
Funding to Keep Your Doors Open
At the end of the day, it may be impossible for you to generate enough revenue during the coronavirus outbreak to keep your business open, let alone set yourself up to hit the ground running once the pandemic stops and things start returning to normal. That’s why you must take a realistic look at your finances and see what weak points you need to address if you are going to overcome temporary challenges and emerge on the other side stronger than before.
Then, look for a financing partner to offer low-cost funding that keeps your business operations going. Given the rock-bottom Fed interest rates and expanded Small Business Administration loans, getting funding is going to be easier and lower risk than it has been in a long time. Ironically enough, this means that now might be the best possible time to invest in growing your business.
Evaluate Your Supply Chain
If you offer a physical product, now is the time to take a serious look at your supply chain. Identify any current challenges and predict what challenges you may face as the respiratory illness spreads and regulations increase. Whenever possible, stock up now so that you can overcome temporary supply chain disruptions. That might mean taking out an inventory loan or other financing. And establish backup plans to keep your supply chain intact even if one link gets broken.
Work from Home Correctly
Whether you have always allowed flexible work or this is the first time that your employees have gotten to stay home, you need to make sure your business operations will run smoothly once your entire team has started to work from home.
First of all, you should implement project management tools designed to help employees work from home effectively. There are some great articles on this topic already and we won’t go into too much depth here. But consider implementing the following technology solutions to help your employees work from home more effectively:
- Cloud-based project management: Establishes clear workflows and accountability
- Kanban Boards: Trello, Asana, and others help employees plan their tasks and managers assign work and track progress
- Video conferencing: WebEx, GoToMeeting, etc help remote teams have face-to-face meetings to keep the creativity and collaboration going
- Chat software: If you haven’t implemented Slack or a similar platform, now’s the time – it will help your team collaborate remotely without having to draft an email or schedule a meeting
Beyond technology, you need to establish clear workflows and a consistent meeting cadence to keep business operations running normally even as you implement work from home policies. Have weekly or daily “all-hands” video conferences on the team or company level to keep team members in touch with each other and stay on top of how things are progressing. Set up one-on-ones between managers and their team members regularly and meet with your managers daily. Things can slip through the cracks with disturbing ease once you work from home and proactive communication and accountability can minimize the damage.
The good news is that creating effective procedures now will have lasting benefits for your business – even when things return to normal and employees return to the office. You will run more efficiently than ever and will be very glad that you invested the time in putting the right processes in place today.
There’s no question that the coronavirus outbreak poses a significant threat to small and medium-sized businesses. But with the right funding, business strategy, and employee management, it is possible to not only survive but thrive even during the current crisis. Just remember to take care of your employees and your customers, position yourself as a problem-solver for issues that individuals and companies face from the outbreak, and prepare for challenges before they arise.
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