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Opinion: If you're in business, you need to get ahead of this Covid-19 crisis

Jason O’Sullivan says now is a time of major change, and businesses must try to adapt.

Jason O'Sullivan Solicitor

“IT WILL BE like nothing in our living memory” was the initial dire warning delivered last week by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Government’s press briefing on Covid-19.

Similar sentiments have been reiterated in subsequent press conferences and in particular the St Patrick’s Day address to the nation, where he said: “This is the calm before the storm – before the surge when it comes – and it will come”.

These particular phrases stand out as seminal moments in the government’s articulation of the gravity being faced by Ireland and its citizens. This virus is and will continue to have a devastating effect on the way of life as we know it for the foreseeable future. 

The closures of schools, universities, crèches, pubs and restaurants along with restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings are already having a major impact on Irish businesses across certain industries, particularly the tourist and hospitality sectors.

Others will now follow swiftly as disruption intensifies over the coming weeks, as we get closer to the possibility of full lockdown akin to what is occurring across Europe.

We are therefore in a time of a major societal, health and economic crisis, making it imperative for all businesses to have contingency plans in place and to adopt effective crisis management strategies to mitigate negative impact. 

Given the enormity of the challenge, Covid-19 presents to our country and to the entire world, there is no “silver bullet” tactic that businesses can take in dealing with the crisis alone. Instead, it is crucial that businesses take a number of prudent and immediate steps to prepare as best they can.

  1. Review of internal employment policies and contracts

An immediate review of the company’s employment handbook and employee contracts is paramount to help employers identify and update specific policies relating to:

  • Leave policies, such as sick leave, unpaid leave, parental leave and time in lieu

  • Short-term and temporary lay-off in instances where an employer is unable to maintain staff numbers for a specific period of time or redundancy policies for permanent staff reductions   

  • Remote working and utilising technology for business online meetings or off-site work

  • Obligations on staff to report illness and imposing staff travel restrictions 

  • Health and safety procedures such as promoting good hand hygiene and incorporating social distancing within the workplace.

Such policies, if you have them, should both guide and inform employers on how best to prepare and initiate all necessary actions as required in dealing with staff members who may need to self-quarantine, work remotely for a period or care for a family member who becomes infected with the virus. Overall, these policies will need to be adaptable to change and updated as required.

If an employer does not have the basic employment law structures in place such as an employee handbook and employee contracts, they will be left in a precarious legal position. Employers could face potential lawsuits if they fail to act fairly and appropriately with employees or breach any rights and entitlements in the absence of such contractual terms. 

  1. Clear communication to stakeholders 

Businesses have stakeholders at every level – staff, suppliers, customers, shareholders, banks and in some cases even media, depending on the brand and size of the business.  

It will be crucial for senior management to pro-actively communicate clearly and confidently to its many stakeholders on how the business is coping with and managing the crisis, adopting key messages as required to suit the audience.

In times of economic peril, it is important for those in leadership roles to convey a sense of calm and denote confidence they have matters in hand, as to avoid mass hysteria or panic.

This communitive style of approach is the one currently been utilised by the Irish Government and its emergency task force who are charged with providing daily updates on the tackling of this ever-growing challenge. 

Keeping up to date with communications from the Department of Health will also be required by business owners, as to ensure proper protocols are been adhered too, particularly in the event a positive case occurring within the confines of the business premises. 

  1. Get finance safeguards in place 

In times of economic instability as we have seen on the global markets since the outbreak, “cash is king” and therefore cash flow will be vital for the survival of most commercial operations affected by Covid-19.

There have already been positive measures announced by the Irish banks and Government this month aimed at helping Irish businesses with funding availability. While Revenue has stated it will waive in the immediate term, penalties for late payment of upcoming VAT returns and employer PAYE liabilities. 

These interventions are welcome and in particular, the latest scheme as announced, which will see the Government pay 70% of a workers’ salary of up to a maximum of €410 per week, where the employer agrees to continue paying the remainder of the salary.

Nonetheless, it will still be hugely important for businesses to engage early with their banks and lenders to ensure such emergency funding or overdraft facilities are ring-fenced for their organisation in anticipation of this fiscal strain on working capital.

  1. Enhance cybersecurity and data protection

Given the high number of businesses moving towards staff and client meetings via online conferencing tools, enhancement of cybersecurity will be necessary to safeguard company finances and client data.

Such online interaction is necessary to enable employers to adhere to social distancing rules and in facilitating remote working. However, those employees working from home should be required to check their own home environment for network vulnerabilities, before connecting to work devices or engaging in online work meetings.

Businesses should also audit their own internal I.T systems and provide staff with increased cybersecurity software to limit potential data breaches if required.

  1. Evaluate internal operation systems 

Businesses will need to evaluate how it operates internally to see where it can demonstrate agility in adapting to necessary organisational and operational change.

For instance, they should scrutinise all aspects of its supply chain up to the end product or service, particularly if it’s a manufacturing, retail or products based entity. Given the level of globalisation, many Irish businesses rely heavily on countries such as the United States and China in the provision of part supplies and raw materials integral to the overall finished product for sale.

The earlier a company can understand and identify weaknesses within its own supply chain will enable it to identify either alternative suppliers from different jurisdictions or secondary methods to achieve a finished product or service delivery.  

Former US President, John F. Kennedy famously once said “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognise the opportunity.” 

Albeit a wise and positive statement to ponder, the sheer magnitude of this current crisis fails to present any apparent opportunities right now; except the very clear dangers at hand for the world to face. 

The early upgrading of Covid-19 from epidemic to a pandemic highlighted the scale of danger to our public health, society and economy, which is unprecedented for modern times.  It is therefore vital for businesses and individuals alike to prepare as best they can and take all necessary steps in mitigating such danger. 

Jason O’ Sullivan, is a Solicitor and Public Affairs Consultant at J.O.S Solicitors.

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Jason O'Sullivan  / Solicitor

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