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Small Business and Self-Employed

How to protect your business and employees during the coronavirus pandemic

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In the event of a pandemic like the coronavirus, there’s a lot of uncertainty—especially in the workplace. You might not know how to keep your employees and customers safe and your business afloat yet. All you know is that toilet paper is hard to come by and health organizations are encouraging anyone who’s sick to stay home.

First, don’t panic. Panic creates fear, and fear results in rash decisions. Keep a close eye on the websites of health organizations for real-time updates, developments, and recommendations.

Then develop a task force—one person or a team of employees dedicated to tracking the progression of the disease and keeping workers safe. The task force should monitor the situation closely, communicate updates to employees regularly, and answer any questions workers might have.

This task force should also be responsible for creating an epidemic health policy. The policy should detail when you expect employees to stay home, any travel precautions they must take, and who to talk to if they have questions or concerns.

Of course, these policies vary and ultimately need to work for your business and your employees. When in doubt, start with the recommendations of health organizations.

Once you’ve taken a few deep breaths and organized your task force, turn your focus to prevention.

5 steps for basic prevention

1. Wash your hands

The coronavirus travels on droplets of mucus or saliva, most likely from a cough or a sneeze, and enters through your eyes, nose, or mouth. Health organizations recommend washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds at regular intervals throughout the day, especially after you’ve been in public. In addition to that:

  • Avoid touching your face, even with clean hands.
  • Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, and wash your hands immediately.
  • If soap and water aren’t available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Post hand-washing reminders and instructions throughout your workplace as a reminder for employees.

2. Disinfect surfaces often

Viruses can live on metal, glass, or plastic surfaces for up to nine days. A person who touches that surface could become infected or carry the virus to another surface. Health organizations recommend disinfecting your working and living spaces daily, using a disinfectant. Common surfaces include tables, desks, doorknobs, light switches, phones, and keyboards.

Consider providing the necessary supplies, like hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, for your employees. Not only are workers more likely to use the supplies on hand, but you can also ensure they’re using the right products.

3. Keep a safe distance

Maintain a 3- to 6-foot (1-2 meter) distance between yourself and others, especially if they’ve exhibited signs of being sick. Health organizations recommend avoiding close contact with anyone if the coronavirus is spreading in your community. This is especially important for those who are at higher risk of getting sick.

4. Send sick employees home right away

It’s always better to be safe than sorry. If an employee is coughing, blowing their nose, or sneezing, it’s wise to send them home. Do this even if you’re not sure they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus.

In fact, now is a good time to review your sick leave policies with your employees. Health organizations recommend ensuring that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance. If employees get sick, they need to know they can stay home without fear of retaliation.

5. Get a good night’s sleep

It’s possible that the threat of the coronavirus is keeping you up at night. But getting a good night’s sleep is vital for your mental and physical health. It’s also essential for keeping your immune system strong to fight against viruses.

Health organizations suggest that adults get at least seven hours of sleep a night.

5 ways to practice comprehensive prevention

1. Restrict non-essential business travel

Airports and other crowded locations can increase your risk of exposure to the coronavirus. There may be other travelers who have been exposed and now carry the virus without knowing it. Remember, the virus can live for nine days on a surface. Play it safe by restricting all non-essential business travel. Exposure aside, you run the risk of employees getting quarantined in another state or country.

Health organizations recommend asking six questions before you travel through an airport:

  1. Is COVID-19 spreading where you’re going?
  2. Will I be in close contact with other people during my trip?
  3. Am I at a higher risk of severe illness if I become infected by the coronavirus?
  4. Would asking to take time off from work upon my return impact my job or livelihood?
  5. Do I live with someone who is older or has a chronic health condition?
  6. Is COVID-19 spreading where I live?

If you answered yes to any of the above, don’t travel. Instead, find virtual ways to accomplish the same tasks. Send an email, conduct a video conference, or pick up the phone.

2. Take extra precautions with travelers returning home

Travelers returning home should abide by after-travel health precautions. These precautions are especially important for travelers returning from high-risk countries like China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea.

But all returning travelers should consider following these recommendations:

  • Stay home for a minimum of 14 days.
  • Take your temperature two times a day and monitor for fever. If your temperature reaches 100.4 degrees (38 degrees Celsius) or higher, or you experience cough or trouble breathing, seek medical care immediately.
  • Avoid contact with others.
  • Do not take public transportation, taxis, or ride-shares.
  • Avoid crowded places and limit activities in public.
  • Keep your distance—about 6 feet (2 meters).
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3. Rethink events and large gatherings

For many business owners, trade shows, craft fairs, and events make up a major part of their annual revenue.

But when it comes to large gatherings of people, health organizations are clear: It’s not a good idea.

For that reason, major corporations like Facebook and Google have already canceled highly anticipated annual events. And many small business owners are following suit—and following official recommendations from health authorities.

Health organizations officially recommend that no gatherings with 50 or more people take place for at least eight weeks, or until mid-May. This includes conferences, parades, concerts, sporting events, and even weddings.

Additionally, health organizations say that as the outbreak progresses, “officials may ask you to modify, postpone, or cancel large events for the safety and well-being of your event staff, participants, and the community.”

