socially distanced business meeting
From knowing the legal requirements to keeping your employees accountable, there are many factors that go into running a socially distant business safely and successfully. — Getty Images/Pekic

Businesses that operate out of a physical location are all too familiar with the term "social distancing." The ability for building occupants to maintain six feet of distance while inside was a key condition for many businesses to reopen across the country, and now it's up to owners and employees to enforce that protocol.

Of course, social distancing is often easier said than done. If consumers need help with a product, an employee needs to be able to help them from a safe distance. For service providers like beauty salons and medical offices, there's no avoiding coming into close personal contact with others.

Still, business owners must find a way to keep their operations running while ensuring the proper health and safety measures on-premises. Here are some tips for running a socially distant business without compromising on customer service.

Know what's expected of you by law

At present, 34 states and the District of Columbia have mandated the use of face masks in public, and many have also set strict capacity limits for indoor spaces. At the bare minimum, every business with a physical location should research and understand their local and state ordinances and what that means for their employees and customers.

If your business is subject to further safety guidelines, such as those issued by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), be sure to follow those to the letter.

"OSHA’s COVID-19 guidelines are fairly detailed and comprehensive," said Bobby Perry, owner of A&H Plumbing, a certified minority-owned business. "We interpret that guidance as the floor for safety procedures and try to go above and beyond. We have made significant investments so that they're better protected, because quarantining was never an option for us."

[Read: 5 Ways to Get Customers to Return When Reopening]

Make sure safety starts before anyone enters the building

If you run a small shop, salon or office where it's not always possible to keep six feet apart, health and safety precautions should begin outside your front door.

Many types of businesses have implemented temperature checks and verbal or written questionnaires to rule out potential COVID-19 symptoms and risk exposures. If any customer or patient can't pass these checkpoints, they are not allowed any further.

"We are screening patients for COVID-19 risks prior to [their appointment] by phone to avoid these patients coming into the office in the first place," said Dr. Shawn Khodadadian, gastroenterologist and medical director of Manhattan Gastroenterology. "[We ask] screening questions upon arrival at the front desk upon check-in so they don't make it any further into the office. Patients with elevated temperatures not allowed into our practice and are seen by televisits."

Patient and staff safety is of paramount importance.

Dr. Shawn Khodadadian, gastroenterologist and medical director, Manhattan Gastroenterology

Create social distance by design

Arranging your store or office smartly can make it easier for customers and employees to maintain a safe social distance. For instance, Manhattan Gastroenterology has contactless registration kiosks at the door and has set its waiting room chairs up to be at least six feet apart — but the practice aims to get patients checked in and seen by a doctor as quickly as possible so they don't need to spend much time there.

"We are bringing patients immediately into exam rooms upon arrival to avoid any contact or distancing issues in the waiting rooms," said Dr. Khodadadian.

Invest in equipment and products to promote health on-site

No matter how thoroughly you clean and sanitize the surfaces of your building, there's always the possibility of germs and virus particles in the air around you. That's why Perry's company has prioritized indoor air quality for its office space.

"We installed MERV-8 air filters and HEPA and UV-C light filtering fans throughout our interior spaces," Perry told CO—. "We are also installing needlepoint ionization devices in all of our HVAC return vents — a technology that uses charged particles to deactivate the genetic material of airborne biologicals such as COVID-19."

[Read: How Worker Safety Has Become Mission Critical for Businesses]

Make use of outdoor space

If your business has outdoor space available, take advantage of good weather and find ways to engage your customers in socially distant ways outside your building. This can be as simple as having items displayed outside your store or hosting customer events to encourage engagement with your brand.

"We have done a few socially distant outdoor events such as renting an ice cream truck and giving out free ice cream," said Jeremy Shoykhet, founder of SuperFast. "We hope to continue doing more [events] in the coming months … [and do] our part to serve New Yorkers during these challenging times."

Hold your employees accountable

It's your job to set the right example as a business owner, but you also need to hold your employees accountable for their role in keeping your customers and each other as safe as possible. Regularly review your on-site protocols with staff and reiterate the importance of following them.

"Often, the technical aspects of our work require stricter guidelines for cleanliness," said Perry. "We’re privileged to have a team that is naturally diligent and detail-oriented. Our management team does an excellent job reinforcing that safety protocols may involve minor inconveniences, but we all care far more about our broader community, and we incur those inconveniences to ensure our collective health and safety."

Always put your customer first

Ultimately, businesses have a responsibility to their customers' well-being, especially in the midst of a global health pandemic. While adhering to social distancing protocols may make it a bit more difficult or inconvenient to run your business in the short term, the long-term impact is a reputation as a business that cares deeply about its stakeholders.

"Patient and staff safety is of paramount importance," said Dr. Khodadadian. "We have worked hard to have a well thought-out plan that allows our practice to remain efficient and offer high-quality care during this time. We are repeatedly told by our staff and our patients that this is appreciated, and we are always looking to improve our approach towards safety and patient satisfaction."

[Read: 4 Steps to Reopening Your Business Safely]

For more resources from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published September 03, 2020