No use ‘sitting there & complaining’: 3 small business owners share how they’re coping with Covid-19 workplace measures

Being agile to adapt quickly is key.

| Candice Cai | Sponsored | December 14, 2021, 07:30 PM

It’s probably an understatement to say that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused major disruptions to many businesses in Singapore.

Arguably, the food and beverage (F&B), as well as construction industries, have been among the hardest hit, especially small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

With work-from-home often not an option in these sectors, companies such as Kheng Sun Hiring Equipments were forced to close during the circuit breaker.

“Due to the nature of our business, which deals with sales and rental of compact and light construction equipment, we cannot operate without manpower on our premises,” said Toh Yee Sian, 51, senior manager at the company.

“Construction works during that period were also halted. As such, our operations had to stop,” added Toh, who is the second-generation operator of the family-run business.

F&B enterprises like the Kopifellas Group also had to adapt to ever-changing safe management measures.

“Because of the Covid-19 situation, we are unable to cross-deploy our employees,” said the group’s co-founder, Terry Neo, 36.

With stringent workplace safety measures put in place by the government, it affected how Kopifellas’ staff were rostered.

Not only that but “there’s also the added workload of teaching our employees to conduct temperature and vaccination status checks, as well as changing the outlet’s layout to adapt to the latest dine-in measures,” said Neo.

“With the changing measures, which are sometimes announced with little lead time for us to react, it has been mentally draining and makes it hard to plan for business. Basically, we are just reacting to the measures for the past 1.5 years,” said Tham Ying Wai, owner of ice cream parlour, Merely.

From left: Toh Yee Sian, senior manager at Kheng Sun Hiring Equipments, Tham Ying Wai, owner of Merely cafe and Terry Neo, co-founder Kopifellas Group.

These measures have also contributed to a burgeoning to-do list for F&B bosses such as Tham.

“Reminding our staff to take the test, to send us the results and also populating the submission template adds on to our administrative burden,” said the 39-year-old who currently operates two Merely outlets in Singapore.

From being a dine-in establishment, Merely pivoted to delivery services during the circuit breaker (CB) last year, with staff doubling as delivery personnel.

For them and others, the focus at the time was simply on survival and ensuring their employees’ jobs were well-protected.

“One of the challenges was keeping my part-timers on payroll despite the fall in business,” said Tham.

“As most of my part-timers are students earning their own allowance, I try my best to schedule shifts for them even during the no dine-in periods so that they can earn a bit of income.”

Said Toh: “Right after CB, while we could resume our business operations, there were still zero customers and no income at all because construction sites had to stop work till July 2020. It was really a challenge to stay afloat and cover all costs during this period while ensuring everyone in the company can still put food on the table.”

But there is the understanding that the measures are put in place for a reason.

“Frequent testing is key to managing Covid-19, especially in the F&B business where employees have to interact with different customers daily,” stated Neo.

Especially now, with the resumption of dine-in for up to five persons and the opening up of workplaces, frequent testing is all the more necessary.

Said Toh: “With our small company size, it is very important to keep track of employees’ health status in the shortest time possible so we can quickly adjust work arrangements for other employees’ workload who are directly affected. Business operations can then still run smoothly while the affected employee gets proper rest and recovery.”

The three men stated that over the past two years, there were cases where one or more employees contracted Covid-19.

“Besides disinfecting the office, we made every employee who had to turn up for work do a self-test before entering the premises for three days, using some of our own resources for the test kits,” shared Toh of the one case that they encountered.

During such times, staffing was also a major challenge they had to navigate at the Kopifellas Group, which has six outlets that feature different concepts.

“For our employees who contracted Covid-19 and were unable to work from home, both manning and the business were quite affected, and we had to hire part-timers or have our team work overtime,” added Neo.

Even now with the relaxation of dine-in group sizes and the gradual re-opening of workplaces, these companies report that business has yet to bounce back to normal.

“We were pretty reliant on walk-in traffic pre-Covid, and we tried to pack as many customers into the shop to maximise our sales. Of course, that is no longer possible anymore,” said Merely.

