LIMA — Paradigm shifts in business aren’t new, but they have rarely have moved so quickly.
In just two weeks, the coronavirus has delivered a new reality for many small businesses throughout Ohio, and whether they survive or not depends largely on how well they’re able to shift to new circumstances.
“They’re going to have to spend a lot of time figuring what the market is going to look like, coming back and aligning their staffing needs with what they’re going to need,” said Dean John Navin, with Ohio Northern University’s College of Business.
That’s easier said than done, especially considering many businesses may see a fraction of the cash-flow prior to the state’s reaction to COVID-19.
But there are emerging tools to help businesses get through these trying times, and it’ll be up to each business owner to see if they can meet the challenges set before them.
With social distancing becoming the new norm (at least for now), businesses that have relied on social relationships are some of the hardest hit. The first to feel it will most likely be bars and restaurants — those businesses that already rely on a thin profit margin.
“For restaurants, it’s changing the whole way they do business,” Navin said. “They’re losing the sit-down diners who tend to consume beverages, desserts. The ordering pattern is going to be much different. The sales traffic, the marketing is going to be different.”
More business shutterings are expected down the line. Just last Wednesday, the state’s orders to shutter came down on hair salons, tattoo parlors, nail spas and barber shops, and Gov. Mike DeWine hinted at further action if there’s evidence of continued viral spread.
Such governmental actions caused some significant ripples throughout the local economy. Grocery stores, for example, have seen customers buying in bulk, which has caused its own set of problems in grocery store supply chains and human resources, Navin said.
The coronavirus outbreak has also forced changes in office environments and school systems. Those working typical white-collar jobs are often being asked to work from home to curb large public gatherings.
It’s a change those at the Lima/Allen County Chamber of Commerce are dealing with firsthand. Chamber President Jed Metzger said there’s been a learning curve to adapt to the new norm, but so far, business is moving along, and things are getting done while workers are outside the office.
In fact, out of all the changes that are moving down the line, remote working may be one of the least disruptive.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that one in four workers have some experience with remote working, choosing to work from home at least some part of the average workweek. In other words, during a time of confusion of doubt, workers making the shift to remote working actually have a proven playbook to read from.
Three and a half years ago, Bobbie Glon took the opportunity to work from home, and it’s changed how she’s done business. Working for Virta Health, the registered nurse helps patients across the country move through the behavioral changes necessary to combat long-term health problems by changing lifestyle habits. And she does it all from home.
“A lot of people think that working from home is the most amazing opportunity,” Glon said. “And it really is, except that the blessings can become curses if you don’t manage them.”
Flexibility can be great until it isn’t, Glon said. Those without solid working hours and clear demarcations between work and home life may find themselves spending too many hours behind the desk. On the other side, distractions, such as children staying home from school, can reduce productivity.
The remote worker has to be able to create some sort of structure and schedule to ensure that the flexibility enabled by working from home doesn’t overwhelm the work.
“You really have to protect yourself from distraction,” Glon said. “It’s so easy to be distracted. If you have a television in the office, create rules so you don’t have it in on background. I have certain hours. … Before my day begins, I may have it on, but at 8 a.m., the TV goes off.”
The same kind of restrictions should include family distractions as well.
“It’s a really good idea to communicate to family members, maybe incorporate them in creating (remote working) guidelines and rules,” Glon said.
Glon said she’s experimented with certain schedules throughout the years to ensure that she maintains productivity, but today, she’s got the routine down to where she feels ready for the day by the time she marks off the morning checklist.
In other words, additional rules and regulations — most of them self-imposed — has made remote working, at least for Glon, a much more normal routine.
Navin also encouraged the use of a standard schedule. For those workers making the shift to remote working due to coronavirus concerns, they should try to maintain a similar schedule that they would have if they would have gone to the office.
Similarly, having a dedicated place to work in the home can also help shift someone into office mode when they’re looking to get down to business.
“Without clear cut structure, you need to self impose it,” Glon said.
Adding structure to a day spent remote working also applies to the communication systems that remote workers use. While there are plenty of digital tools to keep managers up-to-date on what workers are doing, managers should spend some time going over ground rules and expectations of those tools.
For example, while a video call may be the best replacement for a face-to-face interaction, they can also be distracting for someone in a way that a quick question posed while passing by a coworker’s office is not. For that reason, a quick text message through an app such as Slack or an email may be more appropriate.
Managers can also encourage check-ins in order to ensure workers are getting done what is needed for the day.
“Working at home does not mean isolation, and it doesn’t mean working by yourself,” Navin said.
Another important aspect of communication is the socialization that is usually done naturally in an office environment. For those unfamiliar with remote working, working from home can make someone feel isolated from coworkers, and on top of social distancing measures, ensuring opportunities for socialization is even more important for the mental health of workers.
Glon said she had some problems fighting with anxiety when she first transitioned to remote working. After trying to deal with the problem by herself, she eventually brought up some of her concerns with her boss.
“I suffered with it before bringing it up to my boss. When I brought it up, almost everyone who worked remotely was going through the same thing,” Glon said. “He appreciated that I opened up and confided in him.”
To combat such social isolation, Glon said she and a group of fellow remote workers have since instituted opportunities for socialization, like a “virtual happy hour” that provides workers a chance to talk about their lives outside of work. A number of Slack channels have also been created for inspirational and positive messages at her workplace, which she has used outside her work.
“Give yourself the opportunity to connect,” she said. “If you don’t create opportunity, it won’t happen.”
While the move to remote working and other major business shifts continue to come down the line, there is at least some silver lining to all the changes. There are resources to make it easier.
Both private and public entities have released tools and offered perks for individuals and organizations to remain productive during the coronavirus outbreak. A number of large telecommunications companies, for example, have offered to make their public WiFi hot spots free to the public to ease broadband access problems for poor and/or rural students and remote workers.
Local institutions are also offering training resources for local employees. If companies are looking to upskill their staff or set up future opportunities by re-configuring their staffing needs, Rhodes State College is working with the governor’s office to help local businesses utilize the state’s TechCred program.
“We encourage using the time creatively to gain something from it,” said Paula Siebeneck, Rhodes State’s marketing and public relations director. “During this difficult time, if there’s a time to put a silver lining around it, someone can get a credential or a certification. Otherwise, they would not have the time.”
The state program offers $2,000 per employee per tech-focused credential, up to $30,000 per employer, for each round. Those interested in training employees with credentialed tech skills at a reduced cost are encouraged to contact Rhodes State College’s Tammy Eilerman for more information at 419-995-8351.
The federal government is also considering a broad $1 trillion stimulus package that includes at least $300 billion toward helping small businesses. As of Friday afternoon, the bill remains unpassed.
“You can’t really plan for a pandemic. Nobody saw this coming, but on the other hand, people who know their market or really understand of what it’s going to be – how people are going to change on the other end of this — that’s the people who are going to win,” Navin said. “We aren’t going to be the same when we come out of it.
“Some companies may find that there are some numbers of employees that can work remotely. That may change the whole workspace idea in business. Certainly, communication between clients are going to change. We’re going to have to forge relationships in a different way.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.