The winter of 2014 is the season that's introduced us all to the concept of the polar vortex and reminded us just how brutal the weather can be. Whether it's snow, ice, paralyzing cold, hurricane-strength winds or rising flood waters, your small business needs a bad weather policy to ensure that business gets taken care of while you and your workforce remain safe.
Follow this four-step plan to stay productive even during the worst that Old Man Winter can throw at you:
1. Formulate a written strategy. Don't wait until there's a foot-and-a-half of snow on the ground or massive power outages from ice-laden lines to throw together a bad weather plan. You won't be able to draft something for every possible scenario, but think in terms of general concepts, such as best practices for shutting down for a period of time or opening later than normal and letting affected employees, customers and clients know about the changes.
2. Follow the leader. Decide who makes the call to interrupt the normal routine because of bad weather. Will you, the business owner, call the shots, or will a team of people collaborate and make a decision?
Another option is to mimic the decisions of the large governing bodies where your business is located. Maybe you'll close or delay exactly as your local school district does. Or you might take your cues from your city government and follow its choices. While that makes winter weather decisions easy for you, it doesn't allow you much leeway if you think they're being overly cautious.
3. Effectively communicate with employees and customers. Once a decision has been made to modify standard operations due to bad weather, it's best to spread the word quickly and efficiently.
"We do several things to ensure that our people know the plan or the possible plan as soon as possible," says David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, a human resources outsourcing and consulting firm. "Email is the primary communication tool. We also have a master list of clients that we can email as needed." The company's voice mail system also allows Lewis to send one message to all his employees at the same time, so he uses that as well.
Many radio and TV stations report closings and delays over the air, and on their websites and mobile apps. Determine which form of media would work best for you, register your business in advance, then let staff and customers know where they can go to find out more about the status of your business during bad weather.
4. Snow day or workday? If you close the office, store, restaurant or warehouse because of the weather, make sure your employees know what your expectations will be if they aren't coming in to the physical location. Do you anticipate that the first day of a closure will be spent sledding with children and making hot chocolate, or do you expect everyone to be at home huddled with computers and smartphones salvaging a workday?
"We've optimized our staff to work remotely, at least to some extent," Lewis says. "We never really close unless the Internet goes down and the power is out."
Brian Crotty, COO of Broadview Networks, a firm that provides VoIP and cloud computing services, says the right phone configuration will keep your business running smoothly, even during a weather emergency. "It's one thing to employ solutions that allow employees to work remotely on occasion as a matter of convenience or cost," Crotty says. "It's quite another to be able to smoothly continue operations when the workplace encounters disturbances that limit productivity or even render systems inaccessible."
Your small-business winter plans should include an assessment of how your phone system will handle an all-remote force and additional call volume. It's important to have someone manning the primary phone number—or an alternate number, such as your cell phone, that's used during bad weather—so employees can stay in touch. Crotty also says to expect your call volume to increase as the weather gets worse.
"Employees will be calling to learn about contingency plans and closures, and their families will be calling to check up on them," Crotty says. "Your customers will call to check in on how things are going. A neighboring resident may want to let you know that a road from one of your plants is flooded. Each of these will involve varying levels of urgency, and it's important to be able to quickly route calls that are true emergencies to the appropriate contact."
You can't fight Mother Nature, but you can try to work with her by developing a bad weather policy. Take a few hours to figure out how your business will react when the weather is severe. And always keep an eye on the forecast to eliminate surprises.
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