As COVID-19 spreads and anxiety grows, life for people across the world has changed rapidly in a short time. Across the UK, bars and restaurants have closed to dine-in customers, gyms and cinemas have shut their doors and office-based workforces have gone remote.
Just as businesses are impacted, so too are the wider communities in which they operate. While government and charitable organisations are on hand to help, there are also opportunities for business leaders to step in and help their communities, including employees, vulnerable populations, and other local businesses.
1. Take care of your own team the best you can
First and foremost, make sure that as a business leader you are following health guidelines when it comes to COVID-19, from ensuring operations are sanitised and disinfected to practising social distancing.
In businesses where employees can do their jobs remotely, make sure your systems are up to date so you can continue your operations. Recognise that it’s a sudden and anxiety-inducing shift for many employees so acknowledge the challenges of working from home and offer practical help such as a checklist on how to set up a home office.
Many businesses are finding the need to reduce their employees’ hours or eliminate jobs altogether. Wherever they can, businesses are urged to take care of their most vulnerable employees. “Do anything you can to support the lower income, hourly workers, at least over the next couple of weeks” says Chris Preston, vice president for corporate relations at United Way Worldwide, a not-for-profit that supports community initiatives globally.
2. Connect your team to resources and opportunities
If your business has to cut staff, share information with your employees about how and where they can find help. Official government advice is a good place to start or you can direct employees towards charities that can help with specific problems such as Citizens Advice. Industry bodies or local and regional associations can be a further source of information and support.
Many of the major supermarkets and also health retailers are now actively recruiting additional temporary staff to cope with increased demand. In some cases, the chains are working directly with businesses to prioritise staff at risk of losing their jobs as a result of the coronavirus shutdown.
Think laterally about where your staff could be deployed if your business cannot operate. Coach company Bakers Dolphin operates holidays in and from the UK. “With all international and UK travel in lockdown we have 50 drivers with no work and a business with very little income,” says managing director Max Fletcher.
A group of Baker Dolphin drivers are now being retrained to work as ambulance drivers with the Bristol Ambulance Emergency Medical Services, which expects to see demand for experienced drivers soar during the coronavirus outbreak.
“We set up a straight-forward agreement where we retain the drivers as employees and Bristol Ambulance have a contract with us to supply them,” says Fletcher. “Like most other businesses we are looking at ways that we can get through this and retain and support our employees so that they can come back to work with us when this is all over.”
3. Find ways to help keep vulnerable populations safe
According to the World Health Organization, older adults and people with pre-existing health conditions (such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease) are at a higher risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19.
In response, a number of retailers have established early-morning hours after the store has been cleaned when only older adults are allowed in to shop, in hopes of keeping them safe and to practise social distancing. Similarly, many food shops have special hours when key workers can shop so that they do not have to spend time queuing and can pick up supplies. Preston says that businesses should follow this example and offer specialised services, including free delivery options, to their higher-risk customers.
In London, the Yoox Net-a-Porter Group, which sells luxury fashion online through its Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter brands, is donating the use of its premier delivery vehicles to Age UK charities across the city. Chairman and CEO Federico Marchetti explains: “If you see them around, they won’t be carrying what you expect. They will be used to deliver essential food and medical supplies to the elderly.”
4. Organise a virtual fundraiser or volunteer effort
People need help now, and those needs are only going to grow as jobs are cut and bills mount.
Preston encourages businesses owners who are in the position to do so to reach out to local and national charities and determine what their needs are, and then organise a fundraiser or food drive with your team, if the team is able and willing.
For volunteer opportunities, a number of local and national initiatives are underway to channel support to those who are vulnerable or self-isolating. Volunteers can help remotely by managing helplines or sending digital messages to people who are quarantined in assisted living facilities for example, or offering remote administrative help to a charity. For those healthy and able to volunteer on the ground, there are opportunities with food delivery or pet fostering.
5. Help small businesses
Businesses everywhere are going through difficult times as a result of the coronavirus outbreak and lockdown. Even with social distancing practices now in place, Preston says it’s important to continue buying from other businesses if your business is willing and able to do so.
If you used to treat your team to lunch at the office once a week, consider treating them to lunch delivered to their homes for the time being. Many cafes and restaurants are now selling vouchers. Why not purchase some or your employees’ favourite local restaurants so they can treat themselves later?
Or if you’re saving money because you’re not commuting to work every day, is there another small business where you could spend instead and make a real difference to keeping them afloat? “If you’re not spending money in one place, think about how you can support others elsewhere,” says Preston.
While there’s certainly no silver lining to a pandemic such as COVID-19, there are lessons to be learned about what really matters. And one thing that matters, says Preston, is working together. Right now, people everywhere are stressed about what’s happening and about what’s to come. It’s an opportunity for a business leader to set an example. “Have grace with people,” he says. “This is a time where we can truly show the power of community.”