Businesses Prepare for Venture Into Nomanneslonde

Businesses Prepare for Venture Into Nomanneslonde

What is the proper metaphor for the situation in which many business owners and managers now find themselves? How do you describe the territory in between the critical need to get business and the economy moving again, and the need to protect the safety and well-being of the people making the economy function?

Printing and distributing new money to keep businesses and people afloat increases debt and can be the cause of serious, unintended and long-term consequences. Moving people into settings where a highly contagious new virus with many unknown factors is still present can also produce bad, sometimes terminal, results. To borrow a very old term, the most appropriate metaphor seems to be “No Man’s Land.” Many are choosing sides. Out of fear and concern for public health and the safety of family, some wish to continue to keep things closed. Others, whose viability as a company, organization or even household are at stake, wish to get back to work and start earning income again as soon as possible. The space in between is where the solutions must be found.

It’s not an easy problem to solve for many organizations with a business model built on a certain volume of activity. Theaters, stadiums, commercial airplanes, restaurants and bars require certain numbers of customers to break even or make a profit. Impose a 50% capacity rule or require a six-foot “set-back” between customers, and the previous profit and loss calculations just may not work anymore. So, what should a business do as the temporary financial assistance programs begin to expire?

Make a Plan for Alternative Scenarios

It’s tough to plan in the midst of a crisis, but it is a necessary exercise. Based on the current rules that apply to a particular business type, consider the following scenarios.

  • What would happen if those rules are extended for an additional one, two or six months? Longer? Do the math.
  • What would happen if some rules are relaxed, such as occupancy limits of 50% or 70% of maximum capacity? Or what happens if customer behavior doesn’t return to “normal” after rules are relaxed? Again, do the math.
  • Account for changes in the workforce. Will 100% or 50% of employees be available to return to work, and will they feel safe in returning to work?
  • Account for changes in the supply chain. Will the resources and materials required to make the product be available, or has there been a disruption in supplies and materials? How much can be produced given alternative conditions?

Companies and organizations must do this planning. Larger companies and manufacturers are already doing this, and resources such as CIRAS at Iowa State University are helping them. Smaller businesses also need to be doing this planning. What business plan or path will provide the greatest opportunity for success? What steps are needed to implement it?

Take Steps to Provide a Safe Work Environment

Federal and state public health officials are publishing and regularly updating guidelines or suggestions for operating safely as things begin to be “reopened”. Review them carefully and decide what the best options are. Here is a short list of recently published information from authoritative sources.

Communicate With Business Partners and Employees

Now is not the time to hunker down and wait for the next proclamation. Make a call or set up a video conference with the appropriate professionals, including the accountants, lenders, employment professionals, attorneys, landlords and business peers. Put the facts on the table and ask for advice and help. They want and need their customers to survive and succeed.

Employees and contractors also need to be part of the conversation. Answer their questions. Ask for their input. Show them what is going to be done to provide for a safe work environment. Explore best practices and options. There is no one “best practice,” so welcome ideas and use a consensus-building approach.

As events unfold, expect to see professional firms and trade associations step forward with legal, human resources, financial and general business advice. For example, here are two specific webinars with companion slide decks and resources published by legal and employment service providers with operations in the Des Moines area.

Business owners and managers should ask their affiliated professional service providers to help get them connected with similar privately sponsored but publicly accessible resources. Importantly, share this information with your colleagues, peers, employees and contractors as it becomes available.

The Greater Des Moines Partnership has launched a new resource, DSM Forward with industry specific and business function “playbooks” and an FAQ, which provides a framework for business owners and managers to develop action plans for reopening. These playbooks are not recipes for reopening, but rather are outlines that can be used by individual businesses to make decisions about how various issues will be handled based on their unique characteristics and circumstances.

Do you have a need for more specific information, or do you have suggestion for a topic or issue that should be included in a future DSM Forward playbook? DSM has published a short survey to organize those questions and suggestions.

Summary

Reopening is like stepping into a “Nomanneslonde” in many respects. There are many unknowns, but we think it is possible to move the economy forward with thoughtful business planning, care for the health, safety and well-being of everyone at work and in the marketplace, and open and frequent communications with business partners and co-workers. Onward!

