The reservation cancellations came fast and furious at Plumed Horse, reaching more than 1,000 in a matter of weeks. Josh Weeks, who owns the fine-dining restaurant in Saratoga, California, saw his weekday seatings plummet by 50 percent as reactions to COVID-19 led to closed offices, canceled conventions and halted travel. He knew he needed to do something to give diners and staff peace of mind, so he reduced his tables by 50 percent in order to allow for six feet between each, and his team called every guest with a future reservation to let them know. He also put an employee in charge of sanitizing menus, doors, chairs and anything else a guest comes into contact with, and assured his team that if they got sick and stayed home, they would still be paid. “In the absence of direction, you have to show leadership and it starts with taking care of the staff in extraordinary times,” says Weeks.
While adaptive, even the most thoughtful plans, like Weeks's, can become dated at a moment's notice. Government mandates, such as the shelter-in-place order in San Francisco and the restaurant and bar closing order in NY, NJ and CT, have forced some businesses to completely close shop. The ones that remain open have to cut through the confusion to communicate whether and to what degree they'll remain open.
Tom Sullivan, vice president of small business policy with U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says it’s important for these businesses to take a parenting role in laying out the rules and expectations right now. “That parent is looked to for calm, for relying on factually-based information and taking decisive action and communicating that to their family,” says Sullivan.
I spoke with business owners across the country about how they’re communicating when it comes to the current health crisis. They shared advice on transparency, flexibility, sick policies and more. While much is still unknown about the impact of coronavirus, this advice can help other business owners know where to start.
Many small-business owners are taking extra precautions when it comes to cleanliness, to try and thwart the spread of the virus. At Evo Italian restaurant in Tequesta, Florida, executive chef/restaurateur Erik Pettersen is ramping up hygiene measures by installing no-touch hand sanitizer dispensers, re-training the staff on sanitary procedures and requiring kitchen staff to wear masks while preparing meals. He says it’s important for small-business owners to inform their customers about cleaning precautions. “The health and safety of our guests is our top priority, so we immediately put out a statement on all our social media sites and website to let our guests know about what we've changed at the restaurant and what we are doing to combat the coronavirus. We did this because transparency is one of the most important things to us and we feel like we owe it to our guests to be up front and honest,” says Pettersen.
1. Be flexible.
North American Training Solutions (NATS) in Douglas, Massachusetts, provides environmental health and safety training around the country. With the spread of coronavirus, CEO and president Ed Carpenter and his team decided to minimize travel and focus instead on regional or remote trainings, when possible. Carpenter says he's keeping the NATS team and clients informed of the changes, and says other business leaders should do the same. “It is critical to inform and align your entire team in your response to the evolving situation. Understanding everyone on your team is impacted in some way, whether it be professionally or personally, this open line of communication will help alleviate stress and ultimately increase resiliency to continue to perform effectively in their role,” he says.
2. Talk about the elephant(s) in the room.
Governments around the world are issuing new mandates to close businesses or cease gatherings of 50+ people daily, raising anxiety levels in business owners who wonder if they’ll be affected next. Right now, a lot is still unknown. Samantha Ettus, founder and CEO of Park Place Payments, a financial tech startup based in Woodland Hills, California that's dedicated to women who want to re-enter the workforce, says that business leaders must be up front with employees. “Uncertainty breeds terror. Let your team know how you are thinking about the climate and what it means to your business and their future,” she says.
Sullivan points out that in many businesses, employees and bosses feel like family, and that can make it easier to have candid conversations as changes arise. He says business owners should sit down with their employees and talk about contingency plans for different scenarios from supply chain management to childcare for employees: “They should be planning on how to be flexible with sourcing, for instance, if they’re relying on sourcing in their supply chain from some hot spots around the world. They’ve got to think about what happens if all their employees’ children’s schools are closed, and have those conversations,” he says.
Carpenter adds that when possible, business owners should include employees when making decisions right now. “As a small-business owner, I understand the importance of incorporating the experience and expertise of our team members to best address situations regardless of their size or anticipated outcome. No one alone is better than all of us together. This mantra has served us well as an organization, and continues to do so as we prepare ourselves to successfully deal with the unknown,” he says.
3. Find ways to work together.
In mid-March, when Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker announced that all restaurants and bars in Illinois would be closing to dine-in customers, Jennifer Galdes, who owns the Chicago PR firm Grapevine, wanted to help. Many of the restaurants were opting to switch to delivery or curbside pickup, so she started to make a spreadsheet letting customers know what’s available and how to place orders. Sean Lynch, a senior product manager at a Chicago digital agency, was compiling a similar list. The two found one another on Twitter and decided to collaborate. The result is Dining at a Distance, which has hundreds of Chicago restaurant listings, and also notes if that restaurant offers gift cards (many customers are opting to purchase gift cards to help a restaurant with immediate cash flow, knowing they can enjoy the meal later). “We’re in uncharted territories and there are going to be very difficult decisions being made in the coming days and weeks for our hospitality community,” says Galdes, who says she plans to scale the efforts to other cities, too. “By pulling this together I hope we can offer a little bit of support during this very tenuous time.”
4. Be clear about your sick policy.
It’s imperative right now that business leaders explicitly state their sick policies, says Sullivan: if you don’t feel well, don’t come in. “It’s no longer said after the fact—'please go home.’ Instead, it’s ‘please stay home,’” he says.
Ramon Padilla, founder and creative director of EverTrue Microblading Salons, which has locations in New York City and Chicago, adds that it’s important to communicate the sick policy to clients as well as staff. He posted the salon’s hygiene policies, including the sick policy, to his business’ social media accounts, stating that clients who appear visibly ill will be sent home. “It's a balance between wanting an ‘abundance of caution,’ but also realizing that people still need to make a living, and the answer isn't just to close up shop and hope things work themselves out,” says Padilla. In order to keep operating, business owners must take measures to protect their team.
No one alone is better than all of us together. This mantra has served us well as an organization, and continues to do so as we prepare ourselves to successfully deal with the unknown.
—Ed Carpenter, CEO and president, North American Training Solutions
Some businesses are taking proactive measures to prevent the spread by encouraging employees to self-report if they or members of their household have experienced any symptoms. Understanding the risk exposure of their employees can help business owners make decisions that not only keep their own teams safe, but contribute to flattening the overall curve.
Additionally, businesses with suspended operations are finding ways to ensure more than their employees' good health. Some that are financially insulated from extended closures are extending sick leave to employees. Relief policies are being discussed at the local, state and federal levels, but out-of-work employees are feeling the immediate effects of cut hours have prompted some business owners to find ways to stretch their now-limited dollars.
5. Keep calm.
Paris Chanel, CEO of The Paris Chanel Agency, a modeling, talent and marketing agency in Memphis, Tennessee, says at her office, she’s emphasizing the importance of frequent hand washing, staying home when sick and keeping cleaning products at the ready. But it’s also important, she says, for business owners to remember that their staff looks to them as an example. “Stay calm and continue to run your business,” she says. “If your employees see you in a state of panic, then they will panic. That’s no good for anyone.”
While it’s true that times are uncertain, Sullivan is optimistic that this will pass, and entrepreneurs will come out stronger on the other side. “Businesses have always overcome adversity. It is what makes free enterprise great in this country, and this is no different,” he says.
In the meantime, amid all the unknowns, people like Pettersen will be saving customers a spot at the table at Evo Italian—because that’s what business owners do. “My joy will be found making a great food for people who are scared or in crisis,” says Pettersen. “That's how I can make a bad situation better.”
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