Preparing to re-open your business in a “new normal” environment

Claire Christian

Claire Christian is a successful businesswoman on the Isle of Man, contributing to the retail offering of high-end affordable fashion, and bespoke womenswear. A long-term veteran of the retail, wholesale, manufacturing and luxury end of the fashion industry such as Burberry, Hardy Amies and Melissa Odabash, Claire returned to the Island seven years ago to establish her brand and independent business. During the Covid 19 Pandemic she has been a crucial conduit for the self-employed, businesses and local government, and has been instrumental shaping the government’s support policies.  

Preparing to re-open your business in a “new normal” environment

So it’s been a week since non-essential retail re-opened. As other sectors prepare to join them in this “new normal” environment, I thought I would pass on what our Jedi Masters (otherwise known as essential food retail) passed on to us to help us best cope, and ultimately get through re-opening! Wisdom we gain in life is a gift to pass along – not to keep to ourselves.  


“You must unlearn what you have learned”

As creatures of habit, we tend to love our routines and our go-to methods. But sometimes, we have to shake up our process – and there is no time like the present as a leader to put this into practice. Whether you are just one employee or manage a huge team, your employees and customers need to see your confidence, kindness, understanding, planning, thoughtfulness, and a new clear way of doing things to make your business a safe environment for all.


You don’t have to spend a fortune, and HOW you achieve the employee and customer safety is up to you and may be different for every business. Just because one business is doing one thing doesn’t mean you have to do the same, as there may be a better/cheaper/simpler way that you can achieve the goal.

In risk management PPE is the last line of defence and only required or advised when you are unable to remove or mitigate the risk in other ways. PPE is often an unnecessary and inadequate replacement for good working practices and can sometimes create a dangerous sense of invincibility. The simple truth is that the two key defences against the virus remain as they always have been, two metre social distancing and good general hygiene (in particular hand hygiene and non-touching of face).  If you can set up a system of work that can achieve those two defences in other ways then PPE would become optional rather than necessary, and sometimes excessive PPE serves to scare people into thinking the risk is higher than it actually is.

Having said that, in some industries where close-up personal contact is unavoidable PPE would be required as a last line of defence. It is a very personal choice as to what level of protection, is deemed appropriate.


The general public have just had nine to ten weeks of being guided, and told what to do. It makes them feel safe. So, educate both employees and customers. You are bringing them into your “business”, a place of pride and joy. They should feel safe from the minute they are in your professional hands, to them leaving.  Give them clear instructions, and don’t apologise for it. This will become part of a new experience for them. Be clear in your instructions, and accept that you will adapt as the days go on, you won’t get it right the first day. People interpret things differently, so set an example; a strong leader will see a better way of doing things and not let their pride get in the way of adapting to get it right.

Inform your customers of the new procedures via social media or email, and then reinforce that with posters and signs inside your business and use clear dialogue. Put up as much visual information as possible, one-way systems, hand sanitiser facilities etc. And when you go to do a “cleaning safety task”, like sanitising your hands, or area, or workspace, don’t hide doing it, let your customers and fellow colleagues see you doing this, this will instill confidence, and reassure everyone around you.  


Make physical modifications in your business. This could be a reduction of desks or workspaces. Clear away the clutter, only have what you need to complete your daily tasks, this also means less to clean/sanitise. Only allow a certain number of customers per square foot – calculate that by looking at your space vs a customer and employee ratio. Do you need a queuing system? Or do you need to give customers information about arriving for appointments so you don’t have a queue? Social distance where possible -distancing and effective hygiene will go a long way. Where close contact is unavoidable then use the principles of maximum time, and consider whether PPE and/or working practice changes can help.

Here are a few phrases you could use to explain your operational preparedness to your customers:

“We’re only allowed to have certain number of customers per square foot at this time.  We really appreciate your patience.  It is to keep us all safe and that’s really important to all of us”.

“Queuing externally and limiting the number of customers allows us to reduce risk and serve you safely”.   

“We care about this community and want to ensure everyone is safe at our restaurant”.

“We appreciate that this is different for you.  It’s different for us too, and we really appreciate you being patient with us”.

“In order to ensure your safety, we have to take different approaches which means We have to adapt our services, times, etc.” 

“We need extra time to sanitise in between appointments, meetings, we appreciate your patience at this time”.

