By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – A few weeks or even days ago, the type of virus that worried businesses most was of the digital strain.
Ah, for a return to the good old days of cyber-threats versus those of the viral variety.
The rapid escalation of the COVID-19 virus emergency in the United States has compelled businesses to embrace new and largely unprecedented protocols for employees and customers alike.
Because much is still unknown about how the virus spreads and how virulent it may be, most businesses and organizations appear to be following the guidance of public health authorities such as the federal Centers for Disease Control and comparable state agencies.
The preparedness doesn’t stop at office hand-washing advisories, however. It extends to updating or implementing remote working policies, making better use of technology and remaining vigilant against scams that can catch a frantic organization off guard. Workforce policies can vary a great deal. Walmart, for example, announced it will institute an emergency leave process for its employees who are quarantined or diagnosed with the latest coronavirus. It has about 1.4 million workers in the United States.
While having employees work remotely or providing paid sick leave may be feasible for larger firms, smaller businesses that rely on in-person sale and interactions may not be able to follow such suggestions so easily. Still, many are considering a mix of options. Some have cancelled or postponed business events expected to draw 250 people or more, not only because some participants worked with larger companies that instituted travel bans, but they didn’t want the responsibility of being a corporate “Typhoid Mary.” (The Wisconsin Technology Council has cancelled the live portion of its March 16 Tech Summit, for instance, in favor of teleconference meetings matching major companies and emerging firms.)
In some places across the country, coronavirus outbreaks have led to layoffs, especially in industries most sensitive to dramatic swings due to conditions they otherwise cannot control.
Some companies that are hiring have stopped doing face-to-face interviews. Other companies are trying to respond to rumors about specific workers who may have tested positive while maintaining privacy for all concerned. Still others are assembling “rapid response” teams to consider other implications of the health emergency.
Financial institutions are reaching out to clients who are understandably worried about steep declines in stock markets. As Investor’s Business Daily reported Thursday, the average American lost $22,313 from the coronavirus “market correction” in the past two weeks.
The best advice, most of those advisors tell their clients, is not to succumb to panic by selling off assets and stuffing them into a bed pillow. Rather, they counsel hanging on until the crisis passes and markets can begin to regain lost ground. That’s of little comfort to people who were counting on retiring or making other major life changes in the next few months, of course.
Lower interest rates are good for business borrowers, but there’s a limit to how low rates can go before lenders aren’t profitable and can’t make business loans at all. Some banks and institutions are working to institute interest-rate “floors” on floating-rate loans.
On the theory there’s a silver lining somewhere in the cloud, some business consultants are urging people to use time not devoted to travel or other outside meetings to hunker down on projects that might otherwise not get done. It’s all on the belief that once the crisis passes and people go back to work in some semblance of normalcy, the decks are cleared for other productive activity.
And consider this blessing: It wasn’t so many years ago that working online at home or elsewhere wasn’t even a possibility. Today, such technology may keep the lights on for many businesses.
For owners of small businesses and startups, it’s a time to review sales forecasts, expenses and hiring plans, watch for opportunities that may arise from the ever-evolving situation and to keep calm heads on all shoulders. All of that is more easily said than done, but it’s uncharted waters for everyone.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.