Keeping Your Business from Bleeding Out

Advice for owners and managers in the time of coronavirus.

Posted Apr 24, 2020

Larry and Teddy Page, Flickr, CC 2.0
Source: Larry and Teddy Page, Flickr, CC 2.0

Money is the lifeblood of any business, and of any nonprofit, although that's less true for the federal government because it can decide to increase its $25 trillion debt or to print more money even if everyone’s dollars are thereby worth less.

But how can organizations weather the economic shutdown that promises to continue for weeks if not months, and then face a second shutdown after the coronavirus resurges in a few months as predicted?

It's time for employers to be tough short-term in the service of longer-term kindness, to triage so more lives can be saved, at least saved from unemployment and from customers being unable to get your good product or service. If an employer keeps spending as usual—no cuts of labor or real estate—s/he risks rendering 100% of the workers (and the boss) unemployed. After all, even before the coronavirus pandemic, global competition from low-cost countries that have highly-skilled, hard-working workforces has, for many businesses, created an existential dilemma: Cut labor and real estate to keep prices competitive or run business as America always has—employing mainly permanent full-time, fully benefited workers, thereby risking being put out of business thanks to global competition. The pandemic-caused decline in demand for most products and services has merely increased that existential risk.

But let’s start easy. You want to keep your workers happy and motivated, if not because it’s the humane thing to do, to keep them working diligently. Empty slogans such as “people are our most important product” are widely scoffed at. But there are legitimate no- and low-cost ways to keep workers satisfied:

  • Encourage employee suggestions and requests and respond promptly.
  • Give earned praise, including handwritten notes to take home to show family,
  • Offer flexible hours.
  • Offer peer training in which you cater lunch.
  • Pay for employees' Udemy, Udacity, or Coursera low-cost courses.
  • You take a pay cut, which would go into a fund to help workers with pressing needs.

Let’s get a bit tougher. Having a brick-and-mortar office or store can feel good: Many employees like getting out of the house and to a workplace so they can interact with others in-person. And if you’re honest, having a brick-and-mortar place can be ego-building for you: “This is mine!” You can drive family and friends to see that concrete (literally) manifestation of what you hath wrought.

But real estate is a huge expense—the meter never stops running 24/7/365. Fortunately, among the pandemic’s few silver linings is that organizations are being reminded that they can run well remotely—managers needn’t peer down at employees in-person to verify that they’re working. And videoconferencing, email, and old-school telephone ease the exchange of ideas and of much work-product. Plus, many workers appreciate working at home because it avoids child care problems and wasting hours commuting in strait-jacket traffic or sardined mass transit. Reduce or eliminate the need for brick-and-mortar and you save a fortune while benefiting your workers.

Now we get to the toughest part: staffing. It's mainly tradition that keeps employers employing people full-time with benefits. In fact, among many workforces, many employees aren’t needed 40 hours a week, 52 weeks of every year. If you don’t want 100% of your workforce to be unemployed, the pandemic is a good time to take a clear-eyed look at which workers should be kept full-time/benefited, which to scale back to part-time, which to convert to project work, and yes, which you’d be wise to let go, to be not-replaced or be replaced by a better-fit employee or by automation, which often can contribute to a better product or service less expensively, plus,  computers and other machines can work 24/7/365 and never take a day off, let alone sue you.

The takeaway

Of course, it feels good to leave things as they are—it's been said, only half in jest, that the only person who likes change is a wet baby. It can feel humane to keep all your employees and give them all full-time, fully-benefited jobs, and to keep all your brick-and-mortar square footage, but amid the pandemic, now more than ever, if you care about ultimate kindness rather than short-term feel-good, it may be time for adulting.

I read this aloud on YouTube.