Posts

Resources for Opening Safely

(Published 5/21/20)

As part of our commitment to collate and share COVID-19 response and recovery information , we have compiled resource list to help you safely and appropriately open your physical locations.

General Guidance

Worker Safety and Accommodations

Unemployment Insurance

Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFRCA)

Cleaning and Disinfecting

Social Distancing

Screening / Monitoring Employee Health

Business Travel Limitations

Protective Equipment


For more COVID-19 related assistance, please contact us.


 

SBA Clarifies “Good-Faith” Certification for PPP Loans

(Published 5/13/20)

The US Small Business Administration, today, published and update to the PPP Frequently Asked Questions (PDF) to clarify confusion regarding loan audits and the “Good Faith” certification of need signed as part of the loan application process and form. The SBA added Question 46 as, “How will SBA review borrowers’ required good-faith certification concerning the necessity of their loan request?”

To summarize the impact

  • PPP loans under $2 million will not be audited.
  • Affiliated PPP loans will be consolidated for audit purposes.
  • The term “current economic uncertainty which makes the PPP loan request necessary to support the ongoing operations” was not clearly defined. Audits will most likely be based on individual facts and circumstances for each borrower.
  • Borrowers and affiliated borrowers with loans in excess of $2 million should be prepared to support their need of a PPP loan with documentation.

The full content of the question and answer is quoted as follows:

Question: How will SBA review borrowers’ required good-faith certification concerning the necessity of their loan request?

Answer: When submitting a PPP application, all borrowers must certify in good faith that “[c]urrent economic uncertainty makes this loan request necessary to support the ongoing operations of the Applicant.” SBA, in consultation with the Department of the Treasury, has determined that the following safe harbor will apply to SBA’s review of PPP loans with respect to this issue: Any borrower that, together with its affiliates, received PPP loans with an original principal amount of less than $2 million will be deemed to have made the required certification concerning the necessity of the loan request in good faith.

SBA has determined that this safe harbor is appropriate because borrowers with loans below this threshold are generally less likely to have had access to adequate sources of liquidity in the current economic environment than borrowers that obtained larger loans. This safe harbor will also promote economic certainty as PPP borrowers with more limited resources endeavor to retain and rehire employees. In addition, given the large volume of PPP loans, this approach will enable SBA to conserve its finite audit resources and focus its reviews on larger loans, where the compliance effort may yield higher returns.

Importantly, borrowers with loans greater than $2 million that do not satisfy this safe harbor may still have an adequate basis for making the required good-faith certification, based on their individual circumstances in light of the language of the certification and SBA guidance. SBA has previously stated that all PPP loans in excess of $2 million, and other PPP loans as appropriate, will be subject to review by SBA for compliance with program requirements set forth in the PPP Interim Final Rules and in the Borrower Application Form. If SBA determines in the course of its review that a borrower lacked an adequate basis for the required certification concerning the necessity of the loan request, SBA will seek repayment of the outstanding PPP loan balance and will inform the lender that the borrower is not eligible for loan forgiveness. If the borrower repays the loan after receiving notification from SBA, SBA will not pursue administrative enforcement or referrals to other agencies based on its determination with respect to the certification concerning necessity of the loan request. SBA’s determination concerning the certification regarding the necessity of the loan request will not affect SBA’s loan guarantee.

Detailed Guidance from CDC on Re-Opening Businesses

(Published 5/8/20)

As reported by the Associated Press, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) prepared a report providing specific guidance for re-opening for different types of businesses and organizations. The report, Guidance for Implementing the Opening Up America Again Framework, was due to be released on May 1st, but was blocked by the administration.  We are providing a link to a copy of the leaked report.

As business owners and leaders, we are responsible for the safety of our employees, customers, and others with whom we come in contact.  The more factual information and science-based guidance we have, the better. For our businesses to survive and grow, we will need to operate safely and effectively in the months ahead.  We need to prepare and execute plans well.

Click here to see the report.

