How I lived the onset of the COVID crisis as a business owner.
We’re not your typical law firm. Our focus is on helping families and small businesses with many of the most common legal situations they face. We listen. We give good advice. And we take time to ensure you understand your legal standing.
Apparently, the ancient Chinese proverb stating: “May you live in interesting times” is not of Chinese origin after all. According to the website Quote investigator, it is in fact English. Regardless of it's origin, it is meant to be ironic. Peacefull times are not interesting. The COVID crisis, while being many things, is certainly “interesting”.
I want to share with you how I lived the start of the crisis. I say start because it’s far from over. So I may have a follow up article or two.
I admit that when the crisis started in China, I barely took notice. As it progressed to neighbouring countries and Europe, I fell into the, “It’s just the flu” camp. The French media in Winnipeg approached me for an interview in late February for my comments on COVID (I am the president of the Francophone Chamber of Commerce.) I was annoyed. I felt the media was only trying to create a story out of nothing. I refused the interview. We had just lived through a tough flu year where ER’s overflowed and a few young Manitobans succumbed to the illness. We are of hearty stock, and life would continue.
In March, my spouse and mother-in-law and I left for a vacation in Mexico. Anxiety was starting to grow, but we wouldn’t be deterred. While in Mexico, the crisis in Canada erupted. A few days before our scheduled return, the Prime Minister urged Canadians to come home. Again, I was annoyed…
The immensity of the crisis only started seeping in when I realized that our charter Sunwing flight flew from Winnipeg to Huatulco empty to pick us up. Normally, Sunwing flies from Winnipeg to Huatulco once a week taking a crowd of sun desperate Manitobans there and bringing back a load of sun soaked Manitobans. Despite being at the height of the tourism season, the airport was eerily quiet. The plane landed and no one got out.
On our return, we self-isolated for 14 days as recommended. Meanwhile my staff handled the first few days of the crisis admirably. While I couldn’t attend the office, we set up Zoom and I spent the first few days on the phone with everyone. I needed to get an understanding of how everyone was handling the changes. Some of my staff - in fact a large percentage of them - don’t like change. This is not a bad attribute. It’s simply part of their personalities. However, the crisis was synonymous with change then. Not only was change occurring, it was an ongoing event. The changes changed as we went along. Like everyone else, we were navigating unpredictable waters.
As businesses around us and throughout the country were shutting down, a sense of panic started taking hold. How can I meet payroll? Many other companies were laying people off. I was glued to my financials. While we have cash reserves for emergencies - just like this one - my ability to keep the company afloat without any revenue could only last for limited time. All we knew - and still all we know - is that until a vaccine becomes available, this “new normal” is not going away.
Meanwhile, the federal government was announcing new support measures daily. While encouraging, these are short term measures. My concerns continued. I had no idea if new customers were going to come through the doors. Israel, our marketing director, and I spent hours on the phone discussing marketing. I was also discussing operational details with Robyn, our office administrator. What do we do if the province shuts us down? I was so busy the first few weeks that I didn’t have time to dwell on the worst case scenario.
While I didn’t want to lay anyone off, I had to consider my options. The government measures would help, but those measures don’t replace lost revenue. It doesn’t help when the funds cover a portion of expenses when there is no revenue to set that off. We still didn’t know just how deep the crisis would go.
We track the number of new client inquiries every week. This gives us an idea of how much new business we’ll get. Normally, we get anywhere from 8 to 16. In the first two weeks for the crisis, we got 8. Our calls were down by half, which if continued would correspond in a drop of revenue of 50%. I was concerned…..
The pressure to layoff was on. However, I have always run the firm with human values in line with the financial ones. While finances are important - I can’t pay salaries and buy my own groceries without profit - the long term welfare of our team is one of my top priorities. I just couldn’t bare the thought of cutting any of them loose, knowing the devastating impact of loosing income. I dug deep and decided on a wait and see approach.
While I was struggling with my difficult decisions, my staff was also trying to cope. As discussed above, many of them do not like change. While this is an asset in a process driven law office that requires consistency, it can be a liability in the context of change. As the first few weeks of the crisis represented the Mother of change, several of them became overwhelmed.
As an essential service, we kept our office open, but we’ve reduced staffing to two or three people maximum. So we’re all working from home on some days. Staff with small children find this particularly challenging. Looking after small children whose lives have also been upended while trying to maintain the same level of productivity is too much to ask. Others were concerned that, due to the exposure to clients, they could get infected and infect members of their family who are at high risk. I spent quite a bit of my time talking people “down from the ledge”. I encouraged everyone to take breaks and get exercise. If they couldn’t put in a full day, then so be it. I’d rather have an employee at 50% for a short period, but otherwise happy and healthy, then someone giving 100% and burning out.
Fortunately for us, calls started coming in again. As one of our marketing strategies, we decided to offer a significant discount on our Wills and Power of Attorney documents. We felt that the crisis would highlight the importance of having one’s affairs in order. So we wanted to be able to do our part. If everyone’s income was affected or potentially affected, we were prepared to cut margins in order to offer an important service. While we’re not front line health care workers, I feel that we have a role to play.
To date, I’m happy to say that while revenue is down, I’ve managed to keep all of my staff. Most of them have acclimatized (for now) to the new normal. We’re getting into the new rhythme. I still don’t have enough work for everyone, but for now, it looks like we can maintain the status quo.
Time will tell whether this crisis leads to a deeper recession. What will happen when government funds run out? How will social distancing and the absence of tourists affect our province? The answers to these questions still linger. I’ve got my fingers crossed. We’ll see what the future brings.
I hope you stay safe.
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