Caring for your employees during the COVID-19 crisis

Editorial Team

7 min read
Cafe employee holding tablet

Small businesses across the country are reeling from the devastating impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Nearly every business owner has had to make tough choices about how to stay afloat. Many have scrambled to find creative solutions to bring in revenue even during lockdowns.

As states and communities take those first steps to reopening and we settle into a new normal, it’s important to keep an eye not just on customer loyalty, but on employee loyalty as well. Every business owner is relying on their teams to get through this period, whether that means adapting to new business models or dealing with anxious, stressed-out customers. Your team is your front line. Caring for them is an urgent business priority, now more than ever.

The value of employee retention

Many businesses have been forced to furlough or lay off their workers due to state-mandated lockdowns. If all goes well as your state reopens, and your people are still available and interested in returning, you’ll be able to welcome them back. But if you have to recruit and train new employees, that’s likely to slow you down and add costs during a time when you probably want to avoid new expenses. The cost of replacing an employee can range from half to twice their annual salary. Existing employees will have a natural head start on learning any new procedures because they’re already familiar with your inventory and physical space—even if you’ve had to pivot your business model to focus more on delivery, pickup, or other socially distanced options.

Whether you’re in the process of staffing a new business or hiring new employees with different or new skills your business now needs, your focus should be on employee retention. Again, replacing employees who leave will add significant costs at a time you’ll need to be pinching pennies.

Communication is key

As a business owner, you’re no doubt focused on staying connected with your customers—understandably so. But you also care about your employees, and right now it’s more important than ever to expand those open, honest lines of communication with them. What’s going on in your employees’ lives, whether they’re trying to scrape by without child care or worried about an aging parent whose health is vulnerable, might impact your business.

Many businesses are also likely to avoid traditional all-staff meetings, in the interest of social distancing. An effective option is to focus on individual check-ins with your team. You’re adapting as fast as you can to a rapidly changing environment, and so is your team. Good communication is crucial.

Ask open-ended questions like “What is life like for you at home right now?” This will give them an opportunity to share anything they’re struggling with, like childcare, supervising their kids’ online schooling, or caring for aging parents, without them feeling like you’re prying. Try to share a little about your own situation if appropriate, too.

If you’ve had to furlough or lay off employees, check in and make sure they’ve been able to access unemployment. Ask them about what would make them feel comfortable returning to work when that’s possible in your state.

Ensure your safety measures protect everyone

A business will naturally communicate health and safety updates to their customers, but it’s important to communicate these measures and best practices to your staff as well. Think through every point of contact your team will have with each other and with customers, and make sure that cleaning, face coverings, and distance are prioritized at every step.

Guidelines and best practices continue to evolve as scientists learn more about the coronavirus. Stay up to date with your local health officials’ directives and the CDC’s latest advice on how to make your workplace safe.

We’ve already seen what has happened at workplaces that have been slow to put safety measures in place. There have been major coronavirus outbreaks in fulfillment warehouses, retail stores, meat packing plants, and other workplaces that have continued operating during lockdowns. Safety always has to come first.

Be flexible with scheduling

You may have too much work for your employees, or not enough. Your peak sales hours might have shifted—right out of alignment with your staff’s regular schedules. Whatever your individual situation, it may be time to start more in-depth conversations about scheduling with your people. In some cases, it may be appropriate to ask employees if they’re fine reducing their hours to support a colleague. Encourage your team to communicate their needs and wishes to you, but let them know you may not be able to accommodate all requests.

If employees have been successful obtaining unemployment, ask them what kind of hours and safety measures they need to feel ready to come back to work. Some employees may be receiving more from unemployment than their regular salary. Let them know you want them back, but also want to be able to guarantee you can meet their needs before they forfeit unemployment benefits.

Look for other ways to help your employees

You may not be able to offer extra bonuses or financial support right now, but you can show appreciation for your team in many other ways. Think about what feels most appropriate for each staffer: if they’re hurting financially, perhaps you can give them a gift card for their favorite grocery store—and assuming it’s a local one, you’ll be supporting your local economy and your team. A particularly relevant way to help is to maintain or offer health care benefits. One business in New York State, for example, had to lay off its workers, but is keeping them on their company health insurance.

If, on the other hand, your employees are financially secure, think about small but meaningful gestures such as an extra day off or a gift card for a favorite online store.You could also invite your customers to donate to an emergency assistance fund for your workers, or sell gift cards for your products or services and pass the proceeds on to your employees. For instance, a rock climbing gym in New York is offering 10-packs to their customers, and the revenue is going directly to employees.

Lists of resources also go a long way. This costs nothing but your time, and empowers your people to determine how they can best help themselves. These resources can include:

  • Lists of apps or other online resources for mental health & well-being
  • Lists of online educational programs or camps for employees with kids
  • Suggestions for online art or culture exhibits
  • Recommendations for virtual fitness sessions
  • Contact information for local financial advisors
  • Links to local health organizations

Don’t forget to take care of yourself

If you burn out, your business will not be able to sustain itself. Do take the time to take care of yourself: give yourself regular breaks from work, get the human connection you need to keep going, whether with friends, family, or others, and practice self-care. If your business is still on lockdown, now might be a good time to look into ways to streamline your business processes, so when you reopen, you’ll be able to focus on your team and your customers.

Remember, not every decision you make will be popular with your staff. As a business owner, you’re the one taking care of the bottom line. Do as much as you can to be transparent with your employees and support them as far as you’re able, but don’t put yourself in financial jeopardy. It’s a fine line to walk.


COVID-19 may be the toughest challenge small businesses have faced since the Great Depression. Everyone is overwhelmed. Your goal is to hang in there until you’re able to get back to doing what you do best. Support your team with clear communication, strong safety procedures, and any financial support you can offer. Most of all, remember to be compassionate with your team and with yourself.

For more information, check out these web pages on financial relief, business preparedness, and our general merchant resources.

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