As a business owner, I have faced many ups and downs. But I would say that 2019 and 2020 have been among, if not the most, challenging times of my 27 years as CEO of Webhead. To prevent chaos, a nervous breakdown and the loss of my sanity, these words have moved me through it all: “Do the right thing for employees, customers and the business—even when no one is looking.”
When the pandemic hit in 2019, the safety of employees, customers and my family became my foremost concern. I looked to the CDC, the city and the county for guidance to determine how to keep everyone safe from the COVID 19 virus and keep my technology company afloat. We had to be agile and adapt quickly. First, we arranged for employees to work from home due to the lockdown. That included arranging for associates to have a cybersecure laptop and other tools needed to work remotely. Children started the practice of online learning. I was delightfully surprised that employees who are parents were able to balance their work from home along with spending more time with their children.
While I was happy to discover that remote work is productive, I deeply missed human interaction, like the camaraderie of talking to colleagues at the office every day. I continued coming to the office because what captain would abandon her ship? I wanted to be at the helm to meet any need that might possibly arise. But the office felt hollow, empty and silent. It was painful not to see my employees and not seeing invitations in my inbox to networking events and client meetings. “Patience,” I said to myself. “This too shall pass!”
Although I stayed in touch with my lead employees and all customers on the phone and held virtual meetings on Teams and Zoom, the excitement of collective thinking and brainstorming were missing. It just did not feel the same. Yet my heart was full of optimism. Our clients remained loyal through the pandemic…the government helped with a repayable plan so I did not have to lay off anyone…and I became very grateful for the resilience of our employees who kept the momentum going and made customers feel that we were still in the office and getting the work done because we were. Most of our customers are federal employees and were working from home as well. It was also painful to watch local customers, like restaurant owners, who lost business and experienced a such hard time keeping their employees and their doors open.
Also, it became a bit tougher to bring on new clients because of the uncertainty of the economy and the reality of cold, virtual meetings. In my experience, it is just easier to conduct business face-to-face. On top of those challenges, we had new responsibilities—like following the CDC guidelines. Traditional business practices like visiting prospective and existing customers, as well as networking events, were out the window. All meetings were on Zoom, Team, or Webex. We installed disinfectant dispensers at our office entrances; we bought plenty of masks and made wearing them in our office mandatory for clients and employees alike. Although there were only a handful of employees working at the office, we used a fogging machine to disinfect our offices and computers at least twice a week. We put signs everywhere reminding employees and visitors to wash their hands and practice social distancing. Shaking hands was replaced by the elbow high fives, hugs were no longer acceptable. All things that most of us have gone through because of the pandemic will make for good stories to share when we have grandchildren.
Simply put, business is about great relationships, and it is harder to maintain strong relationships with employees and customers in such uncertain times. At this point, most employees have been vaccinated and we see a light at the end of tunnel and away from the pandemic. From my experience, here are some things I will remember:
- Handle a natural disaster as you would a business problem. Research what you can do to keep employees, customers and the business safe.
- Be patient with employees. Allow them to work remotely as needed, especially those who have children at home.
- Assess and rethink the benefits you offer. Benefits such as paid time off become more important in times of uncertainty.
- Offer employees flexible hours. In troubled times, people have to juggle multiple job roles and home responsibilities.
- Communicate clearly and give employees as much notice as possible about changing conditions such as hours.
- Contact customers who stick with you through hard times. Check on them because they are going through the same thing. And say thank you for being loyal.
- Be grateful for everything you have. Things can always be worse, so count every blessing!