Your strong and supportive leadership will be your armour in this battle. It will make you and everyone around you feel safe.


Our mental and emotional levels are probably going to be extremely high on day one. But I can assure you, a few days later, when it all becomes routine, you and your employees will become more relaxed. You probably won’t be able to sleep worrying about safety – take heed, we are all going through this. It’s normal to feel responsible. And remember it’s not going to be perfect, but trust in yourself and your colleagues and you will achieve great things.  

One unpredictable factor is customer-to-customer interaction. People can have very different levels of fear. Most of the time it’s because we have possibly just forgot, or feel we can’t possibly endanger someone. If a situation arises keep calm, do not engage physically, step back and give clear instruction what you want your customers to do.  

Here are some phrases you could use to diffuse a situation.  What you want to try to do is get them to stop, listen, and reframe their argument.

“Please be patient whilst we try to adhere to social distancing guidelines”.

“We really appreciate your patience, our rules are there to protect you, our colleagues and our community”.

“It wasn’t Sue’s intention, but I can understand why you feel that way.  Let’s remember to be kind and social distance to protect those around us”. 

As a very last resort, if the situation is escalating and you fear for everyone’s safety, the local police have made it clear they are here to help. Call them and explain you need some assistance.  

I remember Andrew Corrie, General Manager of the Co-op, in our first zoom meeting saying to me, “we have 10 stores, operating over 60 days through the peak of the crisis 300 colleagues, 500,000+ customer interactions.  We have had zero positive Covid 19 employee cases”.  For me it was like a penny dropping… his staff were safe. They had experienced all this interaction, and through good management, PPE, and clear social distancing, he kept his employees safe… and thus his customers too.  What an inspiration.  Something we can all remember when far less people will come through our doors a day.  

Be confident in your industry – some of the industries re-opening soon have the most hygienic best practices already. You are just going to make them more obvious, add a few more, some PPE, and social distance where you can. Use this information to equip yourself emotionally.


We live in a world where we are open to criticism, especially on social media platforms.  We have first hand seen how some food retailers have been scrutinised over these past weeks.  If this happens to you, it will be heart breaking. You will take it personally. You will feel you have failed. Most likely the criticism will be exaggerated, embellished. Try to remember, criticism during these times usually comes from fear. “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering”.  And in this case that usually means your suffering. Don’t indulge in retaliation. This will be your first reaction, to strike back and disprove.  Try to remember people are going through an epidemic, you may not be aware they may have lost someone, or perhaps feel vulnerable.  

So don’t take it personally, it’s important to remain professional; it’s easy to get caught up in social media feuds. Respond as a business owner; try to encourage the person to transition the conversation to a more private place. For example, you could say something like “Hi Sue, we’re so sorry to hear about your negative experience.  Could you please private message us with details about your experience, and contact information so we can contact you directly to rectify this matter? 

Highlight the strengths in your business, and accept that people will always have a difference of opinion. Give a positive response, To their negative comments… for example, thank you for bringing this to my attention.  We are always looking to improve, and we have now made changes to ensure this does not happen again.  Don’t lose sight of who your brand is and what your business stands for – let that shine through every engagement you have with your customers, that way they will know you care about them and their safety.  Respond in a timely manor, but always give yourself a bit of time to gather thoughts and not over react.  


Guidance is NOT instruction, it is NOT a checklist of what you MUST do it is a list of suggestions of things you COULD do. 

Remember essential retail have been open this whole time. They never got guidelines. They didn’t need it, they did what was right, and to this day they still do not have a set of guidelines produced by the Government, and have no need for them as they took self-responsibility.  

On the morning of re-opening, I remember saying to my employees, four clear things:

  • Be confident and vocal in what you want customers to do.
  • Repeatedly sanitise and clean, and make it clear visually when you do so.
  • Set a social distancing standard between each other, and customers will see that and follow.
  • If you feel threatened, don’t engage, simply explain our social distancing measures, and if the situation escalated we can always ask customers to politely leave and we can lock the door! Nothing is more important to me than your safety.  This won’t happen, but it’s reassuring to employees their safety and your customer safety is paramount above anything else. 

A final thought is that all anyone expects of us is that we do our best. Nobody can do more than that and when it comes to doing your best it really is just a case of just doing it. “Do or do not, there is no try”

Be brave, you’ve got this, and remember we are here, never before have different industries been one team.  #teamiom