Get ready for the ‘Great Shutdown’

Thanks to Omicron, many businesses may have no choice but to close down soon. But you can be prepared.

This fall, even as the Omicron variant gained steam, we largely pretended it wasn’t that bad. We were wrong.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I want to focus on what you’re going to do when you literally can’t keep your doors open because all your employees are home sick. (It’s already happening.)

In my hometown of Asheville, N.C., schools have closed because the latest spike left the city schools system without enough staff to “maintain facilities operations or hold classes.” Restaurants, already hard hit by the Great Resignation, are also shutting their doors. Retail stores, concert venues, and theaters are following suit, as they can’t keep enough staffers on the floor to take care of customers.

It’s not just where I live. It’s happening everywhere, though perhaps not all at once. In many ways, what we’re seeing are rolling shutdowns. Airlines that can’t get enough pilots or ground crowds. Retail shops with salespeople out. You get the idea.

It goes beyond just having employees who are simply too sick to come in; secondary effects will keep them at home, too. Some need to take care of kids who, once more, must stay at home because there are no schools or daycare available. Others will want to limit their COVID exposure—both for their own sake and for those that they live with.

This is different from 2020, when companies were forced to close doors because of local and state regulations and orders. Today, the simple, ugly reality is that the lack of workers is shutting them for us.

We were already in trouble with our workforce anyway; the Great Resignation was not a one-and-done event. A record 4.5 million American workers quit their jobs in November.

So, what can you do about it? For starters, accept the fact that you probably will need to shut down for lack of staff within the next few weeks. Now—right now—is the time to plan your resources accordingly. Do you really need those supplies in late January? February? Can you get by for a while until they arrive?

If you can stay open, it’s important to mask up again and resume social distancing measures. (It’s in part because we stopped doing this that the Omicron variant has been more disruptive than earlier outbreaks.) And if there are rapid COVID-19 tests available, stock up on them while you can; even though they’re not 100% reliable, they might help stop an outbreak that shuts you down completely. Your employees will thank you, too.

Do you have a business continuity plan? You might have had one in place for an earthquake or a hurricane, but it could still prove useful during a pandemic. If you don’t have one, do your company a favor and spend some time building one. If nothing else is true, we know we can’t plan on business as usual these days.

What if your people won’t come to work because of the virus when you want them to? Well, I wouldn’t push it these days if they’re a valuable employee. Besides, the FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) requires companies with at least 50 employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year. The key here is if they or a family member have a serious health condition. Having a nasty case of COVID qualifies; simply wanting to avoid COVID, if the workers are otherwise healthy, doesn’t.

If your employees are back to working in the office, it’s time to return them to working from home. Many big businesses are already doing this—and even delaying plans to reopen. You should, too.

While you’re at it, I urge you—once more—to consider switching to, if not a permanent work-from-home plan, then at least a hybrid work model where your employees are only in the office some of the time. Many, if not most, employees who have gotten a taste of working from home often have no desire to come back.

Besides, as Kevin Harrington, CEO of employee-search company Joblist, recently pointed out, “With a record number of job openings and the rise of remote work, barriers to job switching are now lower than ever.”

Indeed, according to a Joblist survey, a whopping 74% of full-time employees and 51% of part-time workers say they’re already planning to quit their jobs this year. (Of course, the survey involved people already looking at jobs, so that number may be skewed. But the overall sentiment is real.) GoodHire, an employment background check company, found “68% of Americans would choose remote working options over in-office work.

In other words, with the pandemic forcing us to address our worker situation yet again, take the time to consider what you need to do to keep your employees happy for the rest of the year.

What we’re going through now will pass. And when it does, you’ll need to make sure your workers are ready to stick with you as everyone rebuilds our businesses to flourish in the new normal.

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