Navigating the New Normal: Part 1 and 2

By Amy Smithers ● April 14, 2020 12:05


As a growing small business in Canada, what kind of planning is required to weather the impacts of COVID-19?

CFC Media Lab set out to address this question with our three-part webinar series, Navigating the New Normal. Drawing on the knowledge of experts across many fields, we’ve created space for an ongoing discussion about the current challenges and potential solutions as they evolve.

Exploring Possible Outcomes

On March 27th we welcomed more than 80 attendees to Navigating the New Normal: Part I, a discussion which revolved around scenario planning. Aaron Williamson (Founder of Goal17) shared his modelling process using information from the March 16th Imperial College Study, which outlined the most effective public health responses to the virus, with many scenarios lasting as long as 24 months. Aaron’s first iteration shows four quadrants based on the duration and intensity of policy response, and the persistence of the virus:

While initial work on the scenarios hinged on the persistence and spread of the virus, he soon realized that the variable on his vertical axis was a non-starter.

“It is clear [at this point] that the pandemic will not respond quickly,” confirmed University of Toronto Epidemiology Professor Susan Bondy. “Every country was hoping for containment, and did rigorous contact tracing, but that ship has sailed.”

Without the ability to halt the escalation of COVID-19 to any substantial degree, it is crucial for businesses to think about how to pivot their planning for the next year or more, instead of just trying to ride out the next few months. We are only in the earliest stages of establishing a balance between the separate interests of the public health and economic spheres, and where the Canadian public health sector has spent years preparing for the probable eventuality of a pandemic (especially since SARS in the early 2000s), those in economic and social policy are playing catchup with their systems.

“A lot of people want some sense of how the health side relates to the economic side,” said Kareem Bardeesy, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Ryerson University’s Leadership Lab. “What we don’t have guidance on yet is how to draw the measures out for a little while. What could the public health community endorse that would help the economic community?”

In the absence of that guidance, the second iteration of Aaron’s framework aims to give us a few probable scenarios to help businesses plan for the future, replacing virus persistence with human resilience and adaptation:

As scientists increasingly lean toward an 18-month to 2-year timeline of what we’re calling ‘rolling blackouts’ (intermittent heavy measures to control disease spread, as cases spike repeatedly over time), the way businesses adapt to changing consumer behaviours will be essential.

“When the pandemic hasn’t been wiped out you have rebound outbreaks,” said Susan. “We are looking at this long term until we have a vaccine on an annual basis.”

The long-term impacts are serious, but it’s not all doom and gloom. “I see this as a hopeful matrix,” said moderator Ana Serrano (Canadian Film Centre). “If change is the only thing that is fixed, [and] the persistence of the virus is fixed, how we change and what changes is potentially under our control. What this new social contract becomes is up to the various coalitions to push for.”

Government Response & Societal Change

Erin Millar, Founder and CEO of The Discourse, is one business owner striving to shape the decisions of policy makers in the thick of it. Erin created savesmallbusiness.ca, a movement demanding urgent action from the federal government to pause commercial rents, defer debt obligations, and provide better wage subsidies. As of today, more than 25,000 people have already signed the petition. While she hopes more assistance for small businesses will arrive, she’s not counting on the government alone.

“A lot of advocacy has been focused around how we can stop time economically,” she said. “I think those things are necessary for the short-term shock, but that’s not going to be the longer- or medium-term solution. What I’m thinking about with my own company is how to build a resilient organization that creates value and is more flexible and resilient from a cash perspective, throughout this rolling blackout scenario.”

This crisis also presents an opportunity for society to make real change, as policy shifts at a faster pace than ever. “There’s an opportunity for agency right now,” said Karim. “People are more persuadable and for those who have a vision, there will be a willingness to hook onto that.”

“Things that have wanted to move for a long time will accelerate,” added Susan, citing the example of many doctor’s appointments now being taken by telephone. “But [there is the danger] of re-concretizing things that are the wrong move … health care on both sides of the border will be interesting to watch.”

Preserving Your Business

In part two of our series on April 3rd, Living Through the Rolling Blackouts, we took our questions further, asking a few new experts what actions businesses can take to prepare for one of the most likely scenarios: intermittent closures and restriction measures.

“[Rolling blackouts will] create unpredictability and changes in consumer behaviour, and all of the patterns of society will be fundamentally different,” said Aaron. “It will be kind of like whack-a-mole for the foreseeable future.”

Business coach and Fifth Wave/IDEABOOST mentor Warren Coughlin says this scenario means focusing on business preservation versus growth. He shared his four key areas for managing strategic risk: evaluating cashflow, continuity, your team, and marketing and sales.

Warren encourages business owners to take advantage of the new Canada Emergency Business Account, which offers interest-free loans of up to $40,000 for small businesses, and to look into the 75% and 10% wage subsidies available. He also shared his three-month rolling projection tool to assist business owners with their budgeting scenarios. Considering the continuity of suppliers you rely on who may cease operations, and making hard decisions about your team are also essential.

“Communicate with your team like crazy,” Warren said. Sharing what you know (and what you don’t) keeps everyone in the loop and helps employees trust you.

Finally, you may need to pivot in your messaging or business model, but now is an amazing opportunity to grab some market share, when so many other businesses are frozen in place with their marketing messages.

Personalizing the Crisis

For business owner and Fifth Wave Executive Entrepreneur-in-Residence Petra Kassun-Mutch, the key to responding to COVID-19 is to uncover the narratives of individuals impacted by the crisis. She created three potential ‘avatars’ living through the crisis with their own unique personal and economic realities, to illustrate possible challenges, as well as opportunities, for businesses to serve a newly emerging clientele.

Petra also zeroed in on the disproportionate impact that economic challenges will have on female business operators. She notes that women entrepreneurs are highly concentrated in caregiving sectors, leaving them particularly open to risk. “We need to anticipate how this scenario will devastate female entrepreneurship, and how to respond.”

Staying Flexible & Loud

Remember that policy is being written as we speak, and is constantly being revised. “Keep a close eye on it all the time,” said Erin. “Don’t act like the government will bail us out, but keep up-to-date and have good information sources.”

One of the sources she’s been following is Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s daily call. She believes small businesses, startups, and growth companies are not yet a political problem for him, which is all the more reason to openly demand the kind of help your business needs right now.

“I don’t think the decision makers are trying to screw us over, they just don’t understand [our business models],” she says. “Try not to get so discouraged that we disengage. Now is the time to be loud.”

Key Advice

We covered a lot of ground in our first two sessions—here are some of our most valuable takeaways:

  • Let the process you were wedded to go. Now is the time for adaptability and flexibility, and you may discover new opportunities that wouldn’t have occurred to you before.
  • Be realistic. Look at all available options and possible time frames, from six months to 24. Mapping out a few options now will help you get ahead of the curve.
  • Cash is king. Hold onto the cash you have in your business using payment deferrals where available, and think through all options before taking on new loans that will push you deeper into debt.
  • Build bench strength. Where possible, have several people on your team ready when someone needs to tap out for their mental or physical health. Document carefully to keep information available to everyone.
  • Don’t feel guilty about using all the resources available to you. Your resiliency in the long haul means your business will still be around to help the economy get back on its feet down the road.
  • Good work for the economy and for society are not mutually exclusive. This is an opportunity to disrupt systems that are not serving us and enact positive change.

Further Resources