Have an idea or best practice for reopening? Share it with us!

Preparing for Remote Work: Technology to the Rescue!

Preparing for Remote Work: Technology to the Rescue!

From a technology standpoint, I don’t think there has ever been a time in history when our world has been more prepared for a crisis. Most companies are fortunate enough to have the ability to perform many of their necessary functions remotely. However, I would be remiss to not recognize the fact that creating a solid remote work environment does not come without workarounds and struggles with initial set up. We can often take for granted the technology and resources available to us in an office setting, from fast internet speeds to secure network access there are many things that make our everyday work environment convenient and comfortable.

Fortunately, our team didn’t take the COVID-19 warnings lightly, and we started to think ahead and prepare for a possible remote work scenario. Did we get it all right on the first try? Certainly not, but we were ahead of the curve by giving some early thought to how we could operate remotely.

Here are a few things we considered.

Access to Network Files

Our team relies on an in-office file network for day-to-day access to our files. The network is an efficient way for our team to stay organized by sharing files in one place that is accessible to our entire team. Moving away from this organized structure may seem challenging, but it doesn’t have to be.

We knew we obviously didn’t need every single file created in company history moved to a new location for remote access, so our team collaborated to make a list of the files that would need moved. We opted to move our files to a SharePoint folder system which is available with our Office 365 subscription. If you do not have access to something like SharePoint there are free versions of cloud-based storage such as Google Drive and Dropbox that you could potentially utilize.

Computer/Device Set Up

Before you can access files and securely log in to a system, you need to make sure that your computer and device setup will allow you to work efficiently. I will tell you firsthand that going from large dual monitors to a small laptop quickly gets frustrating. It’s not always simple to set up a new device configuration but considering a few things will make the process much simpler. Does your office have a spare monitor you can hook up to your laptop? What types or cords or adapters will you need to connect the two devices? Will you want a full keyboard and mouse? How will those connect to your portable device? Taking these configuration options into consideration and having the appropriate materials on hand to create your optimal working environment will pay dividends by helping you avoid unnecessary frustrations.

Team Meetings/Communication

In the beginning, your thoughts about technology needs might be limited to your own work, but if you operate with a small team, there are other things you should consider. Because our team is small, and we are accustomed to being able to hold daily in-person team meetings. In addition, we are fortunate enough to be able to walk down the hall for a quick consult with a co-worker. Luckily, we already had a few things in place that allow us to continue to communicate effectively during this work-from-home period.

Slack
Prior to COVID-19 our team was using Slack to communicate with one another in the office. When the COVID emergency emerged, our communications flow never missed a beat, and we could continue business as usual. Of course, this came with more typing of messages and fewer face-to-face interactions on more complex topics, but this tool helped keep our workflow moving forward.

Adobe Connect
Slack worked great for short conversations and questions, but it isn’t a good environment for a team meeting. Another existing software that we were lucky to have available in our toolkit is Adobe Connect. This service is commonly used for hosting webinars and web conferences.

Prior to the emergency, we would often use a teleconference in conjunction with the web conference features, but not much else. Our new circumstances pushed us to increase use of other features available in Adobe Connect, such as internal video and audio. When dealing with several team members, each with their own device configurations, there were a few hiccups to get each team members device set up to function correctly, but in the end the video and audio connection allowed us to interact like a team again.

Our team feels fortunate to have access to tools that have made our transition to remote work easier. After nearly two months of living through these unprecedented times we can begin to dream about what getting back to a new normal work environment might look like. I am certain this will look different for each company, but I am confident that the exercise of thinking outside the box to prepare a remote work environment will serve all companies well and leave them more prepared and confident for future challenges that might come there way.

Top 5 Tips for Working from Home

Top 5 Tips for Working from Home

To promote the safety and well-being of our population during this pandemic, many companies have told their employees to stay home and work remotely. While this is a rather difficult transition for many, there are simple things to do to make life a little bit easier throughout this time. As I write this blog from my couch, I have compiled a list of tips and tricks to stay productive at home. 

