The COVID-19 pandemic upended small business operations. Learn how to create a long-term pandemic strategy that works for employees and your business.
For many American workers, the coronavirus pandemic was one of the most influential events in their lifetimes. The pandemic upended office work, forcing businesses to rethink their people operations strategies. Companies have had to adapt to emerging threats like mental health issues and the Great Resignation, as professionals have re-evaluated what they want from work.
While the pandemic has allowed small businesses the opportunity to create better working environments for their employees, a long-term strategy can help you stay prepared and pivot quickly when public health issues arise.
Why it’s important to think long term
It’s been more than 2 years since the coronavirus outbreak in 2020. Despite the elimination of mask mandates and loosening of community restrictions, as of July 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports there was still a daily average of:
- 109,944 new cases per day
- 316 new deaths per day
- 4,947 new hospital admissions per day
The CDC reported in February 2022, 57.7% of United States residents had experienced COVID-19. UC Davis Health reports around 10% of people who get coronavirus will experience long-term symptoms, known as “long COVID”. These symptoms may include:
- Chest or stomach pain
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Fast-beating heart
- Fatigue or tiredness
In addition to physical symptoms like these, the pandemic has also caused a variety of mental health issues for many Americans. KFF reports that 4 in 10 adults have reported symptoms of depressive disorder or anxiety during the pandemic. Negative mental health issues also include difficulty eating or sleeping, increases in alcohol or substance use, and exacerbated chronic conditions due to stress and worry.
These are just coronavirus-specific effects. In 2022, the U.S. experienced a new outbreak, this time of monkeypox. Infection from the monkeypox virus may cause symptoms including:
Virus outbreaks show no signs of slowing down. An August 2021 study published by “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” found the probability of a pandemic with a similar impact to the coronavirus outbreak is around 2% in any year. The likelihood of experiencing a pandemic similar to COVID-19 in one’s lifetime currently stands at around 38%. The study also found that figure may double in the coming decades. That’s due to factors like higher rates of diseases emerging from animal reservoirs associated with environmental change.
Businesses can prepare now by assuming another pandemic will occur. Here’s how to create a long-term pandemic strategy.
The likelihood of experiencing a pandemic similar to COVID-19 in one’s lifetime currently stands at around 38%. The study also found that figure may double in the coming decades.
1. Check in with workers
A good way to adapt to this pandemic and future ones is to ask your employees:
- What they’re feeling
- How your business can support them
Physical long-COVID effects are particularly impactful for workers in physically demanding positions, like construction. But symptoms like brain fog or fatigue can impact all types of professionals, including knowledge workers.
Already, managers should regularly meet with employees to check in on their performance and engagement. Promote an open dialogue at work. Encourage employees to meet with their managers if they have health concerns that can impact their work performance.
2. Educate employees on what’s available to them
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may protect employees with long COVID. Consult your employment law attorney to learn more about the protections you must extend to employees under specific circumstances. You may be legally obligated to provide a leave of absence under the ADA to those experiencing negative symptoms from long COVID.
When an employee has appropriate documentation showing that they’ve experienced long COVID, engage in the ADA interactive process to determine reasonable accommodation. Also, certain employees may qualify for FMLA leave.
Businesses can also work with employees to provide some type of non-FMLA leave if they’re not eligible for FMLA leave but have serious health conditions.
Again, like in the above point, open communication with employees is key. If you ignore employee complaints, that can put your small business at more legal risk. Understanding your ADA and FMLA obligations can help protect you long-term if future outbreaks occur.
3. Support employee work-life balance
Many employees welcomed the changes that COVID-19 brought into the workplace, particularly the widespread switch to remote work.
According to an October 2021 report by Gallup, 9 in 10 remote workers want to maintain a remote work agreement to some degree. A May 2022 study by Zapier found 32% of workers quit their job because they didn’t have the option to work remotely. More than 60% of workers would quit their current job for a fully remote opportunity.
If you changed your people operations during COVID — for example, you created a remote work program — ask employees how they received the changes. Your employees may prefer to continue having the ability to work from home.
You may have also embraced an asynchronous schedule that relied more on employee outcomes rather than rigid work hours. Again, survey employees about what they want out of work. When you accommodate a work-life balance, you give employees more of an opportunity to have healthy lifestyles. That can help keep them productive for your business.
4. Never stop strategizing
Every challenge and hurdle provides a learning opportunity for your company. As you introduce new methods of operation, consider how you’ll measure their success. Did productivity go up when your workforce went remote? Has providing mental health benefits to employees had an impact on employee engagement? When you provided a new employee communications tool, how did that affect collaboration?
Harvard Business Review recommends focusing on 3 core areas for post-crisis strategy. These can affect consumers, but you can also apply them to workers.
- Sustained behaviors: What activities will employees likely return to post-pandemic? For example, your workforce may want to have in-person holiday parties or team-building events.
- Transformed behaviors: What activities have fundamentally changed due to the crisis? For small businesses, this might look like booking video conference meetings rather than bringing everyone together in a small conference room.
- Collapsed behaviors: What activities will stop altogether or be replaced by alternatives? For workers, this may look like the desire to work remotely compared to working in an office.
What works for your unique small business, workforce, and customers may look different from your competitors. With each new change you introduce, determine how you’ll measure efficacy. Meet and evaluate your progress so you can continue improving, no matter what the world throws your way.
You may consider partnering with a COVID-19 business consultant. A consultant can provide external expertise on changes you can make to your business to increase success in a post-pandemic world. Business consultants who have helped similar businesses navigate the coronavirus can provide a wealth of knowledge and recommendations based on what’s worked in your industry.
There are also post-pandemic resources available, like Deloitte’s Small Business Roadmap for Recovery & Beyond: Workbook. The workbook helps businesses rethink their workforce capabilities, ways of working, and productivity to improve workforce design.
You can also access our post-pandemic readiness checklist to prepare physical spaces and company policies for return to work after COVID.
What’s your biggest 2022 HR challenge that you’d like to resolve
Answer to see the results
Assume there will be challenges in the future
It’s positive and encouraging to experience business success, but small businesses that last are adept at responding to challenges. McKinsey & Company recommends adopting a startup mindset to be resilient. That requires establishing a “brisk cadence to encourage agility and accountability.” Frequent check-ins and reviews of policies and procedures help you maintain success.
You might also consider creating a crisis response team. PwC’s Global Crisis Survey 2021 recommends designing a crisis response plan and building an integrated resilience program for long-term preparation.
Your small business can collaborate with your workforce to determine what employees desire from you as an employer. You can adopt remote work tools and technology like video conferencing and project management software, so your workers can be productive from any connected device, even outside the office.
Remember to put measurements in place so you can evaluate the results of your efforts. Stay up-to-date on legal obligations to protect your business while ensuring your employees gain access to the resources and support they need.