If you plan to move forward with smaller events, there are a few things health organizations say you should do.

  • Provide prevention supplies at the event. This includes sinks with soap, hand sanitizer, tissues, and disinfectant wipes.
  • Plan for staff absences. Your event staff need to stay home if they feel sick. Identify critical job functions and plan for alternative coverage by cross-training your staff.
  • Discourage people who are sick from attending. And request attendees leave the event if they start to experience symptoms.
  • Identify an isolation zone. Designate a separate space for staff and attendees who start to feel sick but can’t leave immediately.
  • Limit in-person contact. Consider staggering shifts for staff who support essential roles, and don’t shake hands with anyone.
  • Develop a refund policy for participants who are sick, need to care for a sick person, or are at high risk of infection and cannot attend your event. Be flexible for those who simply don’t feel comfortable attending.
  • Accept that you may need to cancel your event and plan accordingly.
  • For events planned in March, April, or early May, consider canceling the in-person portion. Focus instead on creating a fulfilling, value-packed virtual experience for attendees.

4. Consider asking employees to work from home

If the nature of your business allows employees to work remotely, consider asking them to work from home. Just make sure employees have the right tools and equipment to work effectively. This includes access to instant messaging apps, video conferencing tools, and reliable internet access. For many workers, equipment needed includes a laptop, computer monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

Make sure your employees have plenty of guidance when it comes to setting up their home office. Create a checklist that details what they’ll need, how they’ll get it, and who they can call if they need technical support.

Health organizations recommend making sure you have the right information technology and infrastructure needed to support employees working from home. If your team isn’t familiar with remote work, make sure you have taken the right precautions to keep your business data safe. Precautions include:

  • Avoiding public networks.
  • Working in a private space and being mindful about confidential information.
  • Using a privacy screen for your laptop.
  • Working from home, not a co-working space or coffee shop.
  • Finally, set clear expectations for all employees when working from home. Remind them that they still need to be available during regular business hours and participate in meetings. If working from home isn’t an option, establish flexible hours to decrease the time workers spend in large groups.

3 ways to minimize financial hardship

1. Have a backup plan for operations

For many businesses, the coronavirus is impacting revenue. Manufacturing centers in China are ceasing operations. Tourists and travelers are canceling trips. On a global scale, millions of employees are being asked to work from home, restrict their public access, and avoid contact with other people. For businesses that rely on foot traffic, storefronts, or face-to-face interactions, these restrictions are also restricting cash flow. The Small Business Development Corporation in Australia has some advice.

  • Build a business continuity plan
  • This type of plan helps you document how your business will weather the pandemic and any operational disruptions you might encounter.
  • Prepare for operational disruptions
  • If you or your employees get sick and need to self-isolate for at least two weeks, you need to have a business strategy. Create a chain of command among team members to keep business moving forward without you or integral members of your staff.
  • Build a supply continuity plan
  • Businesses relying on imported products could experience major disruptions for some time. Plan for the possibility of delays on distribution and look into whether you can source products or materials from unaffected places. If that’s not an option, find creative ways to mitigate the damage.

2. Embrace e-commerce

There’s no time like the present to embrace e-commerce. If you sell products, now is the time to ramp up your online presence. Consider running special online-only offers to drive more customers to your virtual storefront. If you’re a service-based business, offering e-gift cards is a great way to keep revenue flowing in and customers on call. If you run a restaurant, consider offering delivery services.

If your business hasn’t yet tapped the online market, look into online marketplaces like Etsy, Amazon, or eBay to quickly and easily launch and sell your products. Tap into local markets using Facebook Marketplace, NextDoor, or even Craigslist. Above all, choose the online marketplace that makes the most sense for your products and services, will give you the best return on your dollar, and draw the largest crowd.

If you’re already online or ready to launch your e-commerce website, there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Think about how your customers will find you on search engines. If you’re rusty on best SEO practices, now is a good time to brush up. Use keyword tools to help you optimize your page, and focus on providing valuable content.
  • Set up and use Google Analytics to see who’s viewing your website, which pages they’re spending the most time on, and how long they’re staying on your site. Use that info to better understand your customers and the products they’re most interested in.
  • Leverage social media and digital marketing to drive traffic and create buzz around your brand. Focus on the social media platforms your customers use the most. Use social tools like Buffer or HootSuite to manage your accounts and automate your social marketing.
  • Use online advertising to target new customers who are most likely to purchase your products or services. Google Ads and paid social media ads drive new leads to your site while allowing you to set your own budget.

3. Communicate with your customers

It’s critical to communicate openly with your customers during this time. Keep them in the loop on the status of your operations. Then share with them the preventative measures you’ve implemented and how they’ll be protected when they visit your business or purchase your products. Assure your customers that you’ve done all you can to keep business moving forward, but alert them to any potential complications or delays early on.

  • Work with your team to develop consistent messaging and assign official spokespeople.
  • Stay in touch with your customers regularly and give them an easy way to ask questions or voice concerns.
  • Don’t answer questions you don’t have answers for, and consult a legal team when necessary.
  • Use the right tools to communicate with your audience. Some options include calling, texting, email, direct mail, website updates, and social media. Choose the communication system that makes sense for your customers.

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