1) Establish a Routine 

Establishing a routine may just be the most important tip for effectively working from home. It will help outline day-to-day activities to stay in line and productive at work. When will I start work? When will I take my lunch break? What can I do to keep me focused and motivated throughout the day? What kind of time needs to be allocated to the tasks I need to complete?These are all valid questions that can be incorporated into a daily routine. Perhaps getting in the routine of keeping and following a schedule or list to follow day in and day out will help keep you on track at work. 

2) Get Ready for Work 

This is not to say that you still need to dress business casual to work from home (although feel free to if that helps). However, sticking to a morning routine before “heading off to work” will help you get in the right mindset to be a productive employee. My top recommendation for this tip is to continue setting your alarm. Furthermore, before beginning work for the day, try doing simple things such as starting your day with some exercise, hitting the shower, and making breakfast to send a mental signal that you are ready for work. 

3) Create a Separate Office Space 

You do not need a nice, at home office to utilize this tipMy home office has become one end of my couch with a side table. The important part here is that this is not somewhere I typically sit and lounge on a regular basis. The point is to have a physical separation of your personal and professional lives within your home. It’s possible for this to work out for some people, but the one thing I recommend avoiding is working from bed. 

4) Utilize Technology and Keep in Contact with Your Team 

Technology is what makes work from home possible. However, a new adjustment for most of us is electronically communicating and coordinating shared documents with everyone. At the office, we are used to having easy access to everything we need and stepping next door to ask a coworker a question. Moving that all online can be a difficult transition. Having shared access to necessary documents through cloud technology is a necessity for team-based environments. It is also important to utilize messaging and videoconferencing apps to maintain good communication with everyone involved in your line of work. Communication is still key! 

5) Minimize the Distractions 

It is no doubt that an endless number of distractions can come from working at home. Many of us have taken on the extra role of care providers and teachers for children, are sharing spaces with family members also working from home in completely different lines of work, or have new furry coworkers who are always in your business. This is not to mention other simple distractions that arise in a home environment that we do not typically face at the office: How many trips to the fridge will I take today? What new shows are on Netflix? I’ll just take a quick ten minute break to fold some laundry. Again, a solution to this goes back to tip #3. Try to keep a separate office space secluded from many of the distractions you face to remain as productive as possible. 

But don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself falling victim to these distractions. Yes, it is important to find ways to stay focused and more productive at work. But more importantly during this time is to be honest about your work. Try to keep detailed notes of when you’re taking breaks and for how long. So, while a small break here and there may be healthy to clear your mind and get back on track, just be honest with the work you have actually completed. 

Those are just a few tips to start out with, and you may find that not all of them help or that something completely different helps you the most. What’s important to remember is that many of us are facing the same challenges that come from working at home. I find that most of us are understanding, forgiving, and patient as we are going through the same complications of this transition. In the end, this is not a permanent state and learning how to be productive with your coworkers remotely may end up being a skill we can all benefit from in the future. 

Top 5 Priorities for Client Communications in Times of Crisis

Top 5 Priorities for Client Communications in Times of Crisis

Whether your responsibilities lie in communicating to your client or on behalf of your client, a time of crisis is going to put your capabilities to the test.

1. Take extra time to personalize your communication strategies to match each audience you are interacting with.

For example, an email to clients or stakeholders might contain information about what methodology you have in place for customer outreach or how you intend to retain a surge of new customers that may drop off once the crisis dissipates. Outreach to a client’s customer base might alternatively focus on the plan to keep business operations going with minimal disruption or targeted training videos to help users self-teach. Because consumers generally react better to content they can understand, making the extra effort to customize messaging will pay off long-term.

Tip: Do something different or special to make your message stand out. Go ahead and use your electronic newsletter templates and social media channels. But maybe a personalized email from you to your clients (employees or volunteers) – without all of the graphics and polish – will let them know you are making a special effort to reach out to them.

