small businesses

Prepare now for opportunities small business owners could take advantage of and challenges they may face.

So, America is beginning to return to some version of normal as the coronavirus pandemic seems to be coming to an end because more and more people are becoming vaccinated every day and seasonality is limiting the spread of the disease.

This presents both opportunities and challenges for small businesses that are reopening or have already reopened. Here are some opportunities business owners should take steps now to take advantage of — along with challenges they must prepare for.

Opportunity: Lower real estate costs

Does your business depend on physical locations?

If that’s the case, the post-pandemic world could present you with some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to expand your number of business locations or lower your real estate costs.

Unfortunately, there have been many business closures across the United States, especially among retailers. This has made more business real estate available, an acceleration of a trend that began prior to the pandemic. It has left block after block in places like New York City — and strip mall after strip mall in states like Florida and Texas — of storefronts and other business locations with “for rent” and “for sale” signs in their windows.

This is providing operations that are dependent on brick and mortar locations with an opportunity to expand their physical presence or lower costs by taking advantage of rents and property valuations that may never be as low again. Companies that have cash available to them should take advantage of the opportunity to buy or rent prime locations at extraordinarily low costs.

Bottom line: This is a buyer’s or renter’s market when it comes to business properties. Use it as a chance to negotiate favorable long-term leases or low purchase prices.

Opportunity OR challenge: Working from home

One of the things that small business owners learned during the pandemic is whether their employees really need to show up for work or if they can effectively work from home (WFM).

Depending on the type of business, some found that working from home presented challenges, while others came to realize that at-home employees are more efficient and productive.

For those that found that WFM wasn’t effective for them, they’ll need to address the challenge of finding ways to attract employees back to the workplace. This could be particularly difficult in what is turning into a competitive employment environment. Small business owners facing this issue can leverage enhanced benefits, attractive work environments, opportunities for professional growth, higher salaries or hourly rates, free childcare, and other perks to get people to come back to work.

Tip: Many businesses may have to use these perks and benefits to attract people who experienced layoffs and furloughs and may be unwilling to return to work because they’re taking advantage of enhanced unemployment benefits offered by the federal government.

The companies that found WFM was effective for them will need to come up with policies that govern all aspects of remote work. They should couple “best of” work-life balance practices with the practical realities of the business. It’s the best way to leverage — and gain control over — a situation that could benefit a business if it’s done right or bring it down if employees take advantage of it.

Bottom line: Attracting people back to the workplace or developing WFH policies aren’t things business owners do every day. It could be worth hiring a human resource consultant to ensure you get things right.

Challenge: The physical workspace

Prior to the pandemic, most companies were turning to consolidated workspaces with open and shared amenities. The goal was to encourage openness, transparency, and collaboration.

In a post-COVID world, this may no longer make sense. Even when people are vaccinated, COVID-19 is under control and social distancing is no longer necessary, they could still be concerned about the next pandemic or rapid-spread health issue.

The workspace of the future might need to look more like the ones of the past. Open floor plans may need to be replaced with designs that include partitions, defined spaces, and actual offices. Ventilation systems should be upgraded so they provide better airflow and filtration.

Tip: Cleaning protocols will have to consider people’s concerns about disease spread. Customers and workers will be less likely to tolerate visibly dirty or unhygienic business spaces.

Bottom line: Many of the people you’re trying to attract as clients and employees after the COVID-19 pandemic won’t want to do business in the spaces they were willing to prior to the pandemic. Use this transitional period as a chance to reconsider your physical workspace and the enhancements required to make it a place people feel safe in.

Opportunity: Digital is here to stay

The virtual business world that people could only imagine prior to the pandemic became a forced reality during it because of lockdowns. And there are no signs that it will return to a past normal now that lockdowns are over.

All types of U.S. businesses, from doctor’s offices to grocery stores, went digital during the coronavirus crisis. It doesn’t look like people will want to return to visiting medical practices or going shopping for food if they don’t have to once the pandemic is over. People have seen the online future and most really like what they have experienced during the pandemic. (Just look at the continued growth of Amazon to see that this is a trend that isn’t going to end.)

If your organization made temporary changes to do business virtually in the last year, it could be time to improve and systematize your online operations. As digital services get better and better, employees and customers will be less likely to tolerate patched-together systems.

Bottom line: Don’t take chances by continuing to depend on the quick virtual changes your operation made to get through the public health crisis. It’s time to refine them, get them right, and make them permanent as soon as possible.

Opportunity: Review customer lists

Sure, a lot of businesses lost customers during the COVID-19 crisis. However, many discovered which ones are their most committed because they stayed with them during challenging times and helped limit the economic impact of the pandemic.