5 Ideas for Successful Remote Shopping and Customer Pickup Services

As more areas of the country move into Phase 1 of re-opening the economy, you may be able to offer remote shopping and curbside (no contact) pickup.  While you may already have a way to hold items for pickup by customers, moving completely to the “take out” model of business requires you to make changes and scale your processes.  Here are 5 ideas to improve your customer experience:

1. Accept Online and Advance Payments

Customers paying online or by phone before coming for their pickup dramatically reduces the in-person interaction needed to complete the sale. This is safe for your employees and your customers.

  • Adding a shopping cart experience to your website is not a simple process; check with your web developer and verify they have the experience to create a secure, easy to use flow for your customers.
  • If adding a shopping cart experience to your website is not feasible in the short term, you have alternatives:
    • Check with your current card processing service; many offer payment portals that can work well in this situation.
    • Spin up a separate online store using a turnkey solution, like Shopify, to which you can upload inventory and product information
    • Create an online payment account via services like PayPal or Venmo (make sure you have or create a company-specific account)
  • Remember that you must still comply with PCI regulations.  Make sure employees know that when taking credit card information, they should not write down or otherwise record the information expect to put it into the POS or card processing systems.

2. Offer Video Shopping Appointments

Allow customers to schedule video shopping appointments, during with a member of your staff can walk the store and help your customers pick out items.

  • Use a secure video meeting tool. If you use Microsoft Office 365 or G Suite, you already have access to video meetings via Microsoft Teams and Google Meet, respectively. Employees should NOT be using personal accounts, email addresses, or phone numbers to setup or run these sessions.
  • Roll out a scheduling tool that lets customers pick from preset, available times.  Bookings is a free tool included with MS Office 365.  Tools like Calendly integrate with both G Suite and Office 365 services.
  • Get a few tripods with phone/tablet holders.  This will allow a single employee to manage the camera while displaying merchandise. It also makes for a “steady” shot and better shopping experience.

3. Live Chat with Customers

Give your customers an easy way to get in touch with you once they are on your website.

  • Live chat is an inexpensive way for customers to communicate with your team.
  • Most live chat solutions allow your staff to answer questions and transfer the conversation.  Staff working from home can cover the live chat service and answer most customer questions. The chat can be transferred to in-store staff as needed.

4. Create a “Service Desk” for Customer Questions

Going beyond live chat, let your customers interact with you however they want, when they want.  At the same time, you can enable staff working from home to support the team working in-store.

  • Setup a cloud-based service desk phone system that allows multiple team members to answer calls, text messages, and voice messages.
    • Employees sign in as ‘agents’ and can indicate when they are available / not available to answer calls.
    • The system will route calls to an available ‘agent’ in a round robin basis or other priority that you configure.
    • Using a “soft phone” application, your employees access the system via computer or mobile device; their personal phone numbers and information remain private.
  • Setup a shared inbox to allow your staff to respond to, and manage, email communications.
    • More than a distribution list, a managed shared inbox lets your team assign emails and discussion threads to employees and track their work and progress.
    • Using the shared inbox, employees’ personal information and individual work emails remain private.
    • Employees can connect/disconnect to the service as needed to cover shifts

5. Measure Customer Satisfaction

Follow up every sale with a thank you email and solicit customer feedback.

  • Cloud-based customer satisfaction (CSAT) tools let you embed one-click feedback questions into your email templates. These often use familiar green, yellow, and red icons to indicate satisfaction levels.
  • CSAT tools can also solicit comments. These comments can be used to identify and resolve customer issues, as well as generate testimonials for your web site and marketing efforts.
  • More advanced CSAT tools can also ask a “Net Promoter Score” question, so you can measure how many of your customers would recommend your business to others.

A Final Note: As you implement these (or other) ideas, procedures, and technologies, remember to take care of your “back office” and employees. Initiating or improving your customer pickup services means new and changed processes. You may also decide to change roles. For example, some stores dedicate one team member per shift to process online payments as a way of managing access to the tools and information.  Take the time to train your staff and make sure they are comfortable with the changes.  Also, solicit their feedback and ideas. They probably have suggestions that will help you impress your customers.