2. When a crisis situation is ongoing, there really is no such thing as over-communication.

No matter which audience you are communicating with, maintaining a clear, consistent message is important. Let your audience know you are there to help in whatever capacity you are able. Remind customers or clients of how you’ve altered your business model to better assist everyone affected by the ongoing situation. Also, it is important to keep communicating with clients and/or customers even if your business is inactive; if your goal is to have an active, thriving business again long-term, you need to maintain those key relationships.

Tip: In a time of crisis there’s a lot to communicate in a little amount of time. Create an information hub so your audience can find all information related to the crisis in one place. Once you’ve established an information hub, update the content regularly or as new information becomes available.

3. If you must make budget cuts, be kind to your big picture bottom line.

Realistically, spending ad dollars to sell gym memberships isn’t a responsible expense when the whole state is under stay-at-home orders unable to frequent crowded places like a gym, for example. So, we understand making cuts here and there during tough times. Having said that, reallocating all your marketing dollars or thrashing your overall budgeted expenses prematurely isn’t a smart business decision. If your business weathers whatever storm it is going through, you’ll be in a better position to recover if you can hit the ground running again with some planned expenses rather than have no budget to work with and no way to reach your audience to bring them back in. The point is, try not to make decisions out of panic; think you business strategy through.

4. Keep employees and volunteers feeling in-the-know and valued.

The way leadership communicates (or doesn’t communicate) to employees and volunteers will directly impact loyalty, which can lead to a loss of talent. Employees remember how they were treated during the worst of times much more vividly than during the best of times, so it is important to allow employees as much empowerment as possible during crisis situations. In some cases, your organization will be responsible for communicating with employees or volunteers, including volunteer board members. It is important not to overlook this hugely important aspect of successful crisis communication management. Remember, you can do all the right things on behalf of your client’s brand and budget, but if you don’t treat (or help them treat) their employees with respect and kindness during troubled times, the whole structure will collapse.

5. Give good business advice without taking advantage.

It might feel like an easy upsell to encourage a client to add on social media services and an extensive SEO package to boost their business during a time when face-to-face commerce has minimized and digital marketing is critical, but who are you really serving? While your ultimate goal as a business owner is to make money, you need to be realistic and be loyal to the clients who are being loyal to you. If your team is stretched due to economic hardship, there is nothing wrong with changing price points to help your business model move forward. But pushing services on struggling clients is only appropriate if you are actually helping your client by doing so. For example, if a local restaurant doesn’t have an online presence, it is absolutely appropriate to ask the question, “How is your community going to support you if they’re unable to find you?” However, the answer isn’t necessarily to start a website, a Facebook page and an Instagram account all at once. You can give good advice without taking advantage. You can give a customer what they need without giving them everything they need at all at once.

How is Enterprise Iowa handling the COVID-19 crisis?

Like most other businesses nationwide, our team is doing the best we can to minimize the risk we put on each other and put out into our community. We’ve taken measures to work from our homes, serving our clients through Adobe Connect meetings, Slack conversations and more. While most businesses can’t have a perfect plan in place for a situation like this, our team has done well adapting to our new working normal. We feel fortunate to be able to continue to serve our clients and do our part to help stimulate economic prosperity in Iowa during this low point. For any businesses struggling to get through the economic hardship inflicted by COVID-19, reach out to see how we might be able to help revise and rejuvenate your business strategy.

Caucus Lessons for the Project Manager

Caucus Lessons for the Project Manager

The Iowa Caucus is over and the candidates have moved on. Since the results were announced (still not completely final at this writing) there have been numerous stories and articles dissecting just what went wrong. Whose fault was it anyway, and how can it be prevented from ever happening again? Will this kill the Iowa Caucus as we know it? Let’s leave it to the pundits to continue the discussion about methods for counting delegates, alleged interference with the Iowa Democratic Party phone banks, or the now infamous “APP.”

Like many folks interested in politics, I tuned in to the media to learn the results of the caucus. I optimistically stayed up later than usual hoping for some breaking news. But there were only angry journalists and quizzical expert analysts. For some reason my thoughts that evening turned to the many times I’ve read and heard about the high percentage of projects that fail, and what a good project manager should do to ensure success. As a project manager, what lessons could I learn from this event?

