It seems as though 2020 isn’t going to give anyone a break from a crisis for more than five minutes. While it is certain we will make it through this coronavirus storm together as a country, there is no escaping the uncertainty of when that reprieve will arrive.
This is just as true for small- and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) as it is for everyone else.
That’s why I’ve put together a guide of best practices regarding several new realities (some of them harsher than others) facing SMBs during this outbreak, from work-from-home policies to potential layoffs.
Hopefully, these best practices will help you navigate these issues with better clarity so as to lessen the sting of an already-painful situation.
1. Work-from-home policies
When it comes to business interruptions due to any sort of crisis, working from home is the best-case scenario for your employees if you're able to offer it. That way, productivity is maintained as best as possible and you can avoid the difficult decision of either furloughing or laying off members of your staff.
We’ve never been more capable of remote work than we are now with the proliferation of project management software, team communication programs, video chat applications, and, of course, trusty old email.
Thanks to the widespread use of software as a service (SaaS) and cloud-based programs, entire workspaces have gone digital.
Work-from-home policy best practices
- Schedule check-in meeting times: When your staff is working remotely, it’s still important to keep up with regular meetings and check-ins. The best way to do this is to direct your team leads to set up regular meeting times with their individual teams. These meeting times can be determined based on a consensus of optimal free periods for all of the team members, so long as the digital gatherings still occur.
- Ensure data and device security: Since your workforce will no longer have the benefit of your centralized and secure network while at home, it’s important to educate and enforce basic data security practices. These practices include avoiding public Wi-Fi networks, or establishing a company-wide virtual private network (VPN) for your company to use while away from the office.
- Establish means of communication: Not only are meetings important, but regular communication is crucial for successful remote workforces. There are a whole host of team communication applications to choose from including Slack, Microsoft Teams, and even Google Hangouts if you’re looking to save some money.
- Set up dedicated work hours: Working from home still requires structure, and setting specific availability hours for work is crucial for ensuring work and information will be uninhibited by your new remote workforce. This means laying out boundaries for non-availability as well. As someone who has spent a lot of my career working in remote positions, it is easy to blur the lines between work and home, which is exhausting if it's not kept in check. The last thing you want to do is run your staff ragged because they feel pressured to be available around the clock.
2. Sick-leave policies
I understand that this is a controversial topic, especially for some SMBs that are struggling to make ends meet during this COVID-19 outbreak. Everyone is feeling the strain right now.
However, what will strain the system, even more, is the lack of a coherent sick-leave policy that forces employees to choose to either work and potentially spread a virus or practice social distancing and go without a paycheck.
Right now, sick leave is by the federal government in response to COVID-19, which is mandating new regulations that will impact SMBs. If your company employs anywhere from 50 to 500 employees, those staff workers are now eligible for two weeks of sick leave at the regular pay rate.
However, if your business employs fewer than 50 employees, you are eligible to apply for an exemption due to the strenuous imposition of these costs. Although businesses will have to front the costs of paid sick leave, the good news is that these companies will be eligible for reimbursement through tax credits.
If it is at all possible for your business to offer sick leave during this and other emergencies, here are a few best practices to keep in mind.
Sick-leave policy best practices
- Consider a PTO (paid time off) bank instead: Managing a sick days policy can be time-intensive and requires strict record-keeping rules. Instead of forming a designated sick leave system, why not create a centralized PTO bank based on accrued days that can be used flexibly for all kinds of needs? This central bank of paid time off frees up time you would otherwise spend policing the reasons for employees' absences, and puts the discretion back into the hands of your staff. This best practice is better suited for future reference rather than the here and now during the coronavirus crisis.
- Restrict access to work if the case is serious enough: This goes hand in hand with the idea of setting boundaries between work and home. If your employees must take sick leave and the case is serious enough, make sure you communicate the importance of staying disconnected and resting during this period in order to recover; you may even want to restrict an employee's access to work, if necessary. Without emphasizing this point, employees on sick leave might feel obligated to forgo the rest they need and continue working, which puts a strain on their recovery.
3. Furloughs and layoffs
These are the toughest outcomes to swallow during a crisis. Due to circumstances outside of the control of you or your employees, you might be forced to either furlough or layoff some of your staff in order to keep your business afloat.
Despite popular belief, the term layoff does not represent something permanent. A layoff is what happens when a business cannot shore up finances with the current staff size it is operating with and has to make cuts until those issues are dealt with.
Once the issues are resolved and finances are back on the upswing, it is possible these laid-off employees can be called back to work, barring the possibility they don’t find employment elsewhere first.
On the other hand, furloughing is used most often in reference to employees who are given (typically unpaid) leave from work during an offseason. Once the offseason concludes, these employees are brought back to work.
These employees can find other work in the meantime, perhaps joining the freelance workforce, but they know they’ll have a job once the offseason has ended.
Long story short, a furlough is far more certain, while a layoff is not. Choosing between the two during a time of crisis is up to you based on the needs and future of your business.
No one wants to do it, but it’s a potential reality you might find yourself in at some point, if not now, so if this is your first time dealing with this prospect, I’m here to offer some help. Here is some advice for working through these tumultuous waters.
Furlough and layoff best practices
- Be compassionate: No one wants to lose their job, especially during a time of uncertainty such as this. It’s one thing to send a stoic notice from your company’s HR department notifying your employees of their newly unpaid work status and it’s another to reach out with a voice of concern for their well-being. If there are possibilities for rehiring once the crisis is over, be sure to communicate that to those being let go. Don’t forget to leave the door open for questions and concerns throughout this time period, either, so you can understand how to proceed in the future.
- Abide by federal law: If your company is looking at mass layoffs in the realm of 50 or more employees during a 30-day period, then you are subject to regulations under the . This only applies to employees who’ve worked for your company for more than six months and work, on average, more than 20 hours a week. The WARN Act stipulates that employers must give employees who fall under these conditions a 60-day notice before a layoff is carried out. However, there are instances where these regulations are waived, as is the current case in . Make sure you’re not running afoul of any of these regulations while engaging in any layoffs.
- Communicate to those who survive the layoffs: Watching your coworkers lose their jobs is not easy and it creates a sense of fear over whether your job is next. As an employer, it is your duty to communicate to your remaining employees that you value their talents, and stress the fact that the layoffs were only due to unforeseen circumstances. Making massive shifts such as these have the possibility to affect the trust between you and your employees. Reaching out and communicating your regret and gratitude to those who are still with your company is a great first step in rebuilding that trust.
What’s next for SMBs in this crisis?
I wish I could answer this question with any level of certainty. With any luck and a healthy dose of social distancing, we can turn this global pandemic into a memory sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, hopefully, this guide will give your business the guidance it needs and will help you prepare for any future crises that may strike.