Physical distancing in place at a South Surrey business. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Surrey panel tackles re-opening for business in the wake of COVID-19

Four business leaders who’ve weathered trying times offer their advice

It’s keeping so many business people awake at night – when to re-open, and how, as the threat of this pandemic continues?

Four business leaders who’ve been through trying times offered their advice Wednesday during a “digital town hall” hosted by the Surrey Board of Trade, on the topic of re-opening for business in the wake of COVID-19.

Daniel Schwanen, the vice president of research for C.D. Howe Institute, joined the meeting from Kitchener-Waterloo in Ontario, where he said people are watching “with a lot of fascination” B.C.’s “much more cautious” approach to restoring a semblance of normalcy to the workplace.

“You always have that increasing, that remaining, that lingering doubt about basically letting business go about, that you won’t be able to catch any flare-up of the disease quickly enough, and there will be flare-ups, as we’ve seen already from European cases,” he said.

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Daniel Schwanen. (Submitted photo)

Schwanen said it will be interesting to see how the government with phase out the CERB and other income supports vis-a-vis the wage subsidy, and what strategies companies large and small will employ to re-promote themselves.

He predicts taxes will be hiked to pay for this government help, but added he nevertheless thinks that “we did the right thing” and the sacrifice is “better than the alternative.

“Are we going to be able to repay all of this? Well, not if we keep doing this, but the whole idea, frankly, is that if we hadn’t done this we would have been in a possibly a major depression, lack of confidence in the authorities’ ability to support the economy.”

Laura Benson, a senior manager with PwC Canada, said that speaking from a “psychological point of view” we’ve never until now seen governments and organizations have so much input in our own personal safety, and that of our families.

Benson said we’re probably going to see one of three scenarios play out.

“The first scenario being that we ease back to work, and the curve remains flat and we’re all OK. The second scenario is a spike, where we go back to work and we realize we perhaps aren’t equipped for what comes up and we need to retreat from the workplace, and the third scenario we kind-of call the basketball scenario because we’re going to bounce for a little bit.”

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Laura Benson. (Submitted photo)

While most employees appear to be “resilient” so far, the challenge is how to prepare them for “long-term resilience.” She advises employers to give their staff “some sense of control over their own situation, a situation that none of us can control, but choice and control over their own situation.”

Benson said this is the opportunity for companies “to make or break their culture.

“A plan showing your employees that you care for them by keeping them over-informed, and showing that you have given consideration for their safety coming back to the workplace, or any mix of that dynamic of virtual and coming into the workplace, will have a huge impact on your culture,” she said. “So first and foremost I would offer that, that without a plan you could possibly be demonstrating a lack of care for your employees and that will have a long-term effect on your organization.

“You don’t necessarily have to have your policies in place right away, but you do have to show the intention to consider them within your policies.”

Another important consideration is how to satisfy customers that it is safe to come back, what policies might need to be changed and how that will be communicated to all.

“It really is the people that will make or break this re-entry,” Benson said, “and the plan around these people.”

Eamonn Percy, founder and CEO of the Percy Group, expects to see a decrease in globalization. “We’re also seeing a trend of back-to-basics,” he said. “That will have a significant impact on businesses going forward, which means that the discretionary consumer purchasing is going down.

“The last implication, which I don’t think we’ve seen yet but I think is coming relatively quickly, is a credit contraction and certainly a liquidity squeeze or cash squeeze, and that is to me weeks to months away rather than months to years away.”

Percy weathered 1987, Black Monday, dot com, 2008. “I’ve been though this before, it’s not my first rodeo.”

“While at the time there’s big risk, but what I really learned is there’s enormous opportunity coming out of it,” he said. “So the first thing is I recommend business owners and entrepreneurs really to look at the opportunity and not to get too overwhelmed by the risk.”

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Eamonn Percy. (Submitted photo)

Percy noted this “is a great time” for employers to look into innovating their service delivery and business model. “Now is the time to conserve cash, or come up with cash-generating strategies, draw down those lines of credit that may be available because they may not be available in a couple of months.”

He added it’s important for businesses to be “exceptionally well-connected” with their customers right now. “Even if it may seem difficult to do that, right now the consumer sentiment and behaviors are changing very rapidly, so understanding what that change is and adopting it into your business is critical.”

Businesses need to determine what they need to do differently going forward. “Don’t just assume everything is going to be the same,” Percy said. “The companies that are going to really dominate going forward are the ones that make those changes quicker, rather than later.”

He also noted that the pandemic has shown us that not everybody will now want to work at the office, “or even needs to, and you have to recognize this, that we’re in a different time.”

If employers show empathy and support for their employees now, he said, “the employees will continue to show even greater levels of support going forward. That’s what I would recommend.”

Tomas Reyes, executive director of the Surrey-North Delta Division of Family Practice, said it appears we’ve reached a peak in infections.

“I think we are at the peak, but we are not off the hook,” he said. “I think we need to acknowledge that normality, or a sense of normal will be different from now on. Even when we find a vaccine, whenever that happens, if it’s in six months or a year or a year and a half, we don’t really know, it will take some time for adoption and creating the antibodies.

“What that means is the virus will stay.”

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Tomas Reyes. (Submitted photo)

Reyes noted that the COVID-19 virus can thrive for up to three days on a surface, depending on the surface.

“Try to handle as much as you can virtually,” he advises, and try to avoid prolonged contact with people. If people get “too over-confident,” he warns, “we may have a big spike and it may be back to our current normal.

“There are certain countries where they were ahead of us in this situation, they’re coming back to stronger restrictions again because of the spike that they’re having again, in South Korea, Germany and some others. So that’s a big red flag for us.”



tom.zytaruk@surreynowleader.com

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