Please contact us for a free Response and Recovery Assessment. We are happy to discuss ideas and solutions, and to assist with getting the technologies and training in place.


 

Prepare Your Business for the Next Normal

(Updated 5/4/20)

With some states and local jurisdictions beginning to loosen or remove stay-at-home and essential business orders and advisories, many small businesses will begin to adjust for the next phase of response and recovery.  For some, this will be a re-opening; for others it will be another shift in how we conduct our business on a day-to-day basis.  Either way, the process will be a minefield of financial, operational, legal, liability, and personnel issues. Before “flipping” the sign from closed to open, plan your return with care and compassion. Both will be needed to keep your employees, customers, and business safe.

Prepare the Groundwork

Guidance on opening is coming from many sources. We recommend a top-down approach, starting at the federal level and working down the your local municipalities and property owners.

  1. Start with the expertise and guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  The CDC website  provides guidance for different types of businesses and gathering places that centers on three mitigation strategies:
    • Personal protective measures (e.g., hand-washing, cough etiquette, and face coverings) that persons can use at home or while in community settings
    • Social distancing (e.g., maintaining physical distance between persons in community settings and staying at home)
    • Environmental surface cleaning at home and in community settings, such as schools or workplaces.
  2. Review current laws and regulations under the Families First Coronavirus Recovery Act (FFCRA). This legislation requires almost all employers to provide expanded sick time, medical leave, and family leave pay for employees dealing with illness or childcare issues themselves or within their immediate family unit.  Make sure your return to work plans accommodate these programs and
  3. Second, understand your state’s rules and regulations with with respect to physically opening your business.  Many states are staging how they will allow business to open.  Then, check with local governments where your business is located and where your employees live.  In some states, municipalities and counties are adjusting how they implement state and federal orders and advisories to address local needs and issues.
  4.  Understand your state’s unemployment rules and regulations. In some states, lifting of stay-at-home orders may mean employees are no longer eligible for unemployment even if you keep your business closed or cannot bring everyone back to work. Your team will have differing concerns and levels of comfort; it is important to provide them with timely and accurate communications.
  5. Check with your landlord. Many office and retail complexes are setting up guidelines and rules for how businesses can and will be able to operate in their properties.  Some office complexes, for example, are limiting access to employees only and restricting access to trades and delivery personnel.
  6. Ask your landlord what additional steps they will be taking to clean and sanitize bathrooms, elevators, stair railings, door handles, and other common areas and high touch surfaces.  You and your employees will want and need to know how safe the environment will be when then return to the office or store.

With an understanding of how you can and want to take your next steps, create a Communications Plan.  More than just determined who, when, and how you will share information with employees and other stakeholders, the plan should provide a clear and easy way for employees to get answers to their questions.  As many smaller businesses do not have internal HR resources, you may want to assign a particular manager or executive team to the role.  If you have a contracted HR service or consultant, you will need to coordinate both the process and information. Set clear expectations for how quickly you will answer questions and how answers to common questions will be addressed to the company at large.

Prepare Your Place

As you do your groundwork, begin planning and putting your workplace together for the return of staff.  Social distancing is the current normal. With an expected recurrence of COVID-19 in the fall, social distancing will be part of our lives, and work places, for some time to come. For employees to return, you may be considering:

  • Setting up protocols to ensure that workers who may be ill, or have been exposed, do not enter the workplace and accidentally infect others.
  • Placing dividers between work spaces, or re-configuring your office layout to create separation.
  • Acquiring additional office space, temporarily, to allow more team members to return.
  • Requiring the use of masks or other appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). Depending on your work environment, this may be full-time or only when employees leave personal work spaces and head to common or communal areas.
  • Cleaning and sanitation of common areas, like kitchens and break rooms, and high touch surfaces.
  • Coordinating disinfection and sanitation efforts with building management and neighboring businesses in leased office spaces.
  • Ensuring availability of cleaning supplies, disinfectants, and sanitizers.
  • Creating a means for employees to express concerns about the work environment and actions of others, without fear of retribution.