“The adrenaline rush from dealing with a busy service has been replaced by the hopeful wait for a customer to walk through our doors.”

It’s the same for the construction industry, with the persisting manpower shortage. Said Toh: “Business has yet to resume to the period pre-Covid. We are constantly finding new ways for more revenue.”

Silver lining

Toh, Neo and Tham all agree that the silver lining to the gloomy business landscape has to be the impact that technology has made on their workflow processes.

“Pre-Covid, we were still operating with paper and pen or at most, simple excel sheets,” shared Toh.

​​”We were lucky that we managed to digitalise the main operational processes in 2019 and 2020 before CB. This allowed us to adapt to the changes with fewer hiccups. Now, we are more flexible with workplace arrangements, with a few employees mainly on a work-from-home basis due to their job scope.”

Added Neo: “We have adopted different technologies to help assist in the running of our business. From HR applications such as Payboy, which has digitalised punch cards, leave forms and more; to finance and to food delivery platforms.”

The pandemic has also changed the way the companies conduct processes such as staff onboarding and interviews that used to be reliant on face-to-face interactions.

“The usual interview process was highly disrupted when Covid-19 happened,” Neo lamented. “In response, we had to shift to conducting interviews through video calls to minimise contact, and candidates would have to visit the outlets themselves before deciding to onboard with us.”

“However, we made use of screen-recordings and PDF files to show our employees some functions in the Payboy mobile app, such as checking-in and checking-out for attendance.”

For Merely, Covid-19 accelerated their digitalisation process, first of all through their diversification towards online delivery, and subsequently with their interview process.

But these are changes that they will be keeping as Singapore moves towards living with endemic Covid-19.

“We transitioned well to conducting online interviews, which is a measure we will keep in place as it is more convenient and less time consuming for me and the interviewee with this arrangement,” said Tham.

Streamlining HR processes with Payboy

Payboy is a payroll and human resource (HR) management software that takes care of essential HR processes for businesses.

It has recently rolled out a free Covid Safe+ Management module which helps companies track employees’ ART results, manage visitor information and generate all the results in a reporting format that is preferred by HPB.

Shared Toh of how the software has helped lighten his load in the absence of a HR department: “Before the implementation of Payboy, employees will have to message or call the operation manager for sick leave on that day, but I can only process the leave till the staff is back with the physical medical certificate (MC).

“Sometimes, amidst the workload, dates may be missed out or the MC may go missing. A lot of time gets wasted on verifying and managing proper documentation as I am the only person handling the HR matters.”

Added Neo: “Payboy has helped streamline the company’s HR processes in terms of attendance, payroll processing, leaves, claims management, and even the latest Covid Safe+ module. It has increased our efficiency and granted us more time to handle other HR matters. We love how Payboy is a one-stop platform where we can access everything we need in one place.”

Tham appreciates that the cloud-based solution provides a simple yet efficient tool to manage many of the company’s HR processes and where employees are able to track their remaining annual leave themselves.

“Given that we are a micro SME, having a traditional HR software is too costly and a bit of overkill for a company of our size."

“Payboy also has a shift scheduling module which we are going to implement soon now that our operations are on track to function normally after the lifting of the dine in restrictions,” added Tham.

Lessons learnt

The past two years have been a challenging journey for all three companies, to say the least.

But one common lesson gleaned from the experience is the need for their businesses to be flexible to adapt quickly to new workplace safety measures.

Explained Tham: “We can't be too fixed on our initial plans or ideas as often, they do not come to fruition due to the unpredictability of the Covid-19 situation. We’ve learned to just go with the hand we are dealt with and react the best we can.”

Said Toh: “The biggest lesson learned is that businesses always have to stay nimble. In terms of workplace measures, instead of sitting there and complaining about how inconvenient things might be, we learned to think on our feet and resolve them quickly so we can continue with our business operations.”

Added Neo: “Be open-minded, be agile, and know that we will get through it.”

Payboy’s new Covid Safe+ Management module is now available for free to help all businesses with ART tracking and on-site visitor management. To sign up or for more information, click here.