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How to keep your small business running when you’re understaffed

Posted by Kanika Sinha

February 15, 2022    |     4-minute read (718 words)

The rapid spread of omicron is keeping millions of U.S. workers home sick. An estimated 8.8 million Americans were out sick or caring for someone at home with COVID-19 in early January 2022, reports The Wall Street Journal.

This surge of COVID-19 infections and pre-existing labor shortages in the U.S. have created a double whammy for businesses. Many have had to either temporarily close their doors or cut back the hours they’re open due to understaffing. 

The worst affected are small businesses, the majority of which usually operate with limited staff. And with many employees out and no one available to impart training, hiring temporary staff to fill in and cope with the situation has become an implausible solution for them. 

The “great American sick out” is disrupting businesses

The omicron wave of coronavirus cases is impacting businesses throughout the country to the extent it has been popularly dubbed the “great American sick out.” Below are a few examples of how businesses are navigating staff shortages.

Nationwide, Starbucks has been reducing store hours in some locations due to employees calling in sick amid a spike in COVID-19 cases, and McDonald's has done the same due to labor shortages. 

In the Denver area, a host of dining spots and retailers, such as MI Sports Denver, The Cow Lot, and Daughter Thai Kitchen and Bar, announced brief closures or altered their hours due to staffing shortages in late December 2021. 

In Manhattan, modern Indian restaurant Gupshup suffered from staffing shortages in early January due to a surge in omicron cases. With workers calling out sick, owner Jimmy Rizvi and other staffers had to take on additional roles and responsibilities to keep the restaurant afloat.

Similarly, in Queens, New York, historic bar Neir's Tavern had to cancel events such as bar trivia and open mic night, as well as temporarily close in late December 2021, because there weren’t enough healthy employees to work or train temporary staff.

Suggestions for small business owners

While being short-handed certainly makes running a business more difficult, there are a few things entrepreneurs can do right now to ease the burden to the team in coming months and make it easier to manage future staff call-outs. Here are some tips to help keep work flowing:

Encourage communication, cross-training: Cross-training lets employees fill in for one another in the event one of them is sick or quarantined at home. At the same time, focus on providing regular and clear communication to keep the team in the loop and allow them to extend support as needed. 

Document staff knowledge: Traditional teams work by having each staff member own a particular set of tasks or knowledge centers, but this approach becomes problematic should that employee call in sick. For example, if your bookkeeper is single-handedly responsible for issuing paychecks but gets quarantined, you’ll be scrambling to either manage payroll yourself or disturb a sick colleague to get the job done. 

So, what is a busy business owner to do? Maui Mastermind founder and CEO David Finkel writes in Inc. Magazine that businesses should maintain a folder on a shared drive containing every single task that the bookkeeper, or any other key employee, does over the course of a month, along with written documentation and videos outlining the necessary steps. The ability of employees to access such comprehensive documentation — which Finkel calls “the ultimate business system” — can help essential processes from grinding to a halt when staffing is light.

Create your own ultimate business system: In Finkel’s words, a UBS is a “as a living, breathing collection of best practices, contained in a user-friendly, searchable structure that the team can easily access, update, refine, and add to as they perform their job functions.”

Consider making your own UBS based on your business’s individual needs, such as hiring and onboarding, order fulfillment, payroll, accounts payable and the like. Keep in mind that developing your own UBS should be done over time and should grow with your business. 

To get the ball rolling, entrepreneurs can ask employees to start documenting tasks and processes as they themselves perform them over the course of the next few months. And if anything new pops up, it should become a standard practice to add it to the UBS.

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