For some businesses, the safest course of action will be establishing split shifts or a rotating schedule of employee teams working in the office. Doing so can ease physical separation issues, but we should expect that some employees will need to, or want to, continue working from home.

Prepare Your People

Communications — timely, open, and honest — will be critical for successfully taking the next steps with your business.  For many, personal anxiety and stress will be high as we navigate shifts in our personal and work lives.

Provide your team as much information as possible on what to expect, and how things will move forward, as you go through each upcoming phase of your plans.

As you communicate with your team, keep in mind that employees may be dealing with personal COVID-19 impacts, such as:

  • Death of a family member of close friend
  • Sick or quarantined family member(s)
  • Loss of income by a spouse/partner/family member
  • Supervision of children learning from home
  • Lack of available daycare
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Feeling unable to return to working in the office

Be prepared to deal with the human side of Covid-19, not just the logistics.

  • Anticipate and have answers ready for employees about your requirements and their options
  • Establish a feedback loop and listen to staff issues and concerns
  • Engage your HR staff, service, or consultants to assist with communications, feedback, and responses
  • Update plans and timing as needed to mitigate staff concerns and business conditions

Prepare to Settle In

Set Expectations

As noted, above, experts are telling us to expect local/regional COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the fall and winter. With this expectation, we should plan for future stay-at-home orders and business restrictions. These will likely vary by location, complicating your planning efforts.

Remote work will be part of our operations for the foreseeable future. As you plan your next steps, make sure that your team is ideally equipped to continue working from home.

In the scramble to respond to stay-at-home orders, many businesses make necessary technology decisions for the near-term.  Now is the time to step back and take a long-term view. Employees may be working on home computers, using personal software, and working in a less-then-ideal space. Many businesses are also finding employees have signed up for free or consumer IT services to work around limitations, such as difficulty accessing files on company servers.  We still have a responsibility to keep information secure and private, and our employees and businesses safe.

Get Your IT Resources in Place

Settling in means adapting work environments — at the office and in employees’ homes — to our anticipated reality.

  • Improve security and access to company systems and data
    • Move data from on-premise servers to cloud file services to improve access and security; Map drives to cloud-data for compatibility with desktop software
    • Use Remote desktop and VDI solutions to move on-premise applications to the cloud, providing easy, high performance access without distributing data to remote computers
  • Ensure employees have workable use of your phone system (see this post for more info)
  • Reduce the need for remote PC, VPN and other remote access solutions that increase cost, complexity, and delays
  • Eliminate the need for shadow IT services by helping employees use existing capabilities in your productivity suite
  • Provide devices for employees that do not usually work from home
    • Consider rental, lease, and device-as-a-service option to manage costs
  • If unable to provide devices, upgrade home computers:
    • Add memory for performance and ensure the ability to run business applications
    • Deploy licenses of business software, even if employees are using consumer versions of the applications
    • “Next Gen” endpoint protections from viruses, malware, and ransomware
    • Web filtering and DNS security to prevent malware from infected websites
  • Provide employees with helpful accessories, such as noise cancelling headsets for video calls

We are here to help you plan and execute your next steps.  Our free Response and Recovery Assessment will help you with your planning, fully utilize your existing IT Services, and identify budget-friendly solutions to address any unmet needs and priorities. Email us or complete the form on our home page to schedule your assessment.


 

Coronavirus and the American with Disabilities Act

(Published 5/4/20)

The US Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) has published guidance on the applicability and limits of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act.

While the ADA and Rehabilitation Act rules continue to apply, the do not interfere with, or prevent employers from following the guidelines and suggestions made by the CDC regarding steps employers should take regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-19).

The EEOC has provided guidance, consistent with these workplace protections and rules, that can help employers implement strategies to navigate the impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the workplace.

Federal Reserve Opens Main Street Lending Program with $600 Billion

(Published 4/25/20 – New links to program information)


On April 9, 2020, the Federal Reserve System quietly announced the opening of the Main Street Lending Program.  Through this program, the “Fed” is providing $600 Billion in loans to small and mid-market businesses. Loans are available to companies with up to 10,000 employees and annual revenues up to $2.5 Billion. Business must commit to make reasonable efforts to maintain payroll and retain workers.  Loans may be new, or may be used to expand existing loans.

