Business owners are finding bottom lines further stretched by reentry costs.
Business owners are finding bottom lines further stretched by reentry costs. AFP / ADRIAN DENNIS

When COVID-19 shut down businesses in New York City in mid-March, Mera McGrew's natural soap company Soapply was just hitting its stride. Inspired by her experiences working for a tour operator in Africa -- where she saw first-hand how the simple act of washing hands could save lives -- the four-year-old firm had grown into a thriving enterprise. Then, as the notion of proper handwashing resonated throughout the world in the spring, demand for Soapply products took off.

By mid-March and April, when orders peaked, her staff was working from home -- harder than ever -- to keep up. Taking deliveries and shipping orders fell to McGrew, who was the only one still heading into the office. "It was just me packing up box after box," she remembers.

Now that New York City, along with much of the rest of the country, is reopening, McGrew is realizing those solo days in the office may have been just the beginning of COVID-19-related challenges. Reentry may be even harder as McGrew grapples with bringing back staffers safely, setting up more permanent work-at-home systems, and, most important, keeping her plans for her company's future on track.

The Cost of Coming Back

Already strapped from record-breaking lost revenues, business owners are now struggling with the increased costs of starting up again, even as the virus persists. Owners are struggling to implement solid safety measures for employees and customers while trying to make sense of an array of government rules and recommendations.

Whether it's scrambling to source the plastic shields to separate work stations, hiring deep-clean services to scrub between shifts, or purchasing the tech necessary to let some employees permanently work at home, owners are finding bottom lines further stretched by reentry costs as they also deal with continued lost revenue from the slow process of getting "back to normal."

What's more, as most business owners realize, reopening can be a matter of life and death.

"For many employers, addressing safety concerns about COVID-19 is going to represent incremental and unexpected costs," says Jeffrey Levin-Scherz, co-leader of health management practice at Willis Towers Watson. "But not addressing these concerns could lead to higher costs in the future and reputational injury. Protecting employees from COVID-19 exposure isn't something that's just nice to have, it's imperative."

True enough. But how to actually manage one more expense at a time when most firms are simply trying to stay in business? Here are some strategies to help.

Reshape Your Work Space

Leasing office or retail space is almost always a business owner's largest expense. The idea of expanding the premises to maintain social distancing is pretty much out of the question for most businesses, whether it's a florist shop, a toy manufacturer, or an accountant's office. Instead, it "means making the best use of the space you have and rethinking who uses the office when," says Rhiannon Staples, Chief Marketing Officer of Hibob, a people management platform.

That may entail moving from open space to safe space. For at least a decade, businesses of all sizes have moved to open-space architecture, replacing closed offices and designated cubicles with flexible, cost-efficient, shared work stations or unassigned "hot desks." In a matter of months COVID-19 has upended that dynamic, says Staples.

Now owners may find the best way to socially distance is to have only a portion of the workforce in the office at a time. Depending on your business, this may mean keeping a portion of workers remote permanently or rotating workers by the day or week into and out of the office with deep cleans in between rotations, suggests Levin-Scherz. "Rotating schedules may be the most cost-effective way to bring workers back safely. He adds that common spaces, such as conference rooms and break rooms will need to be shut down or used with social distancing. "Video meetings will be the norm, even when staff returns," he says.

Rethink Shifts

Manufacturing companies have an increased burden to adjust shift workers who are likely working in close quarters. Keith Strachan, president and co-founder at MediPharm Labs, a producer of pharmaceutical quality cannabis concentrates in Berry, Ontario, is fortunate that his manufacturing staff already works in a clean workspace and is fully outfitted in personal protection equipment.

Even so, Strachan eliminated the half-hour overlap period when the working shift hands over production to the incoming shift as he slowly brings back workers to about two-thirds of capacity. Now, there is an hour break in-between shifts. "That way your exposure is limited to only the people on your shift," says Strachan.

Take It Slow

Business owners with office workers need to be just as careful as manufacturers in staggering employee movements. At Soapply, for instance, McGrew with the help of her building management has installed Plexiglass, instituted a rule that only two people can be in the elevator at a time, separated the two stairwells into up only and down only, and, of course, provide masks for all employees. "Being a soap company built around hand-washing and public health, we obviously take this seriously," says McGrew. "I scrub into work as if I'm a surgeon."

Technically, as an essential business (a soap supplier), Soapply could have kept its entire workforce coming in, but McGrew didn't want to put her people in jeopardy. Just before New York City entered Phase 2 of reopening on June 22, it was only McGrew and one other person in the office. Now she's hoping to bring back more of her staff, but only those that she considers necessary for fulfillment. "If we lose out on some sales, that's a small price to pay for being careful," she says.

Offer Paid Sick Leave (Even If It's Not Required by Law)

Yes, you need to stock up on masks, gloves and cleaning supplies. But the very best way to prevent any illness in the work place, let alone a highly contagious one like COVID-19, is to encourage sick employees to stay home, says Levin-Scherz. And they're more likely to do so if it won't adversely affect their income.

And it might not affect yours that much, either. "Pre-pandemic we saw lots of evidence that paid sick leave is not as costly as employers may think," Levin-Scherz explains. He has seen a number of clients become more willing to consider paid sick leave, due to the serious nature of the virus: One in four adult workers is vulnerable to severe illness due to COVID-19, according to an analysis from Kaiser Family Foundation. "Not having the spread of illness is an enormous business benefit," he notes.

Avoid the Temptation to Spy on Remote Employees

Something that business owners have learned these past months: managing remote employees entails far more than buying them a laptop and sending them home. "If you continue with performance reviews and goal setting, productivity will stay high," Staples maintains.

Nevertheless, some companies have turned to surveillance technology to monitor at-home workers' output. Already common for remote workers in technology and finance industries to ensure compliance, these systems are becoming popular with companies in all sectors to make sure their employees are working when they are out of sight.

This is a damaging tactic, says Staples, especially now, when so many employees are adjusting to families all being home at the same time and grappling with health concerns and other pandemic- related stresses.

But even without the pandemic, Staples maintains surveillance is not a proxy for good leadership. "Seeing someone's screen grab or watching them on a web cam is not an indicator of productivity," she maintains. "Productivity should be based on outcomes."

While this technology may seem like a short-term fix, Staples believes in the long run it will erode your employees' trust, kill morale, and ultimately detract from your brand.

Take the Long View

Coming back won't be a single step, but an ongoing process for business owners. "Reentry will entail rethinking so many of the ways we view safety, productivity and management for years to come," says Staples.

And smart proprietors are already baking it into their business plan. "There are unexpected expenses that have come up. We have changed the model of our company in terms of how much money we have in the bank," McGrew says. "But there are opportunities. The important thing to do is look at our business model pre-COVID and figure out exactly what that looks like now."