If you’ve been struggling to just get by, it could be time to figure out which of your clients helped you make it through the last year. These are the ones that will likely be your foundation for future business success.

Bottom line: Of course, new business prospects are exciting. But the relationships that help you get through the worst of times (and could it get any worse…) are keepers. Set up customer appreciation and loyalty programs to show your gratitude for the ongoing support of your best buyers.

Opportunity: Reconsider your supply chain

The pandemic has changed everything. It’s likely the case with the suppliers you depend on.

Are your current ones the best for a post-pandemic world? The only way to know for certain is to check around and find out what’s available. Companies changed a lot over the last year and there could be better options you’re not aware of.

Bottom line: Take time to review your suppliers. Your business made it through the pandemic better than ever. Don’t leave it vulnerable to second-tier vendors.

Opportunity: Offer support

Sure, many people are more optimistic and confident about the end of the pandemic. But not everyone is feeling the same. And people’s emotions can evolve from last month to this. only or even last week to this week. These are still challenging times for many Americans. Have conversations with your customers and employees. Some may be excited about ripping masks off, ending social distancing and hanging out in close quarters. Others not so much.

Take time to figure it out. Showing you care is the ultimate way to prove your commitment to the people you do business with and those who work for you.

Bottom line: Use this time to conduct surveys, gather information on social media and have conversations with customers and workers to learn about their expectations for the new normal. It will help you create a workspace they will like spending time in.

Challenge: Protecting your business

Are the bad times over? Maybe or maybe not. And what’s next?

The pandemic seems to be ending. But smart business owners shouldn’t let their guards down. Instead, they must think about what could be next. It’s a good idea to regularly meet with the people on your team and customers to think about the risks your business could face, along with ideas on how to avoid or manage through them.

Whether it’s another healthcare crisis, weather emergency, accident, natural disaster, or other crisis, the coronavirus pandemic has taught us that businesses that plan ahead are more likely to make it through.

Bottom line: While you’re reviewing your risks, it could be smart to meet with your business insurance agent. He or she should be an expert at risk and may be able to identify potential ones you’ve never thought about.

Opportunity: Consider your future financial needs

The pandemic has upset the financial positions of most small businesses. Some struggled while others increased their sales, depending on the industry they’re in and the products and services they offer. Many were able to take advantage of loans through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to help them make it through the pandemic.

Did you know that PPP loans, which were administered through the Small Business Administration, were approved by Congress on two separate occasions, signed into law by President Trump and had their availability extended by President Biden? They were popular with both Republicans and Democrats.

This could be a good time to take stock and think about your future financial position and needs. Go back and review your financial plans and position before and during the pandemic. Then think about the future. Does it look more like the distant past or the realities of the pandemic? Or can you envision a completely different new normal?

Once you have a clearer picture of your business future, work with your bookkeeper, accountant, and other financial experts to restructure your cash flow, processes, accounts, and systems so you’re ready for the post-pandemic business world. You should also connect with your tax expert to find out if there are tax credits or other short-term or long-term economic recovery programs you can still take advantage of.

Bottom line: Do you see gaps or opportunities in your future business financial situation? This could be a good time to secure a business loan to help you get by or take advantage of what could be ahead. With most economists and business experts predicting flush times ahead for the U.S. economy, it’s possible that business loan interest rates will go up from their current record low levels. The Federal Reserve (Fed) could raise interest rates if policymakers think the economy is overheating. This is likely because federal government experts are already seeing the gross domestic product (GDP) increasing at near-record levels. Waiting too long to secure financing could end up costing you a lot in added interest over the long term.

Challenge: Mental and emotional health

Small business owners and their employees have been through a lot as they struggled through the unprecedented times we’ve all just lived through. Many may have buried their feelings just to do their jobs every day. This is an unhealthy thing to do for too long and could impact their personal lives and their on-the-job performance.

As things start to normalize, it could be smart to check in with a counselor or other mental health professional. Business owners should make these services available to their employees. It doesn’t have to be expensive. There are many reputable and affordable options available online. The investment will pay off in a healthier and more productive workplace.

Bottom line: Businesses won’t be able to succeed in the future if the people working for them are dealing with past trauma. Use this time to get healthy so you and your team won’t constantly be dragged back into the pandemic past.

Opportunity: Stay informed

Small business owners have gotten good at staying current on the latest news and regulations during the pandemic. This shouldn’t stop now that it’s coming to an end.

Regulations and recommendations will continue to be released on things like capacity limits, wearing masks, and vaccine passports that could impact your operation.

Bottom line: You’ve followed all the rules and regulations issued during the pandemic. Don’t jeopardize the future of your business by letting down now.

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