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Covid-19 Small Business Survival Guide

By Julie King |

Worker wearing a mask at workLast updated: March 18, 2020

It's official. On March 11, 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic. 

If you are running a small business in Canada, you are probably wondering how this will impact your business. The federal government has just announced a new $1 billion Covid-19 response fund that includes supports for workers, businesses, researchers and health care professionals.  

Yet there are many questions, and possibly gaps, that small businesses in particular need to be aware of.

This guide is designed to help Canadian small businesses get critical answer on an ongoing basis as this pandemic unfolds. Our intention is not to stir up angst and worry, but rather to help gather facts and answers that can assist small businesses in these uncertain times.

Live updates

Due to the high frequency of breaking information, we have moved the Corona virus live updates to the news story, Covid-19 and Your Business: Live Updates.

We have concerns and we are going to be asking key stakeholders to help us get answers. Our top concerns right now:

  1. How can business mitigate threats to staying in business as a result of the pandemic? If a business is suddenly hit by cashflow and revenue shortages, what supports are available and how can the business access those supports?
  2. What supports are available to self-employed workers? This is of top importance to CanadaOne, because the government has tied its support to the employment benefits program, but most self-employed workers cannot access those benefits. How is the federal government going to assist these workers who often find themselves in very vulnerable situations?
  3. How can small businesses adapt their work environments to keep operating even if quarantines are needed? Many businesses may be able to adapt their work environments to allow for things like work-from-home opportunities and some will have no choice but to provide this option for parents should schools suddenly close or shift to virtual learning during the virus outbreak. Here we are going to look at policies and technologies that can help you implement work-from-home programs.
  4. What should businesses be doing to maintaining a safe work environment? Here we are going to gather science-based evidence, advice from the experts, that small businesses can refer to in order to keep their workplaces safes.


Getting Answers for Canadian Small Businesses

1. How can business mitigate threats to staying in business as a result of the pandemic?

There are several critical questions businesses should be asking about how the pandemic might impact sales, supplies, production and staffing. By being proactive and asking these questions early, businesses can be ready when the impact arrives in real time.

  • How likely is it that the pandemic will impact my companies' cashflow and ability to pay our bills? If a cashflow shortage is likely, we would recommend that you proactively identify options to address this shortage, including getting additional financing in place ideally at a competitive interest rate and if necessary, through a government supported lending programs such as those provided by the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) or Economic Development Canada (EDC.) However, we would also recommend that you take a cautionary approach as you look at financing sources, as a business already experiencing revenue shortfalls may be unduly burdened by taking on additional debt with interest rates and fees that may be considerably higher than traditional lenders.
    Update: The Federal Government has introduced several programs to help support businesses with cashflow shortages, including access to EI benefits for self-employed workers who need to close their business as a result of the virus and a temporary wage summary. (learn more)
  • What, if any, impact will the pandemic have on our revenue projections for the coming quarter and fiscal year? How is this going to impact our staffing and budgeting for the year? Even if you do not create a formal budget when preparing for each fiscal year, during a time of uncertainty it does make sense to review your financial projections for the coming year and identify potential changes that would not have been expected during ordinary times, which might include scaling back operations and staffing in the short term if you anticipate revenue shortages. If you need to pivot, plan for it early and have a plan in place to protect your company from losing employees. One option worth exploring would be enhancements the federal government is introducing to its Work Sharing program, which is designed to help employees get paid when an employer needs to reduce the number of hours worked during the week.
  • What things does our company depend on in the supply chain and have we adequately prepared for potential shortages? The global nature of the pandemic already is impacting supply chains to a lesser degree and we could see this change significantly in the coming weeks. This could have a direct impact on your business if you depend on an intricate supply chain to do your work or an indirect impact if the availability and/or cost of things like technology products are suddenly impacted by the pandemic. How this might affect individual businesses can be quite varied, so each business will need to do its own impact assessment and plan accordingly. This is one area where there is little that the government can do to directly assist businesses other than through financial supports for cashflow management and assistance to workers.
  • What can we do to mitigate any impacts to our legal obligations? Chances are good that your company may have delivery requirements that do not take into account possible delays due to a pandemic. While you would hope that most customers would be willing to adapt to these unexpected and novel circumstances, that is not guaranteed. As a result, you will want to evaluate not just the financial risk the Covid-19 outbreak poses to your company, but also the potential legal impacts as well and get any concessions regarding delivery schedules in writing. Similarly, there has not been much discussion of the legal responsibility companies may have should their actions result in another person getting infected with the virus. This is an aspect of Covid-19 that we are investigating, but currently do not have any answers for.
  • How might the virus outbreak impact our talent acquisition and retention? Talent management is a very important competitive advantage and small businesses already struggle to compete with larger companies in this regard. At this point in time we are highlighting this as something for small businesses to keep in mind as they grapple with their response to the outbreak. This is an area we will be researching further in the coming days and weeks.

