Countries are easing their lockdowns in different ways, but businesses are facing similar challenges to resume their activities. Douglas Barnett, director for mid-market and customer risk management at AXA UK, is back at work after recovering from coronavirus. With his team, he has designed a series of guides that give practical advice, sector by sector, on how to restart a business safely.
The lockdowns that we’ve been going through, across five continents, are unprecedented. The situation is like nothing people have experienced before; and it is like nothing businesses have experienced before. Of course, some companies close for the holiday, but that usually lasts two weeks – not several months. And summer or festive breaks are very different from entire countries grinding down to a halt, with only key activities being maintained. No entrepreneur has ever had to restart their business amid such human and economic distress.
One essential thing that business owners and managers must bear in mind as their local lockdown is eased or lifted: the duties they owe to their employees and customers are not eased, they are enhanced. Businesses need a plan to resume activities in a controlled and safe manner. And if some activities cannot be carried out safely, they should not be undertaken at all.
For various reasons, it is unlikely that all staff will come back to work at once. Some may have childcare or transport issues, for instance. Others may need to self-isolate. Or perhaps the business will restart gradually, bringing people in progressively. These restarters will need to be trained, or at least inducted, about the new working arrangements. It is also for business owners to understand and, importantly, to support the mental wellbeing of their staff: many may fear for their own health or their loved ones’, and some may be grieving.
PROTECTION AND DISTANCES
Businesses need to provide their employees with the right protective equipment, like gloves and masks and perhaps visors. They need to share guidance with them on how to correctly place, wear and remove face masks. If employees already wore PPE before the pandemic, employers must ensure that protective equipment meets the COVID-19 requirements.
The premises may need to be altered or reorganized to allow for greater distance between colleagues. In particular, face-to-face workstations must be avoided. Shift patterns will reduce the number of people present at one time and allow staff to avoid peak travel times. Staggered meal breaks may need to be considered. For deliveries, a new protocol may be needed to reduce contacts.
Shops need arrangements for lines, door control to limit the number of people inside, and a one-way flow between narrow aisles. Neighboring shops need to consult each other and find arrangements for their lines not to overlap.
Workplaces will want to deep clean their toilets, canteen and other specific areas before reopening, and then implement a thorough regime of sanitizing. Obviously, particular attention should be given to desks, computers and phones – and hot desking could become a thing of the past. Besides, the trash will need to be emptied frequently to avoid a build-up of used gloves and masks.
Hand washing is a vital measure, so hot water, soap and paper towels must be available at all times. And hand sanitizer should be available, particularly at points of entry and exit.
Shops may want to reduce opening hours to allow for more cleaning before and after receiving customers. Baskets and trolleys should be wiped after every use. And card payments should be encouraged to avoid cash.
Before restarting after such a long closure, businesses need to run several checks. The building must be inspected for signs of deterioration or damage needing repair. Security installations also need to be checked; they include alarms, CCTV, sprinklers, fire doors and extinguishers.
Equipment such as heavy plant needs to go through start-up checks.
Water should be reopened slowly to avoid water hammer, which could damage pipes. The taps and showers that have been left unused for weeks need to be run for five minutes to minimize the risk of legionella.
Fleet operators need to check their vehicles are road-legal, with safe tires, brakes and levels. Drivers should be confident about their skills and they will need to be trained on revised procedures, including how to work in compliance when at customer premises.
While the security checks are somewhat similar to what needs to be done after a usual temporary closure, restarting a business after a national or even international lockdown brings about many logistic challenges.
A business will need to assess how long its stock levels can last while its supply chain ramps up. It will need to talk with its suppliers, especially if they provide critical spare parts. The priority should be to speak with tier-1 suppliers first and to secure adequate supply for the next six months. If a company uses temporary premises, perhaps to stock more, it will need to tell its broker to arrange appropriate cover. It will need also to take into account its logistics partners’ distribution capacity.
Businesses restarting their activities need to take all those precautions – and they need to be able to prove it. They need to document how they’ve assessed the risks, designed the cleaning regime and informed their staff about the new rules. More importantly, they need to put their employees and their customers at the centre of their restart plan. They should consider people’s anxiety about returning to their workplace. And they should understand their customers’ needs, which will likely have changed tremendously.