Given the limited funds in the SBA’s EIDL Program, the Main Street Lending Program may be a useful alternative.

The program has two types of loans:

  1. Main Street New Loan Facility (MSNLF), which provides new loans to businesses per the MSNLF Term Sheet.
  2. Main Street Expanded Loan Facility (MSELF), which expands existing loans to businesses per the MSELF Term Sheet.

The minimum loan is $1 million and the term is fixed at 4 years with the amortization of principal and interest deferred for the first year.  The rate is adjustable based on the Secured Overnight Funds Rate (SOFR) plus 250 to 400 basis points, equating to a current rate between 2.51% and 4.01%.

US Chamber Launches Save Small Business Fund

(Updated 4/22/20)

4/22/20: The Save Mall Business Fund application process is closed as all available funds have been committed.

—-

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a fund to provide assistance to small businesses in the form of $5,000 grants.

The Save Small Business Fund — in collaboration with Vistaprint and with support from Merck, S&P Global Foundation, and Travelers — will include contributions from corporations and philanthropies. The grant is expected to address small businesses’ immediate needs such as closures and job loss and will support their long-term recovery.

Applications for the Chamber’s fund will open on April 20, 2020.

In order to qualify a business must:

  • Employ between 3 and 20 people
  • Be located in an economically vulnerable community
  • Have been harmed financially by the COVID-19 pandemic

Click here for more information.

“Deja Vu?” or “Have We Learned Our Lesson?”

Hurricane Matthew as of 2pm on Oct 4th

Hurricane Matthew as of 2pm on Oct 4th

As of this blog post, Hurricane Matthew is churning through the western Caribbean with a projected path eerily similar to Superstorm Sandy in 2012. In its wake, Sandy left a path of destruction up the East Coast and deep into New England with many families and businesses still in the process of rebuilding. Small and mid-size businesses (SMBs) up and down the eastern seacoast were crippled by flooding, loss of infrastructure, and extended Internet and power outages; many were unable to recover.

Could this be a devastating Deja Vu, or did we learn our lesson?

Have you ensured that your information services and data will survive the next storm? Do you know how quickly your business can recover if (more like when) the next storm hits?

Path of Superstorm Sandy in 2012

Path of Hurricane Sandy in 2012

These questions feel more pressing as our next potential big storm churns towards Florida.

Good. Better. Best.

Your “Good” strategy is Backup. Ensure that you back up all of your critical data. Backups should be off site to a service that lets you restore to new systems quickly and efficiently.

Your “Better” strategy is Recovery. In addition to backups, ensure you have the ability to recovery quickly to new systems or to a temporary data center. When your  Return to Operations (RTO) time lets you continue running your business without significant impact to you or your customers, your recovery plan is sound.

Your “Best” strategy is ResilienceYour business is resilient when you can continue running your business with minimal disruption and with little or no inconvenience to your customers, regardless of the weather outside. By placing key applications and services in the cloud, your business can continue to run whether or not your office is open. With Internet access and a browser, your team can connect and work. And while you still may have some aspects of your IT running on premise, a solid cloud strategy keeps critical systems available and operating.

Resiliency Roadmap

For most SMBs, you should consider having the following services hosted or in the cloud. Depending on your applications and needs, you can use Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions or host your applications on cloud/hosted servers with virtual/remote desktops.

  • Communications
    • Email / Calendar / Contacts
    • Telephony — cloud/hosted Voice over IP (VoIP)
    • Messaging / Voice & Video Conferencing
  • Collaboration
    • File Storage & Sharing
    • Productivity Tools (document, spreadsheet, presentation editors)
  • Key Business Apps
    • Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
    • Account / Finance
    • Service / Support
    • Others …

Creating a Resilient business requires strategic thinking, advanced planning, and solid execution. This is especially true when you have integrated applications and systems that you cannot change in isolation. At a high level, the roadmap is:

  1. Identify the applications and services
  2. Prioritize all applications and services based on the impact in the event of a service outage. Look outward and inward, remembering to consider customer impact.
  3. Starting with your highest priority applications and systems, evaluate if your level or protection: Backup, Recovery, or Resilient protection.
  4. Identify and implement solutions that take you from Backup to Recovery, from Recovery to Resilience, or from Backup all the way to Resilience.
  5. Repeat as you move through your prioritized list.

