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Innovate, Adapt, Repeat: Energize Your Business During this Time of Crisis

By Heather Tabery
and Sheila Engelmeier

Small businesses across the country, including our own law firm, find themselves overwhelmed trying to navigate 2020. Society currently faces several existential threats that sometimes seem too much to bear. Everything seems different than it was just months ago: education, the way (and for some folks whether) we work, what we do for entertainment and social interaction, and our mental and financial health. Small business owners wonder whether they will make it to the other side to continue to pursue the American dream.

The more businesses that stay open, and employees who can work, the less the financial and emotional stress there will be for our communities. As small businesses survive and eek closer to “normal,” our communities move closer to economic and personal recovery.

Employers and employees can support each other by focusing on what they can control. As the world changes, many small businesses can meet the challenges if they (1) Innovate: think so far outside the box that the box no longer exists; (2) Adapt: implement the new innovative ideas to stay in business; and (3) Repeat: as our collective social and economic situation continues to change, the need to frequently innovate and adapt is paramount.

  1. Innovate; Consider New Tools. Adopt virtual video conferencing, mobile offices, accounting apps, taking payment via the web, or change the business model; i.e. the common distillery to hand sanitizer transformation.Consider changes the physical space to enhance safety. Solicit feedback from employees about reopening/future plans. Maybe there is something that goes above and beyond what the law requires that will make employees feel safer and more inclined to return to work. If it is reasonable and not cost prohibitive, implement it. Going the extra mile builds goodwill.Give back to the Community. Think about how the business can best serve the community right now. Consider a food drive, blood drive, or clothing drive to support the communities affected by the recent financial downturn and/or political unrest. Support those in need, as possible. We are members of the same communities; what affects one of us affects us all.
  2. Adapt Your Business Model. Do what you can to explore all options before laying off employees. As many know, small businesses that received a PPP loan must retain their employees to receive loan forgiveness. Recently, President Trump signed the PPP Flexibility Act, which (among other things) reduces the mandatory payroll spending from 75% to 60%. If workload is down, find new or different tasks for people to perform at 60% capacity and/or 60% pay until business picks up again.Services. Adapt services to support clients, customers, employees, or vendors who are staying at home. Some good examples we have heard so far include:
    • Pimento Jamaican Kitchen transitioned to a relief center for those affected by the destruction in Minneapolis;
    • Artists, dance teachers, and sports coaches offer classes online;
    • Local clothiers transitioned to making masks and other personal protective gear.

    It is always is better to plan for the worst – what will people need if they are staying home at least until the fourth quarter? They might not need dress shoes, but they will need walking shoes and slippers. They likely won’t be traveling much, so a small hotel could be converted to long-term rental units. Parents need ways to keep their children occupied without camps and play dates. Analyze various contingency plans for how to adapt services to stay relevant assuming people continue to stay home for much of 2020.

    Consider Terminating Bad Eggs. If you must engage in a layoff, consider utilizing this opportunity to get rid of problem employees. For example, if there are managers, executives, or employees with several complaints against them, this downturn may be an opportunity to let these people go.

  3. Repeat: Learn from this. Systems, operations, HR, executives, management, and employees are all going to have to work together in order to continually innovate and adapt to the consistently evolving world we live and work in.There may be some trial and error as employers evolve into and embrace the new normal. Through flexibility and innovation, companies will learn what is going to work for them, and solutions will differ from company to company. There is no cookie-cutter solution to the issues we face. This is the beginning of more changes to come.WHAT EMPLOYERS CAN DO:Before you get started, please keep top of mind how “heavy” many employees’ life circumstances are as you innovate and adapt the business. Consider the following:


    Leadership. Employees need to hear from their leaders early and often. Whether it’s the CEO, HR, or some other designee, someone should be communicating regularly to employees on the status of the business, the status of the surrounding neighborhood, and plans for the next steps. If employees hear only crickets, they may lose faith in the business they have dedicated their time to. Remember, employees often spend more time at work than they do with their own families. Employers should remind them early and often that their sacrifice and dedication means something and that leadership values their contributions. Think of new ways to communicate with a workforce that may be remote or more stressed than usual.

    Trust. Without regular communication from leadership, employees may lose trust in the stability of their employer and their own job security. Maintain trust by allowing leadership to be open with employees. Acknowledge this is a very difficult time, solicit questions and concerns, and ask for suggestions on how to adapt the business to reflect the changing times. No one is invulnerable, even Superman needs mortal help to deal with kryptonite. Let your employees help you too. The solution to keeping your business open during crisis may come from an idea that your receptionist or SVP has. Don’t be afraid to ask.

