Reopening after COVID-19: Companies need a smart game plan

 In the wake of the pandemic, businesses need a smart game plan to reopen, and survive and thrive.

That goes beyond incorporating general government health rules and guidelines—sure they’re a must-do, but they only set the minimum requirements. Each company’s reopening will likely look different. There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy.

“It is the responsibility of each company to develop specific protocols that reflect their own realities, based on factors such as type of business, physical layout, and ability of employees to work remotely,” says Rocco Rossi, president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.  

Businesses will need to be on their toes, regularly adapting to the changing knowledge from experts, government guidelines and regulations, and consumer demand, Rossi says. “Adaption is key to success.” 

Consider this your reopening checklist:


Staff safety is essential 

Determine how to safely allow employees and customers to access your space while physical distancing, and then reconfigure your space to meet the government’s requirements, Rossi recommends. Think through how to set up shared spaces to ensure cross-contamination does not occur.  

According to Amin Yazdani, the director of Conestoga’s Canadian Institute of Safety, Wellness and Performance, infection prevention and control measures to reduce the risk of transmission are critical, and that includes proper screening measures. It also includes adding physical barriers between workers and customers, effective physical distancing monitoring, routine sanitization of equipment and working spaces, and adequate training on PPE use.   

There is no solution to fit all—interventions to protect workers will differ according to the sector, says Yazdani. How employers protect those in the healthcare or caregiving sector might be different compared to those in education, retail or construction sectors.


Engage your people power

Engage early and often with your staff, recommends David Ian Gray, founder of DIG360, a national retail advisory headquartered in Vancouver. “Demonstrate your concern for them, but also ensure all understand how COVID is transferred and why this is necessary.” They need to understand the principles behind the steps being created. 

Involve your people to help craft the procedures. They will be more apt to buy in, and they will have considerable input into operationalizing principles, Gray says. “Explicitly discuss how to handle problem customers and that management has their backs.”


No sharing in the workplace

Establish strict health and safety measures for shared areas, tools, equipment, and office space stresses Yazdani. Communicate and enforce protocols for sanitization according to those set by public health agencies, along with providing accessible handwashing stations, and avoid using reusable supplies that may increase the risk of exposure.


Support workers afraid to return to work 

Some will fear going back to work, specifically workers with young children or those providing care to elderly parents. These concerns need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis—work with each individual worker to address their challenges, recommends Yazdani. 

“Actively work to support and engage with all stakeholders during every stage and decision point,” says Yazdani. Wherever possible, offer a gradual return to work, promote flexible and customizable work arrangements such as telecommuting and flex time, and mental health support to their workers.


Gradual return to work

Before going back to full operation, allow workers to adjust to an organization’s new plan and procedures. This could take several months, says Yazdani. “In addition, interventions to promote new safety behaviours may need time to show its impact.”  

Gradual return to work will give businesses adequate time and the resources necessary to prepare for full operation and reduce the risk of exposure during the early days of reopening. 


Provide mental health support

“Recent research has highlighted the likelihood of a surge of burnout, PTSD, anxiety and depression as a result of COVID-19 pandemic and could result in long-lasting damages to our society,” Yazdani says.  

Businesses may also face challenges with staffing and service capacity because of absenteeism due to illness, quarantine, anxiety, concern over personal safety or safety of family members, or poorly equipped safety measures.  

Support the mental health and wellness of workers with health and safety strategies such as harmonized and evidence-informed tools, guidelines, and resources, he adds. 


Support employees working remotely

Working from home is the new normal, and early adopters such as those in the tech industry are well ahead compared to other sectors, Yazdani says. But we need to develop new evidence-informed standards and guidelines to address health and safety aspects when working from home.  

“The ergonomics of working from home, the lack of social interactions with co-workers, balancing work and life, mental health aspects including isolation, and an elevated risk of smoking and alcohol consumption are only a few examples that businesses may consider when offering work from home arrangements.”


Be seen as safe

“Being safe is important. And being seen to be safe is too,” says Gray. “Businesses must combine true security, with a perception of safety, and create a positive experience that does not dwell on reminders of COVID. No small task.”  

The shopper and diner experience needs to be positive. “Have the sanitizers, masks and shields and then focus on happy, helpful engagement. Not just inside, but online where they will first check if you are open, and in the lineup outside.” Adding signs and updating your website to make people aware of the steps you’re taking to ensure their safety is something to consider.

For more information, the Retail Council of Canada’s standard and practice guide of recommendations for retailers is an excellent place to start when looking for the best COVID-19 related safety protocols for your business. 


Tune into your consumers’ needs

Innovate your business model, if you haven’t already. Respond to changed consumer behaviour, be it through e-commerce, digital offerings, and/or pick-up and delivery options, Rossi says. “Assume that the ‘new normal’ is here to stay.” 

Tuning into your consumers’ and communities’ needs will help guide you to new partnerships and offerings. “This pandemic has seen many companies re-invent themselves in response to both government-mandated shutdowns and shifting consumer demand,” Rossi says, including beverage alcohol companies producing hand sanitizer to clothing designers making masks.


The new normal going forward 

“Guidelines are morphing weekly, so management needs both a plan and solid communication and training of frontline people, so they understand the key principles while knowing specific procedures will evolve over the weeks ahead,” says Gray. 

Retailers, restaurants, and other consumer-facing businesses should not only be thinking about quick-fixe solutions based on the guidelines provided by local health authorities but also planning for longer-term possibilities.

Consider the new normal a rolling series of new realities to contend with, Gray adds. “The key is building an operating culture of true test-and-learn along with the ability to be more flexible and adaptive.”