While you may not have time to make your business Resilient before Hurricane Matthew works its way up the coast, you have options to improve your backups and your ability to recover that can be implemented within hours rather than days and weeks. Think about the value of keeping your business running and ensuring its survival. Act now.


Contact us immediately if you want assistance with your backup, recovery, or resiliency services.


 

Calm Before the Storm: 3 Models for Protecting Your Business

Hurricane
What began as a mild tropical storm season has suddenly become quite active, with multiple significant storms expected to impact the southeast and Atlantic coast and the Hawaiian islands. And while every storm may not be a major hurricane, your business is at risk because our infrastructure is at risk.

Power outages, local or regional flooding, and disruption of communication services continue to increase in frequency as our infrastructure ages faster than our upgrades and as our economy rewards utilities for trimming staff and services rather than trimming trees and keeping current with maintenance.

Are you protecting your business from the damage and risk of disruption?

You have seemingly infinite choices on the types and cost of protection, each with benefits and limitations. Your challenge: pick the solution that is most cost-effective, meaning the time it takes to Return to Operations (RTO) is acceptable given the cost.

To simplify your search for a solution, we propose you consider one of three models:

  • Restoration
  • Recovery
  • Continuity

Restoration

Restoration is the least expensive option.  You backup all of your data and critical systems, including full system images, off-site.  In the event of a disaster, you restore your systems once you have fixed or replaced any damaged or lost equipment.

  • Cost Structure:
    • Scales with the size of your system images and the amount of data you keep in offsite backup
  • RTO:
    • 1 to 3 days once replacement equipment arrives
  • Admin:
    • Must ensure backups include all images and data needed to recovery, including Bare Metal Restore (BMR) for key servers and systems.
    • Must periodically test restore for data integrity and to ensure the recovery process is documented and understood.

Recovery

In addition to keeping an off-site or cloud backup covering all of your data and critical systems, you have the ability to access replicas of your network and servers in a remote data center.  In the event of a disaster, you “spin up” your latest system snapshots and restore any incremental data. You access your mirror network via remote desktop, VPN client, or LAN-to-LAN VPN.

  • Cost Structure:
    • Scales with the size of your system images and the amount of data you keep in offsite backup
  • RTO:
    • 1 to 18 hours, depending on your configuration and needs.
  • Admin:
    • Must ensure backups include all images and data needed to recovery, including Bare Metal Restore (BMR) for key servers and systems.
    • Must periodically test recovery for data integrity and to ensure the recovery process is documented and understood.
    • Once primary systems are repaired or replaced, snapshot backups and recovery move your data back for normal operations.

Continuity

Continuity means your IT infrastructure keeps running, even in the face of disaster or significant local events.  You have multiple options for continuity, including: mirrored networks and systems in remote data centers, remote desktops, virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), and Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) models. In each scenario, your servers, applications, and data live in a redundant, remote cloud data center. You access your environment via remote connection, using a web browser or a small local app known as a receiver.  In the event of an emergency, you only need to provide a browser and Internet connection to be up and running.

  • Cost Structure:
    • Scales with the size of your systems and networks
    • Offsets day to day costs of owning and managing on-premise hardware and software
  • RTO:
    • Immediate, based on Internet availability
  • Admin:
    • Providers typically include standard server admin and management, reducing local need for IT resources
    • Application and data management are similar to on-premise systems
    • Backup/restore capabilities are still recommended to protect against application and/or human error.

Using these models as a guide, you can select a solution that balances cost, convenience, and complexity against the operational needs of your business.


Want to setup or improve your disaster recovery/business continuity capabilities? Contact us for a free, no-obligation consultation.