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SME Tips for Weathering the Coronavirus Storm

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Introduction

The outbreak of COVID-19 and the ensuing pandemic is unprecedented in recent times and its economic impact is similarly unheard of. The Office for Budget Responsibility recently warned that the pandemic could lead to the UK economy shrinking by 35% by June 2020.

For many businesses of all shapes and sizes, in a variety of sectors, the pandemic has, at the very least, necessitated changes and, in more serious circumstances, poses a threat to their survival.

There is, however, plenty of cause for optimism. The government has introduced a range of measures to help support struggling businesses and there are a number of things that businesses of all size, SMEs in particular, can do to weather the storm of the pandemic. Above all else, it is important to stay calm and organised. A clear head and an efficient approach to business will make everything else that much easier.

Dealing with your Staff

We have covered flexible and home working in a number of other articles here at Simply-Docs (check out our Working from Home with Children blog post and our recent newsletter on Home Working). We also offer a range of documents specifically designed to facilitate such arrangements. Flexible working is a boon to employers and employees alike, particularly in such challenging times. It may not be suitable in all sectors, but if the nature of your business permits it, it is most definitely worth considering if you are not already doing so.

Implementing the right policies is an important element of flexible and home working. Without the structure of a normal working day, productivity and adherence to procedures can quickly deteriorate. Nevertheless, it is also important to understand that many staff, particularly parents or those with other dependents, will be facing considerably more responsibilities at home at present. Cultivating an understanding of such pressures and offering as much flexibility as you can will be appreciated by your staff and ideally enable them to be more productive.

Technology can be a great help. Investing in the right software and hardware can make it much easier for your business to operate as close to normal as possible, enabling your staff to easily keep in touch with each other, to hold meetings, to deal with customers, business partners, and the like. It can also be easier to implement security controls on company-owned technology such as laptops and smartphones, meaning that your business is less likely to fall victim to hacking, malware, or the perils of a data breach and the potentially crippling fines that can follow.

If you find that your resources are stretched, consider weighing up the costs of training existing staff for new or expanded roles instead of recruiting new people or taking on contractors. This opens up new opportunities and the possibility of a very welcome pay increase for your existing employees while avoiding the higher expense and complications of taking on new people.

Not all businesses are suited to home working, whether partially or fully. If your staff still need to come into work, keeping the workplace clean and safe is of paramount importance. The normal health and safety rules continue to apply, but when it comes to keeping things clean and hygienic, now is the time to go above and beyond. Equipment and surfaces should be cleaned more often than normal, with “high-touch” objects and areas receiving particular attention. Where supplies permit, provide cleaning materials for your staff to use, such as alcohol wipes for keyboards, mice, telephones, and other objects that are regularly handled. Ensure a plentiful supply of soap and hand sanitiser and ensure that your staff are reminded to use them frequently. Most important of all – if any of your staff are ill, however minor it may be, and whether or not they think it may be the coronavirus, ensure they stay at home and self-isolate in line with government and NHS guidelines.

If revenue declines to the point at which your options are limited financially, there are a range of options open. What is very important is that you communicate with your staff. Do not keep them in the dark. Consult with them and, where appropriate, involve them in planning. If possible, take advantage of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and place your employees on furlough leave. Simply-Docs has a range of templates and guidance designed to assist with this. Further choices include reduced pay, reduced hours, and, if all else fails, redundancy. When considering any such plans, it is vitally important to take professional advice.

Reduce Your Outgoings

If possible, look to re-negotiate contracts. Many of those businesses you are contracting with will be in similarly difficult positions and it may well be preferable to agree to reduced payments, orders, and so forth rather than to risk losing them completely. We offer a range of templates designed to assist in amending contracts in our Business document folder.

When it comes to property, particularly if you are not using your premises (or not using it to its normal capacity), consider negotiating with your landlord and look into the possibility of options such as discounted rent, rent deferment, rent-free periods, and/or a reduction on service charges. Find out more about managing property during the pandemic in our April 2020 property newsletter.

Whatever accommodations are agreed, and however renegotiations proceed, do not let the sense of urgency tempt you into informal agreements. Whenever possible, ensure that everything is documented and legally formalised.

Looking for New Financing Solutions

As revenue falls, debt becomes harder to pay. It is important to remember, however, that those to whom you owe money should hopefully want to receive it than risk missing out. Communication is, once again, key. Discuss your situation with banks and other lenders and look to renegotiate agreements or even take out new finance to help bridge the gap until normal trading begins to resume. The government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme is of particular relevance under this heading.

If you are a company, be particularly careful about giving personal guarantees. Always remember that a company is a legal entity of its own. Shareholders are protected and have limited liability. By giving a personal guarantee, the so-called “corporate veil” is pierced and the guarantor’s personal assets (including, potentially, their home) will be at risk. Once again, the importance of taking professional advice cannot be overstated.

VAT

Paying VAT can be a tremendous source of pressure and, if your revenue is on the decline, it will be even more so. Look to set up a quarterly payment plan for VAT and talk to HMRC about other assistance or concessions that may be available.

The government has also announced a VAT payment deferral scheme under which payments due between 20 March 2020 and 30 June 2020 will not need to be made until 31 March 2021. Returns must, however, be filed on time. Also ensure that any direct debits are cancelled.

