Owners and industry experts interviewed by Crain's Cleveland Business believe there is reason to be optimistic as businesses optimize their shops for flexibility.
with Michael Ozan
Since March 2020, small businesses have been cutting through a thicket of restrictions and recommendations in determining how to continue operations. Owners and industry experts believe there is reason to be optimistic as businesses optimize their shops for flexibility. Since March 2020, small businesses have been cutting through a thicket of restrictions and recommendations in determining how to continue operations. Owners and industry experts interviewed by Crain's Cleveland Business believe there is reason to be optimistic as businesses optimize their shops for flexibility. Embracing technology, prioritizing work-life balance and valuing empathy are just a few strategies entrepreneurs should be considering in an ever-changing (and stress-inducing) pandemic environment. Small businesses across industry sectors are being deluged by pent-up demand, an issue exacerbated by a shallow talent pool, notes Mike Ozan, chief creative officer of the branding and design company Twist Creative. Ozan said remaining present with customers is a crucial step that overwhelmed businesses can take even as the economy recovers. Enterprises in the B2B or B2C realm would even be wise to share their rebuilding stories on social media. "Find a way to be assertive and stay in front of people," said Ozan. "Ask for those follows, and tell your story. Everyone loves transparency when we're all going through the same thing. If you had to let employees go and pay half their salaries, customers will be more empathetic." A silver lining of the last 16 months has been a kinder working world where everyone is not only thinking about themselves, Ozan adds. While prioritizing work-life balance is a challenge in any marketplace, the rise of video meetings has illuminated the need for employee flexibility outside the office. Among other outcomes, this change in atmosphere is pushing out "curmudgeon leadership" in favor of a more nimble generation. "Put a millennial in charge who understands brands and wants a company to be exciting and engaging," Ozan said. "The old way of doing business doesn't exist anymore. Millennials have a totally different way of evaluating their partners." Dealing with the ups and downs Vaccines unveiled earlier this year brought hope to struggling businesses, a trend somewhat muted by the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19. With infections and hospitalizations increasing again in the United States, founders with the right technology in place are better prepared than contemporaries lacking those digital tools. From an anecdotal standpoint, the move to remote work has helped smaller shops keep productivity at pre-pandemic levels, observes Robert Cohen, chairman of SCORE, a Cleveland-based small business mentoring organization. Cohen said, "People I've talked to across sectors are more focused on what they do, and can control their time a bit better not being in meetings all day long. If management understands and trusts their workers, they'll see productivity can be as good as it was when people were in the office." SCORE, which provides volunteer experts for free mentoring sessions, suggests small businesses reintroduce any "deep-dive discovery" tactics they previously used to engage customers. Liz Ferrante, owner of a Barre3 studio franchise in Legacy Village, shifted classes almost immediately to Zoom when the first wave of state-mandated stay-at-home orders came down in spring 2020. Today, Ferrante is reaching out to potential clients via free outdoor classes and other pop-up events. Staff and faculty at Ursuline College are enjoying the studio's full-body balanced workouts, while Ferrante is providing additional classes at University Hospitals in partnership with the North Union Farmers Market. Barre3 spent the pandemic's earlier months livestreaming studio classes, a crisis-spurred pivot that's now a staple of Ferrante's offerings. Indoor classes are at limited capacity, expanding in June from a dozen to 18 patrons. With no plans to max out occupancy to 27, Barre3 provides outdoor activities at Legacy Village — in case of inclement weather, classes are moved under a tent. Juggling classes and services have yet to bring Barre3 back to 2019 revenues. Paycheck Protection Program funding, which ended for most borrowers on May 31, had been an additional lifeline for the business that Ferrante must now do without. The pandemic's evolving nature motivated Ferrante to start an online newsletter, where she shares motivational messages as well as surveys about clients' readiness to return to in-person classes. Although her 12-person staff is completely vaccinated, Ferrante is keeping close watch on local variant transmission. Masking and even vaccination cards are a possibility pending a new surge of the virus. "There was a shock that took place when we had to close the business — I had so much uncertainty about the health of my family and the community," said Ferrante. "It makes you think about what we'll do if this happens again." A place for empathy Twist Creative tells its clients to forecast ahead, taking into consideration the possibility of future shutdowns and preparing for the worst. Such changes can put undue stress on staff, meaning simple empathy should be part of any workplace roadmap, says creative officer Ozan. "It's about companies going through their own training so they get a vision of what their culture can be," Ozan said. "And if that culture is realized, what are businesses providing in value from a recruitment, customer service and quality of life standpoint? (Empathy) is an essential, not just nice to have, because workers have more choice now. It's an employee market." Ozan is seeing a renewed push for diversity and inclusion at larger entities, a mantle that smaller businesses can take up as well. Such expectations may not be as intense at a 15-person office, but it never hurts to invest in your people. "You have to create an atmosphere that inspires people so they stay," said Ozan. "A commitment to teaching and training is ongoing and takes time and money." Cohen of SCORE believes empathy goes both ways, insofar as staff must understand how virus shutterings have impacted founders. "Remember that the employer has a lot of skin in the game, whether it's loans or dealing with equipment," Cohen said. "It's not a one-way street. Both sides communicating is important."