The COVID-19 pandemic is first and foremost a human tragedy, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost and massive disruption to people's daily lives. It serves as a stark reminder of just how vulnerable we are, and how ill-prepared we were ahead of the outbreak.

It is also having a terrifying impact on the economy, with many firms going out of business and others struggling to survive. 

The UK government has, at last, come up with a plan for exiting the lockdown. But it's not that easy to understand.

If you're wondering how to interpret the Government's COVID-19 recovery strategy, we're here to help.

We've analysed the 60-page document, so we'll start by explaining the new rules. We will focus on the business environment, though it is worth pointing out that the regulations around schools and childcare will have a material impact on whether or not people with school-age children will be able to return to their workplace.

How bosses behave now in respect of their staff and customers, and the plans they announce as we emerge from lockdown, will determine which businesses will survive and which will fail.

We intend to share our insights into what you should be doing to prepare your business for the 'new normal' as the world gradually emerges from this unprecedented lockdown.

Here's a list of what this blog will cover:

What are the new rules?

What should I be doing now to prepare my business?

Review your business plan

Sort your website

Do I need to adapt my workplace?

How should I be communicating with staff and customers?

Get ready for a 'new normal'

How to keep up the momentum and grow sales

PR, marketing and communications

What are the new rules?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has shifted away from the longstanding official guidance to "stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives". He is now saying "stay alert, control the virus, save lives". While the rhetoric may have changed, many of the strict "stay at home" rules still apply.

Here's what's planned:

Step One 

The changes to policy in this step applied from Wednesday 13 May in England. 

Work 

  • For the foreseeable future, workers should continue to work from home rather than their usual workplace, unless it is impossible to do so.
  • All workers who cannot work from home should travel to work if their workplace is open. Sectors of the economy that are allowed to be open include food production, construction, manufacturing, logistics, distribution and scientific research in laboratories. The only exceptions to this are those workplaces such as hospitality and non-essential retail where the transmission risk is considered higher.
  • As soon as practicable, workplaces should follow the new "COVID-19 Secure" guidelines. These are intended to ensure the risk of infection is as low as possible while allowing as many people as possible to resume their livelihoods. 

Step Two

Schools

  • The plan is for a phased return for early years settings and schools, from no earlier than 1 June. The Government expects children to be able to return to early years settings, and for Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to be back in school in smaller sizes, from this point. 
  • Secondary schools and further education colleges should also prepare to begin some face to face contact with Year 10 and 12 pupils who have important exams next year, in support of their continued home learning. 
  • The Government's ambition is for all primary school children to return to school before the summer for a month if feasible. However, this will be kept under review. 

Opening non-essential retail 

The idea is that as long as retailers can follow the new COVID-19 Secure guidelines, they should be able to open from 1 June, in phases. The hospitality and personal care sectors – such as hairdressers, beauty salons – are not able to re-open at this point because the risk of transmission in these environments is higher. 

Step Three 

The ambition at this stage is to open at least some of the remaining businesses and premises that have been required to remain closed, such as providers of personal care (beauty salons and hairdressers), hospitality (such as food service providers, pubs and hotels/guest houses), public places (such as places of worship) and leisure facilities (like cinemas and some outdoor sporting activities). They will need to meet the COVID-19 Secure guidelines, and this stage will not happen until 4 July at the earliest.

What should I be doing now to prepare my business?

Companies of all shapes and sizes, across all sectors, need to be rethinking how they operate in a world with COVID-19. The disease will be with us until we discover a vaccine or a cure. There are also likely to be future strains of the virus. Changes are needed as people look to restart their livelihoods and prepare for this new world. 

Publicise the steps you are taking to ensure your staff, customers and stakeholders know that you can be trusted to do the right thing. Your PR and marketing advisers will be able to help you adopt the correct tone and to approach publicity in the right way. It is better to talk about the things you are doing to help people, rather than directly promoting your products during the delicate phase of emerging from lockdown.

Here are some simple steps you can take to prepare your business for a post-coronavirus business bounce back:

Review your business plan

If you have been forced to close down or have only been able to run at reduced capacity during the lockdown, there are various actions you should be taking to ensure you're well placed to beat your competitors when the economy picks up.

The first place to look is your business plan. Does it need to be ripped up and replaced in light of likely changes to consumer and business behaviour that lie ahead? Or because of the widely reported changes the Government is looking to introduce?

Whatever the changes and whatever business sector you are in, you need to be thinking about whether your existing business plan is still relevant. And if it isn't, you need to fix it as quickly as possible.

Your business plan outlines what your business does and what you are trying to achieve. It explains what the market opportunity is, what makes your business unique and how you will make it a success. It is essential to include details about the history of your company, your product or service, your competition, your marketing and sales strategy, together with information about your staff, your facilities and your financial forecasts.

For a more detailed guide to writing a business plan, it's worth checking out Pegasus Funding Solutions' guide to how to write a business plan that works.

Sort your website

The next place to look is your website – if you have one. According to a study by B2B research firm Clutch.co less than two-thirds (64%) of small businesses have a website.

If you are a small firm or even a sole trader, now is a great time to create a website so that you are ready for when customers return. You may have relied upon word of mouth in the past. But, with social distancing becoming the norm, and more people searching online, you have an excellent opportunity to impress your existing customers with a carefully curated and SEO friendly website. Be sure to bring in your PR and marketing advisers to help generate publicity for your new website. There is no point putting in all the work if people don't know it's there.

This is especially important as visitors to your website may even refer you to potential new ones via social media. You will find that this is far more powerful – and therefore more profitable – than merely relying on personal recommendations or easily lost business cards or pamphlets.