2. What supports are available to self-employed workers? 

The federal government has announced that it will provide immediate access to employment insurance (EI) benefits for workers who need to quarantine or self-isolate by waiving the mandatory one-week waiting period. However, this will not cover self-employed workers who have not opted into EI benefits. Initially the government announced that it was "... exploring additional measures to support other affected Canadians, including income support for those who are not eligible for EI sickness benefits."

Update - self-employed workers will now be able to offer EI benefits either through the Emergency care benefit or the Covid-19 Emergency Support Benefit. (Learn more.)

3a. How can small businesses adapt their work environments to keep operating even if quarantines are needed? The process viewpoint.

Small businesses have agility that is not seen in larger companies when it comes to being able to quickly adapt and change. However, one thing they lack is access to experts and the ability to easily put formalized processes in place for things like working off-site.

While a lot of focus over the virus has been on working in isolation and technologies that can enable that, it is equally critical that employers ensure there are processes in place to help structure how the employees will do their work off-site. Here there are three main considerations: legal responsibility, security and accountability.

In terms of the legal responsibility, you will want to consider the company's legal responsibility should there be an incident while an employee is doing work off-site. For example, perhaps the employee is using the company's work computer at home and it is damaged. Who is responsible to pay for the replacement or repair? If it is not clearly stated, in writing, this could damage the employer-employee relationship and create a legal entanglement that no one would want. Having work-from-home and laptop policies are both effective ways to ensure that all parties understand the expectations and obligations.

Security is another key consideration, as important protections built into the internal company network may be absent in an employee's home. While many larger companies already have a virtual private network (VPN) in place to enable employees to work securely from a remote location, this technology may not be available in a small business. If you do not have technology in place to address privacy and security concerns, you may need to adjust what employees are allowed to do when working remotely.

Implementing an accountability framework for employees working off-site can be the biggest challenge for smaller companies. At the most basic you will want to ensure that each employee is being productive while working remotely and that they are accountable to the company for the hours worked. Getting more sophisticated processes here will also ideally ensure that there is smooth and regular communication between employees and that the advantages of a normal face-to-face environment are not lost while people work from home.

3b. How can small businesses adapt their the work environments to keep operating even if quarantines are needed? The technology viewpoint.

There are many excellent technologies available today to enable remote work and many can be piloted on free trials. Here is a list of technologies to start exploring as you consider allowing employees to work remotely:

  • Team chat: If you haven't already tried a team chat tool like Slack, Glip or Microsoft Teams, now might be the time to start. Team chat tools make it very easy to quickly communicate with other staff members and are an excellent, agile tool if you suddenly have employees working off-site.
  • Video conferencing: There has been an emergence of many strong cloud-based video conferencing tools in the past few years, including Zoom,, Gotomeeting and Skype. Expect a single conferencing channel to cost in the range of $20 - $50 per month and provide video conferencing, screen sharing, chat, recordings and even on screen whiteboarding in the basic feature-set.
  • Virtual private network (VPN): A VPN provides a secure, encrypted connection between two computer devices connecting through a public network. A VPN plays a critical role in protecting your company information when workers access the company network remotely. You may need an IT specialist to help you set-up a VPN for your office, but once it is in place a VPN provides a secure channel for employees connecting to the company network. 
  • Voice over IP (VOIP) phone systems: If your business depends on phone-based communication, then it may be time to explore VOIP solutions that can provide a professional interface with clients no matter where your employees are located. The only thing a good VOIP system cannot do today is to stop the dog from barking or child from crying in the background.
  • Project management: There are too many project management tools to name, many of which are available in the cloud and can help your staff coordinate on projects from remote locations. If your company is not already using cloud- based project management software now may be a good time to investigate online tools that are available for project, task management and even time tracking.

4.What should businesses be doing to maintaining a safe work environment?

Over the past few days I have followed many casual online conversations about the virus and one thing that has alarmed me is how much misinformation is already being spread. For such an important topic, there is really only one place to trust for information and that is the scientists, including in particular healthcare professionals.

Scientists and health professionals have been clear that hygiene and social distancing are two critical things that can be managed to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.  In particular, hand washing and minimizing human-to-human contact is a good starting point.

However, as an employer you can and will be expected to do more. It is time to evaluate what you are already doing and what more can be done to keep the workplace clean and to minimize the risk of employees or your customers contacting the virus in your workplace.

The first proactive thing employers can do is to make sure all of the people coming to your place of business have consistent, accurate information about how they can proactively protect themselves and avoid spreading contagions. WHO provides this information in its Q&A on the coronavirus. Most people have no problem understanding the need to wash hands and maintain social distance with anyone who is coughing or sneezing. It is also helpful to make sure everyone is aware of good respiratory hygiene, which includes covering your nose and mouth with as bent elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing and then immediately disposing of the used tissue.

The second major proactive thing an employer can do is to support employees to stay at home if they feel unwell and to provide work-from-home options if appropriate.

The third major proactive thing an employer can do is to take steps to ensure that places that are likely to spread germs, including washrooms, kitchens, handles and doorknobs, are regularly disinfected and that everyone has access to things like alcohol-based hand sanitizer if and when they need to touch these communal elements.


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