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How to protect your small business in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak

Key Points
  • With stock markets plunging and coronavirus cases surging, owners of small- and medium-sized businesses are scrambling to figure out how to deal with the disruption to their operation.
  • It's not too late for businesses to set up remote workforces, communicate with staff and prepare for a worsening outbreak.
  • President Trump plans to meet with Senate leadersTuesday to discuss a payroll tax cut, small business aid and help for hourly workers who get sick.
A medical worker in protective clothing attends the COVID-19 coronavirus response-training exercise, at the Oleksandrivska Clinical Hospital in Ukraine.
Pavlo Gonchar | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

Stock markets are plunging — down about 7% at Monday's close — oil prices are in free fall, supply chains are being disrupted, and in the middle of it all, small- and medium-sized businesses are dealing with frightened employees, skittish customers and an uncertain future. The situation is so dire, President Donald Trump plans to meet with Senate leaders Tuesday to discuss a payroll cut, small business aid and help for hourly workers who might become sick.

Ever since the coronavirus started infecting people in China, Eric Plam, president of Skyroam, a San Francisco-based company that creates and sells Wi-Fi-enabled hotspots to businesses, has been busy figuring out how to keep his staff safe and his business operating. 

The business has about 120 staff in Shenzhen, China — out of 180, including 20 in the U.S. — all of whom were told by the Chinese government not to come into work after the virus started spreading. At the time, Plam didn't understand what was happening. "I first thought it was the flu," he says. "I was wondering why they weren't going into work."

He's since called off several in-person meetings, told employees they can work from home and turned a board meeting, which was supposed to take place in Beijing, into a videoconference call using Amazon Chime, an online videoconferencing program.

"It went really well," he says. "Everyone was able to join without having to travel, and we were able to translate live, so people were able to speak in Chinese and English as they usually do."

About 807 miles north in Seattle, Henry Albrecht, CEO of Limeade, an employee engagement software company, has been reacting in much the same way. He too has canceled all nonessential travel, while most of the 160 or so employees that work from the Seattle office (100 more already work remotely) are now stuck at home. "There are 12 people here," he says. "Luckily, we're in the software business, so working from home is an option."

Not too late to plan 

Plam and Albrecht are just two executives out of thousands who run small- to medium-sized businesses now scrambling to figure out how to handle all this disruption. 

This wouldn't have been an issue a decade ago, when American businesses mostly conducted business closer to home, but now many companies are global. "We encouraged small businesses to be more global and to export more, and now they're more vulnerable to things like the coronavirus," says Andrew Sherman, a Washington, D.C.-based partner with Seyfarth, a global law firm. 

Despite cases continuing to rise and markets sending people and companies in a panic, it's not too late for businesses to set up remote workforces, communicate with staff and prepare for a worsening outbreak. Here are a few things you can do now. 

1. Communicate with staff 

One of the most important things you can do is communicate with your employees. Many are likely concerned about their health and how they can continue working as more things get shut down. 

Albrecht's own Limeade ONE platform comes with an internal communications feature where people can instant message each other. As soon as the outbreak's seriousness became clear, Albrecht set up what he calls a "care in crisis" channel that automatically sends push notifications to staff whenever he posts. "There's an intentional importance attached, because the messages are coming from me," he says. 

It's in that channel where he provides updates on the virus itself — he's posted a number of CDC videos on COVID-19 and how to monitor oneself for the disease — along with recommended handwashing and social-distancing procedures, travel updates (most are canceled) and ideas on how to work effectively from home.  

Employees can also post their own messages in that channel, which he says is key. "It's powerful," he says about the two-way communication. "We want to hear from our people as well. We also have the ability to ask people to take a quiz so they can tell us if they need more information on something."

2. Invest in work-from-home technology

While most people likely have a phone, a computer and an internet connection, some may not have enough bandwidth to do the kind of work they do at the office at home. Some companies may also not be set up with the right collaboration tools, such as internal communications programs or secure Wi-Fi networks to allow for remote work. 

With coronavirus cases surging, Eric Plam, president of Skyroam in San Francisco, told his employees to work from home.
Skyroam Inc.

While Plam has only 20 employees in San Francisco, anyone who is feeling a bit under the weather is encouraged to stay home. At the moment, though, most are at work. If anyone does decide to stay home, whether in the U.S., China or in his other offices, in France and Germany, they can use Skyroam's own technology, which creates Wi-Fi signals by tapping in local data networks. This gives them office-grade internet without having to pay for it themselves. 

His phone has been ringing off the hook over the last couple of weeks with more companies than ever wanting to find ways to help their staff work remotely. 

For Albrecht, Microsoft Teams is coming in handy. It's a collaboration program that allows people to video chat and work on Word files together from wherever they may be. Google's G Suite, which comes with collaborative software like Google docs, sheets and hangouts, is another alternative.

3. Create a disaster preparedness policy 

A lot of companies haven't planned for a crisis on this scale, but as many are finding out now, they need one, says Sherman. A good plan will cover a number of things, including procedures around remote work. It should spell out how people should work from home and what tools they'll need to get the job done; how to handle travel; what to do about meetings and more.  

It's also important to include things such as insurance coverage for business closures or trip cancellations, how to get financing when no one is investing, what lines of credit are in place, supply chain alternatives and more, says Sherman. 

While service businesses may be able to continue operating in some way, other companies, such as restaurants or local movie theaters, will have to think hard about how to manage staff and cash flows if people stop going out. "What is plan B?" he says. "If something were to happen, do I have the right alternative business models in place?" 

All of this should be documented, says Sherman, as it shows that people are thinking about what could happen in a worst-case scenario, and it acts as an easy-to-reference guide on what to do, how to communicate and how to keep business running in difficult times. "You need all the elements of a crisis-management or disaster-preparedness plan in place," he says. 

You need all the elements of a crisis-management or disaster-preparedness plan in place.
Andrew Sherman
a partner with global law firm Seyfarth 

No matter what happens, small- and medium-sized businesses will no doubt take some sort of hit to their bottom line. While the government may step in to help — some democrats have introduced a bill in Congress to provide up to $2 million in interest-free loans to companies affected by the outbreak — business owners need to be proactive and do what they need to do to keep their doors open, even if their employees aren't there. 

While COVID-19 appears to be getting worse in the U.S., Plam isn't panicking. His staff are set up to work from wherever they can, and while he does anticipate busier times ahead when people start traveling again, for now it's mostly business as usual.

"We remain optimistic that we'll get past this and the economy will roar back to life," he says. "We may have to catch up on some things, but employees are prepared." 

More from Invest in You:
How to build a cash reserve if coronavirus causes you to miss work
Avoid this investing mistake as coronavirus fears grip markets
Save $1,000 without sacrificing anything you really love

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.