For business owners who already operate a website, a period of downtime won't be wasted if you devote some serious thought to your most important shop window. 

Check out our guide about how you can get your website up to scratch

Do I need to adapt my workplace?

The short answer is, almost certainly, YES. The Government has published guidance about what you need to do. Here's the five-step plan:

1. Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment

Before restarting work, you should ensure the safety of the workplace by carrying out a workplace risk assessment in line with HSE guidance. It's vital that you consult with your workers or trade unions to ensure everyone understands the changes you intend to make. The results of your risk assessment should be posted both within your workplace and on your website.

2. Develop cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures

You must encourage all staff to follow the guidance on handwashing and hygiene. To help with this, you should provide hand sanitiser that's easily accessible around the workplace. To complement this measure, you'll need to establish a cleaning regime where objects and surfaces that are touched frequently are regularly disinfected. Make sure you set clear guidelines for the use of washrooms and toilets and provide hygienic hand drying facilities such as electric dryers or paper towels – not regular hand towels.

3. Help people to work from home

You should take all reasonable steps to help people work from home, such as providing the right equipment and remote access to work systems. Make sure you include people in regular communications to help keep up morale. You should also put in place a plan to help workers look after their physical and mental wellbeing.

4. Maintain 2m social distancing, where possible

This is possibly the most significant challenge. But whether you operate a factory, office or a logistics firm, you should maintain a 2m distance between your workers and any members of the public who visit your workplace - such as essential shops and garden centres. Put up signs reminding people to stay apart, lay down floor markers to help people keep to the 2m distance and set up a one-way system if you can.

5. Where people cannot be 2m apart, manage transmission risk

Where it's not possible for people to be 2m apart, you should do everything practical to reduce the transmission risk by considering whether an activity needs to continue for the business to operate. If it does, for instance on a building site, try to keep the activity times involved as short as possible – without taking shortcuts or increasing risk of injury. You may also be able to install screens or barriers to keep people apart and consider staggering arrival and departure times. The Government has also suggested the wearing of face masks in situations where people may come into close contact in an enclosed environment.

How should I be communicating with staff and customers?

The answer to this is as regularly as possible. Set up daily video conferencing calls with your staff, so they still feel part of the team.

Communicate any changes to how your company operates. It is essential to move your sales and services online – and to ensure the staff in these teams get the relevant training and understand what you want from them.

Your customers may have different priorities at the moment, so you need to think about how your business can adapt to meet these needs.

Ensuring you have product availability and that you can deliver your goods and services with as little human contact as possible will go a long way to build trust with your customers. 

Trust is a critical factor for business success at the moment.

A significant retail challenge is how to manage current stock and order cycles within an unknown time frame. Cancelling orders is an obvious step, as taken by Primark, yet this can have a significant impact on the supply chain, often with global reach. This is a particularly difficult decision for seasonal, fashion-based businesses as it's never been more difficult to predict sales levels and set price points.

But if you don't get it right, the consequence could be letting down your customers who may seek to source the product elsewhere. The worst-case scenario is that they never return to you.

Get ready for a new normal

This means dealing with a known unknown. When businesses have little or no idea about future customer trends, all they can do is look at what is happening now.

There are already some emerging trends to help you adapt to the new world.

  • People are shifting to online shopping and virtual services, such as exercise classes. The move online creates a business opportunity to cut back on expensive office costs and move to a leaner operating model.
  • After months of minimal social and sports activity, there is pent-up demand for social and outdoor sporting experiences that may create a significant revenue opportunity.
  • Businesses that provide a valued service to customers in their local community during the lockdown have engendered colossal customer loyalty. If you can provide a more personalised product or service, without driving costs through the roof, then this is a fantastic opportunity.

How to keep up the momentum and grow sales

All businesses will likely see a significant change in their operation post-COVID-19. Businesses that thrive after lockdown ends will have refined their strategy, redefined their operating model and linked it to an accurate and flexible workload model that helps them calculate the hours and costs required for all the sites they operate. 

While the operational aspects of running a business are vital to its success, it is equally important to ensure your marketing and PR remains 'on message' so that customers, staff and any external partners or stakeholders know exactly where you stand. It is vital that you continue to communicate with them at all stages of your return to full capacity. Again, this comes down to trust. If people know they can rely on you to do what you say you are doing and plan to do, then they are more likely to keep on purchasing from you, investing in your business and working for you.  

PR, marketing and communications

Savvy business owners will also be keeping in touch with clients and customers through engaging marketing and PR campaigns.

There have been some impressive examples right from the start of lockdown.

Here's one of our favourites.

SILENT POOL – Silent Treatment

From early on in the coronavirus crisis, there was a run on hand sanitiser. UK-based craft gin maker Silent Pool swiftly switched its distillery from making artisan gin to hand gel. 

Loads of brands did the same, but Silent Pool stood out from the rest by devoting time and effort into persuading the Government to remove the duty on hand sanitiser and therefore reduce the cost of production. What is particularly impressive is that its actions not only supported its local community but also helped other small distilleries to follow suit. 

Businesses that engage with their customers' changing needs and are seen to be contributing to the wider good will be those that flourish as we emerge from the lockdown.

It is worth considering what you could do to meet your clients' needs, but also contribute to the wider benefit of the community in which you operate – whether that be locally or for your wider industry. The actions you take will create engaging news stories that can be used to engender third-party endorsement for your business as well as boosting staff morale via internal communications.

This guide was written by Lauren Mills, a former national newspaper business journalist and editor. She is now part of the OlsenMetrix content team, specialising in digital, PR, content and crisis communications.

If you would like to speak to one of our experts, please email [email protected] and we'll be happy to call you back.