As the novel coronavirus rolled across America, organizations focused their energies on responding to the crisis. In a matter of days or weeks, they laid off, furloughed or sent employees home to work, addressed the technological needs required to continue operations with a remote worker base and scrambled to figure out how to lead in an unprecedented business climate.
Now, as attention turns to reopening the economy, businesses must consider a new set of workforce challenges, where COVID-19 still looms and there’s no clear model for recovery. In effect, businesses will have to determine how to operate in an environment where crisis is the new normal.
Small business owners have numerous issues to deal with as they contemplate recovery. How they respond to this second phase of the crisis, both in learning from the experience and making smart decisions going forward, will determine whether they emerge stronger when the pandemic finally loosens its grip.
Recognizing that their people are their greatest asset, leaders need to give special attention to their workforce in five strategic areas:
- Workplace returns. Considering that COVID-19 will be with us for months to come and that many organizations have found ways to operate effectively with a home-based workforce, there’s not necessarily a rush to reintegrate employees into the traditional job site. Company leaders should consider scenarios that best fit their business’s and their employees’ needs, including:
- Keeping all employees at home for the foreseeable future
- Bringing back only essential employees
- Phasing workers’ returns over weeks or months
- Scheduling employees to work in shifts
- Alternating employee groups with one-week-on-site, one-week-at-home schedules
Short- and long-term employment needs. Many companies have struggled during the crisis; others have seen market demand increase. During the recovery phase, small business owners should reexamine their workforces to make sure people’s jobs align with the organization’s most vital business priorities. Only then will the organization be positioned to thrive when the economy is again fully open. Owners may need to reduce or increase their workforces, expand certain teams while downsizing others or initiate new skills training that poises employees to respond to anticipated opportunities.
Small businesses that already have had or will have to lay off employees due to the coronavirus-driven downturn must understand that these reductions will have an emotional impact on remaining employees. Leaders in these companies should give thought to how they will communicate changes, maintain employee loyalty and rebuild their culture in the uncertain times ahead.
Those who are hiring will need to consider how they will interview and onboard new employees in a deeply transformed environment.
- Safety, security and productivity. If employees don’t feel physically safe in the workplace – certainly a concern when people are being asked to return to a worksite while a highly contagious virus is still circulating – or they fear their jobs may not be secure, these distractions are likely to affect their productivity. As the recovery process begins, companies should regularly and unequivocally reinforce their commitment to employee care. This includes:
- Taking steps to keep employees physically safe, such as implementing sanitization measures, providing personal protective equipment and redesigning workspaces to permit social distancing.
- Communicating honestly about the company’s status and employee job stability, but without heightening employees’ fears. If the company’s financial position is precarious, communications should focus on leaders’ plans to rebuild and help employees see how they can contribute to that effort.
- Supporting employees emotionally and psychologically by encouraging them to access employee assistance plans, initiating open discussions about how they’re feeling and providing resources that meet individualized needs.
Re-engagement in the mission. More than four out of five workers have been affected by pandemic-related lockdowns. Employees who have been working remotely for upwards of two months can be expected to feel some disconnect from the company’s mission. And, just as COVID-19 has altered nearly everything else in our lives, it may have changed some small businesses’ missions and priorities.
As business owners contemplate their recovery plans, outlining the company’s mission – whether it has changed or not – is necessary to reconnect employees to the organization’s priorities and to help them attach their current and future work to goals and outcomes. Leaders will need to reinforce the value of team members’ contributions and, if the company plans to alter some workers’ roles, provide context and rationale that help employees understand the importance of these new responsibilities to the company’s resiliency.
Reconfiguring how work gets done and who does it. America’s remote workforce already was on a steady growth trajectory. COVID-19 put the trend on steroids, turning the U.S. into a nearly complete nation of telecommuters in a matter of weeks. As the recovery phase begins, employees may well return to the workplace, albeit at a measured pace. Or they may not. Many smaller businesses discovered that employees could continue to work productively off-site, and many of their workers liked having more personal time available because they no longer had to invest it in morning and evening commutes.
Which begs the question: In the new normal, could a reconfigured workforce perform as well and be just as productive as the pre-coronavirus workforce? Business owners should consider not only where work gets done in the future, but whether the workforce should be structured differently than in the past, including the possibility of moving some employees to contract status or engaging freelance or gig economy workers.
Even a few months ago, we couldn’t have foreseen how the spread of COVID-19 would change the ways we live and work. A company’s recovery process, handled thoughtfully and strategically, will move the organization from its initial pandemic response to what its new normal will be as the crisis continues. Small business owners should use the recovery phase to reevaluate workforce issues, integrate what they’ve learned and help employees make the connection between their contributions and the company’s mission. Those who do will have taken a giant step forward in affirming their future competitiveness.