In breaking news Tuesday afternoon, Montana Governor Steve Bullock announced the Treasure State is steamrolling toward Phase II of re-opening. On June 1, bars, restaurants, breweries, fitness facilities and others can increase customer capacity to 75%. Places of worship and bowling alleys can also welcome more guests. Out-of-state visitors will no longer have to quarantine for 14 days before enjoying Montana. These shifts will unfold in less than two weeks and businesses are readying themselves.
On the endless list of considerations for employers, a central question remains. Will employees come back to work? For many out-of-work employees, federal and state unemployment benefits combined make up a greater sum than the employee made previously at their job. More than the financial bottom line for furloughed staff members is another conundrum: what if I don’t feel safe returning to work? The gray area engulfing both employees and employers during these phases of re-opening is enormous.
This gray area prompted our friends from the Billings Chamber of Commerce to find answers from local business experts. One of those experts is Mike Nelson, General Manager of the Northern Hotel in Billings. Nelson says since the pandemic began and he had to lay off many of his staff members, he has worked hard to stay in touch with them.
“Speaking to our employees was the first thing we did,” Nelson says. “In the case of a furlough, we talked to employees one on one.”
After speaking with employees about the future and leveling with them about layoffs, Nelson said he tried to connect those employees to resources, like the state website to file for unemployment. More than website links though, Nelson understood that his employees would need help fast.
“We started looking for folks who were hurting financially and we cooked communal meals at hotels,” Nelson explains. “We made stews, meats, soups, and our employees knew they could depend on us for a bowl of soup.”
Those hearty takeaway options for struggling employees were offered free of charge three times a week. Other employees lost childcare in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. Instead of laying off those employees, if they remained on the payroll, Nelson let them bring their children to work.
“We had tons of little kids running around our office area,” he says.
Nelson also leveraged the shutdown to catch up on overdue projects and keep staff at work. To knock out the hotel’s honey-do list, Nelson said he “rotated folks through the roster,” meaning accountants were spackling walls and maintenance engineers were cleaning artwork, among other nontraditional duties.
Nelson said he was also zealous about communicating with his staff, whether they remained on the skeleton crew at the hotel or furloughed at home. He gave regular company updates, trying to be as transparent as possible.
“Communicate, communicate, communicate,” Nelson says. “Stay in touch with employees with a message of hope and a message of progress.”
To maintain an open communication pipeline, Nelson regularly sends his staff email updates with what’s coming next for the hotel and the reminder that he is there to help his employees. For the staff still working on premise, he hosts weekly “State of the Union addresses” as he refers to them. In those addresses, he talks about edicts from the governor and offers more “full transparency.”
Jennifer Reiser, the Chief Operating Officer for the Billings Chamber of Commerce, said Nelson is an example of a best practice boss during these uncharted times. At the Billings Chamber, Reiser said she is implementing individualized plans to help meet the differing needs of each employee. She too is using the time away from the office to have it thoroughly cleaned. While she says the office was clean before and there’s likely little threat of harmful germs lurking in the building, the scent of cleaning products and sight of sparkling surfaces will do a lot for the collective staff psyche.
Business owners across the spectrum of re-opening are wise to heed Reiser and Nelson’s pandemic management skills. By showing empathy for staff, transparency about the state of the business, and taking proper precautions taken to re-open, business owners and managers are not only doing the right thing, they’re building the kind of loyalty it takes to survive a pandemic. It’s the kind of loyalty that brings good people back to work when they’re called.