Looking for the positive for your family business in the midst of a pandemic
By Shelley Taylor, IEE Family Business Consultant
Here in Pennsylvania non-essential businesses, or non-lifesaving businesses, have been told to close their physical operations. While you are undoubtedly focused on the current and future economic implications for your business, and concerned for your team members, depending on your industry it is possible you may also have a bit more time in your schedule. What a gift that can be. Up until two weeks ago, the answer to the question, “How are you?” was almost always, “Busy.”
In our family, we use “the gift of time” to refer to special experiences we can share together. Life is usually so busy, and we feel we have enough “stuff,” so my husband and I like to share a nice meal or a trip together as a welcomed gift of time. Things have changed a lot in the last couple weeks, and for many of us, so has our relationship with time.
Although we are now living in a very stressed and uncertain climate, most of us have been given the gift of time. Those of us who are working from home are pretty much not leaving the house. We are not rushing out the door in the morning. We are not traveling. We are spending time in the kitchen preparing meals. We are taking walks and enjoying the first signs of spring. We are reaching out to each other more.
This time can also be used to have important conversations or engage in projects with our family members that we can’t seem to find time for in our normally busy lives. And those conversations and projects can offer a welcome distraction during this very stressful time. Even if you don’t you have the bandwidth right now to tackle any new projects – and that is understandable – at least take a moment to realize that life has indeed slowed down. Below are some suggestions for conversations and projects big and small, appropriate for family business members across the generations.
Maybe you have time for that (virtual) family meeting you have been wanting to schedule. It is always important to keep communication open and information flowing, possibly even more so during this stressful time. Family members who are not involved in the day to day operations may be wondering how the business is doing, but do not want to impose. Consider sending around the beginning of an agenda, and encourage others to add items they would like to discuss. Agenda items will certainly vary by family and what the business is dealing with right now. The meeting content should be kept simple or can be more robust depending on your family’s and business’s situations and needs right now.
Some agenda ideas:
- Re-connect and see how everyone is doing
- Update on the business and measures you’re taking
- Update on employees, including communications you’ve sent out
- Contingency plans and “what-if” scenarios for the business relating to:
- key staff positions
In the normal course of events it is a good idea to revisit your estate planning documents approximately every 3 years. Many of us find it uncomfortable to talk about our own death or the passing of our loved ones. This can be a hard topic to address even in the best of times and admittedly even more so during this severe health crisis. Changes in your family (births, marriages, divorces, deaths) or changes in your personal or business financial situation might necessitate a fresh look at your plans. Additionally, periodic tax law changes can affect the strategies you have in place. Maybe your schedule has a little flexibility now so you can devote time to this important project, even though it might be challenging.
Similarly, it is important to share your end-of-life plans with your family members. This includes plans beyond those for your business and other assets. Health care proxies, advanced directives, and living wills spell out your wishes for treatment in the case of severe illness as well as end-of-life care. Now could be an ideal time to gather (virtually, for those not in the same household) to ensure a common understanding and provide an opportunity for questions and clarification if necessary. Although it is unpleasant and scary to contemplate and discuss “what-if” scenarios, it is much harder for everyone to share and process information when someone is critically ill.
These unprecedented times provide a great learning opportunity for rising generation family members in the business. This can be a time for leaders to include other family employees in meetings (where appropriate) or otherwise let them in on their thinking as they navigate uncharted waters. Business leaders are making decisions daily and sometimes hourly in response to the pandemic. This is an unprecedented opportunity for those who are less experienced to witness real-time decision making and have a window into how to balance competing priorities.
Do you have high school or college-aged children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren? What kind of education and learning opportunities can you create for next generation family members beyond traditional internships? Sitting down together (virtually) to come up with ideas could be a welcome distraction for everyone. Maybe you have friends or business colleagues in related industries who would be willing to hop on a group video call to talk about their businesses. Or maybe you and colleagues in other family businesses can gather to share ideas about learning opportunities for the next generation. Some of the best learning in family business comes from other family businesses.
School-aged children are at home, so parents of young children have their time consumed with home schooling and entertaining those children. Are there family histories or stories to explore or share? You can talk about how the business was founded, what it was like in the early years – whether that was 10, 30 or 50 years ago, or more. What was going on in the world then? How has the business changed over the years? In addition to business stories, you can share family and personal stories from your childhood or young adult years. Take advantage of FaceTime or another video platform to reach out to other relatives so they can share stories. It will be a welcome diversion for them too.
How about a family history project that your children organize? You can help them develop questions they can use to interview you and other relatives. Are there photos, newspaper clippings or artifacts they want to include? What other items might be significant? After conducting the interviews, they can compile the information and get creative with technology to portray the stories along with the photos and other relevant finds. Maybe they could incorporate a family or business timeline. The complexity of the finished product will depend on the age of the children. Regardless of the sophistication, you will have a marvelous keepsake for the family.
Businesses are struggling with lost revenue, a new work landscape, stressed employees and a changing world economy. Our businesses and our families will increasingly need to find ways to adjust to our new reality as we settle in for this extended ride. If you have the time, reach out to your family and tackle some of the suggested projects. Hopefully you can make progress on some of these initiatives and strengthen bonds during this unprecedented time.
Shelley Taylor is available for virtual meetings during this unprecedented, stressful time. You can contact her through the IEE, or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.