Take Care of Your Duties to the Company

If your business is a company, it is important to remember that directors must still comply with their statutory duties as set out in the Companies Act 2006:

  • Act within their powers
  • Promote the success of the company
  • Exercise independent judgement
  • Exercise reasonable care, skill, and diligence
  • Avoid conflicts of interest
  • Not accept benefits from third parties
  • Declare any interest in a proposed transaction or arrangement

The second of these is particularly important, and directors must act in a way that they consider (in good faith) to be most likely to benefit the company’s shareholders as a whole.

It is also, however, important to keep in mind solvency and wrongful trading. If your company’s solvency is in doubt, a director’s first duty is to creditors, not shareholders. That being said, companies in trouble have been given more breathing room with the recent announcement of changes with respect to wrongful trading.

Under normal circumstances, directors may incur personal liability if they allow a company to continue trading beyond the point at which they should have decided it wasn’t reasonably possible to save it. New measures, however, allow directors to continue trading even if there are reasonable grounds to think that the company may become insolvent, without incurring personal liability. This applies to actions taken after 1 March 2020. There will also be a temporary moratorium to prevent creditors seeking to wind up companies seeking rescue or restructuring, but at the time of writing, this is yet to be introduced.

Ensure that the normal procedures for running your business are adhered to, at least as much as the situation permits. If a decision needs to be made that requires shareholder or board approval, conduct things online using tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams (the same applies to meeting with your staff). Ensure that your articles of association permit this, however, and keep to the established processes. Do not succumb to the temptation to let things slide into informality. In particular, if you hold a virtual shareholders’ meeting, ensure that you adhere to the Companies Act 2006 and all required formalities.

Fail to Plan; Plan to Fail

Planning is always important in business, but all the more so now as there is less margin for error. A good starting point is to prepare a cashflow forecast to cover the next two to three months. This should be followed by planning and forecasting for the next couple of years as, even once lockdown restrictions begin to lift, it is likely to take the economy quite some time to stabilise and rebuild.

Organisation is vital. Ensure that your books and management accounts are up-to-date and review everything regularly. All meetings, at whatever level and however formal, should be documented, in accordance with legal requirements where applicable.

Concerns, whether they are of the gravest or most easily dismissed, should all be taken seriously and considered at the appropriate levels within your business, leaving nothing to chance. Changing circumstances could easily turn paranoia into reality on the one hand, and render a significant worry unwarranted on the other. Bury nothing!

Diversify and Grow

Yes – grow! As counterintuitive as it may first appear, such seismic changes to the economic landscape also present opportunities for those businesses ready and willing to adapt. One opportunity is to expand online, particularly if your business has remained predominantly (or entirely) brick-and-mortar in the past. This will not, of course, work for all, but in some cases a move online could not only keep your business afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also benefit it immensely afterward.

It may also be a good time to explore diversification. Perhaps there are new avenues that you have been keen to explore or some that are a natural next step that could be easily accommodated within your existing business model and by your existing staff.

Now is not the time for complacency. Businesses that have built up goodwill and nurtured customer relationships over many years may not, until now, have considered advertising and marketing particularly important. If finances permit, however, now may be an ideal time to consider casting a wider net. Online advertising, particularly on social media, can be an extremely productive investment if done correctly. Similarly, for those businesses already established online, consider your current SEO strategy. Is your website performing at its best? Could you make some changes to it that might move you up a peg or two in the search engine rankings? The internet is key to doing business under normal circumstances and even more so with the vast majority of the population quarantined in their homes.

You CAN Make It!

We keep being assured that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Meanwhile, numerous commentators caution us that we can’t see that light yet. It is certain that the toll that COVID-19 will take on the world will be huge, both in terms of the human cost and economically. Nevertheless, it is vital to persevere, and not surrender to the assumption that your business will fail just because it is facing difficulties.

To wrap up, some key points:

  • Stay up-to-date with the news (but don’t overdo it) and look out for announcements from the government that relate to your business affairs.
  • Document everything, whether required to by statute or not.
  • Avoid informal agreements at all costs.
  • When negotiating or re-negotiating contracts, be sure to cover the important points. Be specific about numbers, dates, review periods, termination, and other key provisions such as force majeure.
  • Communicate with your board, your shareholders, your staff, your suppliers, your customers, your bank, HMRC, and anyone else with whom your business deals. A problem is much harder to solve if those affected by it don’t know about it!
  • Be realistic and act accordingly. Don’t hide from your problems. Be proactive, be honest, be transparent, and be positive!

Being positive may sound awfully trite; but it is vitally important to remain as positive as you can. Looking after yourself as well as your business should be a key priority. Exhaustion and stress will not help keep your business going and could well end up costing you dearly if a lack of focus, physical, or mental illness stop you from performing at your best. Take time for exercise and for rest. Look after your mental health during these difficult times and ask yourself whether doing something really will make a difference. Will sweating over work until 11pm actually result in anything, or would your mind and work fare better with a fresh start in the morning if you took the evening to relax with your family or catch up with a friend over the phone or online?

Plan for the worst, hope for the best, and take steps now to keep your business going. In the words of President Barack Obama in his 2009 inaugural address: “With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.”

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