As temperatures start dropping–and the pandemic persists–businesses are girding for yet another Covid winter. But unlike last year, they’re better prepared to meet many of the unique set of demands that operating amid a pandemic brings. They’ve learned some valuable lessons from last year. Here are six:
Lesson 1. Embrace vaccine cards.
Depending on where a business is located, owners have to enforce vaccine-only mandates for indoor activities. That’s the case for New York City and many counties within California. Some businesses in other parts of the country are also embracing that stance. While the policy may cause some customers to stay away, those who are fully vaccinated tend to be more inclined to go indoors if they know everyone around them is vaccinated. These kinds of safety measures also play a role in business preservation. “The Covid crisis isn’t over by a longshot,” says Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School, who adds that mandatory closures due to Covid case numbers can’t yet be written off. Mitigating the spread of the disease is still in businesses’ best interest.
That strategy is increasingly getting extended to employees, too. While President Biden’s vaccine mandate applies to businesses with over 100 employees, small businesses are also overwhelmingly likely to require employees be vaccinated, says Tom Sullivan, vice president of small business policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Lesson 2. Keep patrons warm, efficiently.
In 2020, as many Americans shied away many establishments for fear of contracting Covid-19, business owners largely brought their wares and dining options outdoors. That will happen again this season–in spite of the widespread access to vaccines. With breakthrough infections and the fact that young children are exposed, some people will continue to stay outside. So business owners will once again have to contend with the challenge of keeping people warm. This year however, many are adopting more energy efficient heating options.
Ellen Yin, founder and co-owner of High Street Hospitality Group, which operates several restaurants in Philadelphia, has begun installing electrical infrared heating for this winter. “Last year we relied on propane heating, which became unsustainable both in terms of price and operations–we had to find space to store extra tanks and have employees switch the heavy canisters out constantly,” she says. New, infrared lights have a considerable upfront investment, but are “warmer and more energy efficient,” so they’ll reduce costs in the long-term and make it easier to sustain all-season outdoor dining for years to come.
Lesson 3. Rethink your staffing needs.
The hiring picture in America has gone from bad to worse. After months of not knowing whether they could afford to hire (or rehire) workers, now they can’t find people fast enough. In September, a record 51 percent of small business owners reported having vacant positions, according to a recent report from the National Federation of Independent Businesses. That shortage is making businesses rethink staffing needs. Some are scaling back on their expectations for bringing on new people altogether.
Business owners have to be strategic about how they’re assigning existing employees. They should figure out what’s profitable and expand on that the best way possible, says Mike Whatley, vice president for state affairs and grassroots advocacy at the National Restaurant Association. For restaurants specifically, that might mean reducing the number of staffers dedicated to indoor dining if the majority of customers are eating outdoors.
Businesses that typically hire temp employees for the holiday season should also be wary about worker availability, explains Cohen. “I would recommend surveying veteran employees about their willingness to go from part-time to fulltime, or their willingness to take on overtime as needed,” he says. Temporary workers also require additional training, and are, more often than not, less productive than veteran staff–so businesses that are already stretched thin should take heed.
Lesson 4. Train and upskill employees
Businesses have to be prepared to be understaffed while contending with a labor shortage. With the potential for breakthrough infections and the double-whammy of flu season–the so-called twindemic–make even remote workers susceptible. Fully remote SEO agency DoFollow.io–which has staff located across nine countries, including the U.S.–has begun cross-training workers to account for the eventuality. “The idea is to make sure we don’t suffer significant productivity drops when a team member has to take a day or two to get well,” says co-founder Sebastian Schäffer. “It’s not only a good insurance policy against lost productivity, but it also never hurts to equip people with new skills and familiarize themselves with different parts of their workflow.”
To combat a worker shortage in the long run, businesses should also consider an untapped resource: prospective employees without direct job experience. “We’re developing a training program for people who haven’t worked in restaurants before, which would enable new hires,” says Yin. “We want to make sure they feel welcome and give them more transparency of what it’s like to work in the industry.”
Lesson 5. Stock up on supply.
The supply chain disruptions that resulted from Covid-19 aren’t likely to improve until 2023 according to retail logistics insiders. This means businesses should plan further into the future than they normally would, Cohen says: “The bane of a retailer’s existence is empty shelves, and the bane of a restaurant’s existence is the inability to service its menu. That means paying an enormous amount of attention to the actual availability of things.”
For businesses that haven’t already planned ahead to avoid supply-chain delays, it may be too late to course-correct for holiday season 2021. Right now, businesses should make sure that their inventory is set to be well-stocked for spring 2022 and beyond.
Lesson 6. Get cozy with change.
In the meantime, remain flexible–if some stuff is impossible to get hold of, then pivot as best as you can. “Part of the reason why restaurants are now using QR code menus is that it’s easier to make menu substitutions, versus having to print new menus,” Whatley says. “Three-quarters of the industry has had to change menu items because of supply-chain shortages.”
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