Want to reopen your company? Read this first
As businesses around the country once again open their doors, many leaders, employees, customers, and communities are asking themselves the same question: How can we reopen safely and successfully?
First, it should go without saying: Businesses should only reopen if they can enact safety measures such as socially-distanced desks or tables, staggered worker hours, temperature checks, and so forth. As Marty Makary, a surgeon and a professor of health policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, wrote in The New York Times: “If it’s not feasible for a business such as a cruise ship or an arcade to function with strict distancing, masks and impeccable hygiene, then that business should remain closed.”
However, for businesses — including offices and storefronts — that can adhere to such stringent public health guidelines, success depends upon more than keeping people healthy. Here are three additional steps leaders should take to ensure the next few weeks and months have the greatest shot at maintaining health, happiness, and profitability for all stakeholders.
Consider the Whole Person
Besides keeping workplaces clean and safe, leaders should consider employee and customer needs that are not so obvious. “Developing a plan to mitigate employee fears and concerns should be a top priority,” explained the members of Cushman & Wakefield’s recovery readiness task force. “People are worried about their personal health and the health of those they care about. They have anxieties about their jobs, the future of their organizations and even the future of their industries.”
Due to these many and varied concerns, leaders cannot focus simply on mitigating health and economic risks; instead, they must create a people-first plan that allows both employees and customers to feel emotionally secure about a company’s reopening. “[S]hared humanity at work can make all the difference in this crisis,” experts from Accenture wrote. “Companies need to go beyond the transactional to truly understand their employees if they want to create productive, inclusive and rewarding working environments for the long haul.”
This philosophy (which applies to customers, too) should include individualized policies that account for the unique circumstances faced by each employee. Hubert Joly, former CEO of Best Buy, shared some examples in the Harvard Business Review: Which employees are at the gravest health risk from Covid-19? Which employees crave social interaction? Which do not have the space to work from home efficiently? “A deeper understanding of workers’ needs, even individuals, beyond just safety will make for a better re-opening phase,” he wrote.
Whether it is with customers, employees, or shareholders, leaders must prioritize clear and frequent communication above all else. “You can’t go dark during this period no matter the situation you’re in,” Alissa Henriksen, co-president of a recruiting firm, told Inc. “The most important thing is communication.” That spans everything from signs that clarify how individuals should behave (stand six feet apart, only go one-way down a particular hallway) to internal memos that explain a company’s sick leave to social media blasts that highlight safety protocols to potential customers.
While information about reopening should be disseminated frequently, and on a variety of platforms, a company’s overall communication strategy can follow the same rulebook it always has. “Be honest and direct,” Steven Rubenstein, a PR professional and member of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s reopening advisory board, told PRNEWS. “Always have safety and care for your employees, teams, customers, and partners at the top of your list. Communicate clearly and often about what you are doing. Listen as much as you talk. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know something.”
One of Rubenstein’s last points — to listen as much as you talk — is of particular importance at this time: Communication should not be one-sided. Seattle’s popular Back to Work Toolkit, which includes insights from companies such as Starbucks, Microsoft, and Amazon, suggested leaders follow the latter company’s lead by taking a workforce’s “pulse” with a single question each day. “Listening to your employees, customers, vendors and partners during this time is critical for your future success,” Nicole Fallon added for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Have one-on-one conversations, share polls on social media and send out anonymous surveys via email to encourage your stakeholders to share their thoughts.”
A key component of any reopening plan is flexibility. No leader has ever endured this situation before, making missteps inevitable. Leaders need to be ready and willing to quickly adapt their businesses and reopening plans; they cannot simply return to the “new normal” and then stagnate. “What your customers may want from you going forward will likely look different than what they wanted from you before the pandemic,” Steve Strauss wrote in USA TODAY. “The answer? Be like a ball. Go where the new momentum takes you.”
Rather than viewing these impending changes with dread, however, leaders should view them as a chance to grow forward, into the future of business. “Plan for a phased return that responds to unforeseen events, slippage, and reversals,” suggested the authors at Accenture. “Take this opportunity to reengineer processes and to establish an agile operating model… Companies should see this not as a time to return to ‘normal,’ but an opportunity to rethink, reengineer and improve future operations.”
This can include reinventing the way employees work by adopting widespread telecommuting; reinventing employee benefits, such as childcare or family leave, so they better serve all stakeholders; or reinventing business models completely. In the wake of the coronavirus, companies of all sizes have pivoted: One Minnesota bakery, for example, developed a new product line that can be shipped anywhere in the country. “We thought it would be more beneficial to plan as though the crisis may continue and pivot in a way that we can appeal to a national audience instead of only local,” owner Nicole Pomije said. No matter what the future holds, agile decisions like Pomije’s will be vital to helping businesses succeed.
In the coming weeks and months, reopening businesses will remain challenging. Leaders will need an abundance of patience and caution, as well as the ability to recover from fumbles quickly. In addition to following public health guidelines, the companies with the most successful reopenings will put their people first, practice clear and frequent communication, and remain flexible and open to reinvention.
For some companies, perhaps, the coronavirus will lead to better ways of doing business — at least, Accenture seems to think so. “Reopening will be more than a restart,” its report stated. “It will be the beginning of a new era of business… Outmaneuvering uncertainty—by mitigating immediate challenges and building a better future—will create organizations that one day look back on the crisis as truly the darkness before the dawn.”