First, have some empathy. Haven’t most of us experienced a project that failed? The possible causes are endless, and no matter what the textbook says, a project manager usually doesn’t have control over all the variables. I don’t know who the project manager was in this case, or even if there was one, but whoever the people involved were, I feel badly for them. I know what crisis management is, and it is hard.

Managing risk has also been a strong theme as I think about the caucus. It isn’t hindsight that tells us that the impact of failure was off the charts. We’ve seen it play out before our eyes in a very public way. But how do we measure the probability of failure? In this case there were multiple points of potential problems, ranging from the event itself and the tabulation of results to the primary and secondary methods for reporting the information. The fact that there could be no flexibility in the launch date was also a factor. For many projects, the act of pushing back the schedule a week isn’t such a big deal. For this event, no such opportunity existed. As I think about my current and future project activities, this is a stark reminder to take risk management very seriously.

Hidden in the reporting was a small item that stood out to me as an issue that may have increased the risk of failure. The essence is that an external party had allegedly required a security update shortly before moving the application into production. The specific facts are not known, but haven’t we all experienced the last-minute request of a stakeholder or product owner? Of course, we want to be agile and satisfy the request, but we also know that the introduction of something new can increase risk and affect the quality or performance of a product.

A final lesson for me is the importance of communication with all of the stakeholders. In this case it included the caucus participants, the volunteers in the so-called “boiler room,” the media, the candidates themselves and the entire community of the State of Iowa. As project managers we will all at some point be confronted with the challenge of balancing the desire to “buy time” and “get it fixed first” with the benefits of being open and transparent with all of our stakeholders. That is such a tough judgment to make, but when the impact and probability of failure is high, I am reminded that it is vital to plan for those communication actions in advance.

My hope is that cool heads will prevail and that the Iowa caucuses will continue. It is an imperfect but valuable process. In the meantime, these are a few lessons that will stay with me for a long, long time.

This blog was first published on the Project Management Institute (PMI) blog for the Central Iowa chapter.

Ballot Issues and the Non-Profit Organization Manager

Ballot Issues and the Non-Profit Organization Manager

Think about the position of a not-for-profit organization in a community considering a ballot issue to raise taxes (school bond issue, public facility levy, local option tax). The organization probably has members on both sides of the issue. Some may just be against tax increases of any kind. Others may benefit directly or indirectly in some way – they may be a construction contractor or perhaps a financial institution providing resources for a project. There are any number of possibilities. What should they do if asked to express an opinion on the subject?

Choosing Sides or Choosing Silence

Choosing sides, and overtly favoring or opposing a ballot is probably not the right direction to go. Someone is sure to be unhappy – and that’s just not a good place to be for an organization dependent on member dues, investments or charitable contributions. Not to mention, certain not-for-profit organizations can’t take sides without jeopardizing status with the Internal Revenue Service.

Remaining silent doesn’t seem constructive either. A community organization such as a local development group should care about tax policy, public budgets and generally the business climate in their respective communities. “No comment” just doesn’t work.

Staying Neutral While Getting Involved

In most cases the right answer is help inform their members and contributors, the community and voters of the factors to consider when making their decision in the voting place. For example, a reasonable stance for any economic develop organization is to support a tax policy that is stable, predictable and comparable to neighboring communities. The conventional wisdom would be that a tax policy that is in the range of “normal” isn’t going to affect business location decisions, and the community will likely have enough resources to provide reasonable levels of service.

Non-profit organizations can also bring their knowledge about an issue to the table and share information about factors that might affect policy choices. Again, using the economic development organization as an example, this might include things like the ratio of commercial to residential property in a community, the comparative density of development, the cultural and social characteristics of the community, or the comparative level of average household incomes. Helping people understand facts and context can simply contribute to more informed decision making. And broadly speaking, shouldn’t everyone work to foster civil community engagement?

Walking the Line

Walking the line between advocacy and opposition can be a tricky path to follow, and keeping information balanced and factual is not easy. Silence is the easy option, but not necessarily the right one. If you find yourself at this trailhead, our team has the background and experience to help you navigate safely.