By Marc Albin Alge, Alge Electric and Alfred E. Essenwanger

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Marc Albin Alge is managing director of the electronics service provider alge electronic in Lustenau, Austria. (Photo: alge electronic)

This article discusses how small and family businesses can operate in the age of Coronavirus. All steps and measures are considered from the perspective of an entrepreneur and a management coach.

After the last few weeks, it is abundantly clear that the pathogen SARS-CoV-2 and its consequence COVID-19 cause lasting damage. The current situation poses a particular challenge, especially for small companies with double-digit numbers of employees. The contact is close, the communication channels short. What normally provides benefits suddenly poses dangers, because a verified Covid-19 disease can potentially lead to a complete closure of the plant. And it is not just about the company, but primarily about our health.

Rushed action is as problematic here as is a failure to act. Good communication is crucial. One could argue that small companies in particular, especially family-owned companies, would have a slight starting advantage due to their proximity, personal awareness among themselves and the exchange with sometimes long-term employees. You know how to “tick”, get to know possible concerns up close and as a company manager it is easier for the workforce to assess than the grey eminence in the big company. It is easier for a small company to convey messages through a quickly convened company meeting in a comparatively small circle than with a global corporation with different locations, languages and cultures.

The following aspects are, in particular, a reflection and experience report by the Austrian EMS company Alge electronic GmbH with possible approaches to how small and family businesses can proceed in such times.

High standards of leadership

“There are only two days a year when we can’t change anything – one is yesterday and the other is tomorrow,” the Dalai Lama said. This means for the leadership in small companies in these stormy times: “Today is the day when we can and must use our skills and our skills in a meaningful way.” Our health, our employees and our colleagues must be in the foreground. This is becoming clearer in this viral crisis than usual in day-to-day operational management. As an entrepreneur, you now have the chance to show that not only numbers and data are important to you, but the people in your company, your customers and suppliers. There is a life after the crisis – and meaningful, human and conscious action will bring you lasting success and inner satisfaction. An opportunity that doesn’t happen so often in life and with such clarity.

A crisis such as the one we are experiencing is characterized by the fact that new reports about its course are coming to us almost every hour. So we can only try to stay “up to date” – but no one can say for sure what will happen next. We are all unsure. Three behaviors of leaders will lead to their loss of authority, to be taken no more (or less) seriously in the future, and, above all, to be less successful after the crisis.

Denial of reality and trivialization

According to the motto: it won’t get so bad, we don’t do this “monkey theatre” with… Yes, admittedly, the serious measures taken to prevent the spread of the epidemic may be excessive. But does this outweigh the possibility of death or serious illness in your workforce due to a COVID-19 disease? The exponential spread of the Corona Virus means that a person can infect several other people, who in turn can also infect several people at a time. But we as leaders can have a particular influence on how the curve develops. I therefore believe that it makes perfect sense to do everything appropriate to protect employees and colleagues from contagion and disease.

Silence and distance

Those who do not communicate in sufficient information and transparently will cause even more uncertainty among employees than is already the case. Sometimes it makes sense to say, “I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. We do not yet have solutions and alternatives everywhere for everything that is different at the moment. But we have given careful advice and made this and that decision. We will constantly reflect on the situation and ourselves and, if necessary, introduce new measures as soon as possible. Please support our approach. Please be patient! You can trust that we will find the best possible solutions.” Your employees, colleagues will thank you for your honesty.

Breaking out in panic and fear

Recently I was (Alfred E. Essenwanger, ed.) Witness and first responder in a serious accident with a three-year-old child. The mother was completely desperate and shocked. Together with another mother, who helped me keep and care for the child until the helicopter arrived, we were able to calm the mother down. This also helped the injured child incredibly.

In crisis situations, it makes sense for us leaders to remember that we have a very great role model effect – but let us not only be role models (“in case of need also a bad one” – said Einstein), but act “as exemplary as possible”. Stay calm. Let us not forget the light at the end of the tunnel. Let us remain positive and optimistic – it will help us a great deal to get off to a full start after the crisis!

A little choppy, but true: this crisis is also a huge opportunity! It is a huge opportunity to show yourself to be a competent leader and to be truly supportive, supportive, safe and sensible.

And if it is indeed the case that companies have to close, the captain is the last to leave the ship. Real leaders show up here. Then, if they really take care of the employees to the end and (special cases of illness excluded, of course) stay at home as the last.