    Listen. Everyone is a vital part of the conversation. Have virtual video conferences with employees to work together to find solutions. Really listen. Provide space/time for listening to employees’ perspectives. If leaders spend the majority of the time talking, they could be missing out on innovative ideas to help the company.

    Leave Politics Out of the Workplace. The issues we face right now affect people regardless of their political leanings. Try to minimize any politicization of the pandemic and of the civil unrest; demonstrate tolerance and be a good example on respecting differences of opinions. You don’t want to on one hand favor some employees for their political stances and ostracize others for theirs. Unfortunately, we’re seeing a “cancel culture” where a person who may speak an opinion finds themselves unfairly unemployed. Value your employees for good work, and lead as best you can in keeping politics outside of work.

    Don’t Penalize Employees for Being Scared

    Consider Building Positive Karma for the Future. As employment law attorneys, we are aware some employers are reporting to MNDEED that employees who are afraid to physically go back to work have “voluntarily resigned.” These employers’ argue that being afraid to go back to work is not something that is legally protected, which is true unless the employer is creating an unsafe workplace that violates OSHA regulations. However, remember humanity – there may be an innovative solution to continue to employ that person. Employers and employees should work together to prevent further escalation of the divisiveness and despair in our country. Employers should work hard to try to find a way for the person who is afraid to physically report to work to perform their job from home if reasonably possible. Maybe the person could fulfill an alternative remote role while the emergency continues. For example, in our firm, we are having support staff work on clearing up a closed file backlog from home in addition to any regular duties that can be done remotely. It’s a project that needs to be done and the pandemic provides a perfect time to accomplish this task. You can make lemons out of lemonade. (Pursuant to Governor Walz’ Executive Order 20-74 7(a) and 7(e)(i)(A), employers of non-critical businesses are directed that “Any worker who can work from home must do so.”)

    Also, employers should let MNDEED decide a right to benefits, rather than aggressively contest unemployment compensation benefits claims by exiting employees who leave incident to fear about COVID-related issues. Governor Walz, in Executive Order 20-05, Para. 5, ordered that unemployment benefits paid as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in computing the future unemployment tax rate of a taxpaying employer so an employer would not be penalized by an employee receiving COVID-related unemployment benefits. Remember the time just before COVID? It was really difficult to find good employees; unemployment was really low. Employers cherished their good, loyal, hardworking and/or longtime employees. Hopefully, those employees who feel the need to leave now would consider coming back when able if employers afford respect in the departure process, allowing the relationship to end on a relatively positive note.

    Demonstrate Empathy in Understanding Employees’ Fears. We are in the middle of a global pandemic and international protests (and in some instances, counterprotests) surrounding issues of race that have spanned centuries, during an election year. These are some of the most challenging times many have experienced during their lifetimes. Several of these issues are not going away any time soon. For many, the situation is scary. An employer can build a lot of loyalty with an employee by being supportive in a challenging time. If an employee fears physically coming to work, have a conversation with them about what their fears are and work together to assess possible alternatives.

    Focus on What We Can Control

    Flexibility for Employees. Anything people can do from home, allow them do it from home. Many employers have shipped home office equipment to their employees, helping them get set up to perform their jobs virtually. Many large employers in Minnesota already have announced they will be 100% remote through the beginning of quarter 4 and possibly longer. Small businesses also need to retain their workforce. Perhaps there can also be some flexibility on hours in this remote environment. For example, if an employer notes that an employee is completing work tasks on the weekend, be open to some personal time during the week. Flexibility will help small businesses retain employees and attract those who currently are laid off to come back to work.

    Self-Care Breaks. Encourage employees to engage in good self care. Consider allowing a flexible schedule making time for breaks. Time away could involve meditation, yoga, a walk around the block, or an afternoon nap. Offer support and send reminders to engage in whatever self-care employees need to continue to be productive.

    Employee Support Resources. Check with your insurance broker; your group health policies may have a support component to assist employees to manage stress. Remind employees of any employer support that exists. If your business does not have an Employee Assistance Program, research and share resources with employees. For example, the CDC has some guidance and resources for employees. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/mental-health-non-healthcare.html. Consider hiring an external virtual support person or coach to be available to teach employees about coping strategies such as mindfulness.

    Consider Offering Relaxation/Connection Tips. Some ideas: (1) Employers could circulate exercises that can be done from one’s desk; (2) Organize daily talks that could include a short conference call for anyone to join and discuss their day; (3) A Best Photo Contest encouraging employees to take a picture of something from a walk and share the photos with other employees; (4) Have a virtual lunch together. Although we are apart, we can maintain the interactions that make teams thrive if we think innovatively.

    The most important thing to remember is that we are all in this together.

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