Concrete measures

Like governments, companies have measures at their disposal to deal with the current situation. This is surprisingly strong again: from the closure of the border to the department closure, the mental leap is not far, as is that of the cancellation of major events to the cancellation of meetings. We have summarized four escalation levels for you, the measures of which can also stand for themselves in combinations:

Escalation level I

– Obtain information on whether employees have been in contact with crisis regions or have been there

– Observe general hygiene and prevention measures (hand washing, 1 m distance in contact with others, sneezing or coughing on handkerchiefs, staying at home in case of signs of illness, etc.)

The first escalation grading includes general and simple actionable points. The restrictions are small to not yet present.

Escalation level II

– No more external appointments in operation or outdoors

– Cancel all internal meetings

– Deliveries of goods only against registration

– Schedule backup solutions: Recently retired employees in preparation for the worst-case scenario

– Enable home office where you can use it wisely

In the second stage of escalation, the process disturbances become more noticeable, although the suffering capacity of an organization is only strained to a very small extent. Everything is subordinated to the lower exposure of the company, the company is isolated as far as possible from controllable external influences.

Escalation level III

– Physical prohibition of contact and spatial separation of different divisions

– Related: a mix of departments and spatial divisions

– dividing daily work by shifted working hours or, where legal conditions exist, by a shift model in productive and administrative departments in order to further reduce contact in the separate areas.

Now the disturbances become unmistakable. The spatial separation provides for the insertion of partition walls between individual divisions (e.g. floors) in order to minimize the risk of contact. Although not confirmed, this is a way of cushioning a plant closure by “only” a departmental closure.

In order to further reduce the risk, it is possible to further divide departments (e.g.: sales, accounting, etc.) and to assign the employees to jobs on different floors. In the case of quarantine, not all the personnel of a department are quarantined, but “only” a single floor. Complemented by home office solutions, risk can be minimized while the processes can continue.

Last but not least, the employees can be separated from each other during the daily working hours as well as separately. So, in the case of quarantine, only a part of the department would be out. This is possible through clauses that are widely available in employment contracts. It provides, however, that there is a proxy solution in the area of leadership and experts in order to be able to provide the same expertise at all times. Also, valuable hours of work are lost here because of the restrictions and it may seem weird.

Escalation level IV

– Make mutual agreements with employees in order for them to take vacation,  or reduce accumulated overtime, in particular for certain groups of people (older than 60).

The fourth and final possible escalation stage focuses exclusively on actual damage prevention. In this case, capacity is specifically reduced by sending employees home who do not have the possibility of a home office solution at the expense of capacity. The regulation of compulsory leave for the risk group “over 60” also serves exclusively health aspects.

As of today, March 21, 2020, we are at escalation level III at Alge electronic GmbH. We have separated the company into different areas and mixed the departments, a possible shifted working time is planned, but not yet implemented.

What we have done beyond that is to split up the management. As Managing Director (Marc Albin Alge, ed.) I have set up a workplace in a separate area in order to be able to answer questions from our employees and to work separately from our second managing director, my father. In this way, we want to prevent our entire top decision-making level from being collectively overridden in the event of a crisis.

Outlook

In addition to all the current questions about the immediate impact of a virus epidemic, from which no one can estimate how long it will last, the medium-term consequences for a company are still difficult to estimate.

Assuming that this situation lasts longer, it is all the more important to reassess the situation on a daily basis with calm, reason and foresight. What is clear is that risk cases and the minimization of risk are paramount. But it is also clear that a general economic shutdown is detrimental to all of us.

If you have to run long distance, you will hardly start with a sprint. Accordingly, panic messages must be handled prudently and their probability of occurrence and impact must be estimated in order to secure the jobs in the company.

If the gloomy outlook changes for the better in the short term, it is important to rely on a well-coordinated team that could legitimately trust its leaders even in the crisis.

 

Marc Albin Alge is Managing Director of Alge electronic GmbH, a third generation manufacturer of individual electronic controls (EMS) in Lustenau, Vorarlberg, Austria. The company can look back on a 50-year history and currently employs more than 50, many of them long-term employees.

 

Alfred E. Essenwanger is a trained sports scientist, entrepreneur, leadership coach and author: Leadership in the original – 12 factors for successful and healthy leadership.