Primary season launched. The invoices flowed. We started to daydream about our presidential cycle accolades. Then in March COVID-19 checked us. What I wrote pre-COVID became more apparent: our firms cannot survive if we run our shops like campaigns, when we’re actually small businesses.
For those of us leading progressive firms, COVID-19 is particularly testing our values. We organized around the cost of health insurance, and then we needed it. We advocated for the PPP, then we relied on the funds to keep our teams employed. We orchestrated marches for education, and now we’re the exhausted parents narrowly balancing safety, homeschooling and clients.
Across the industry we’re struggling, as firms and as people, to find stability while propelling some of the most important elections of our lifetime. Every day we ask ourselves, can our firms actually live the values we preach and survive the pandemic? Trust me, it’s still possible.
Being a small business is a superpower.
Small businesses are groups of people, not complicated structures like the corporations we watch rise and fall in the stock market. There’s no bureaucratic buffer between the boss and our employees and their families. Our successes and our failures are intrinsically linked. Every day, as leaders we wear that responsibility.
Yet, we’re also flexible as further emphasized by the yoga pants I now wear on a daily basis. We can make changes without layers of approval, we can pivot services and positions, and we can ask our teams for input. There’s a reason why innovation begins at startups. They’re just small businesses with big aspirations.
Start financial decisions here: People.
By late March, we all began a hard revisioning of our budgets, my partners and I included. The survival advice I received from many other business owners — and frankly most financial outlets — was direct: start layoffs immediately to secure your future. This is great financial advice, but a terrible progressive solution.
When we dig into our values as progressive leaders the core is people, not profitability. In practice, this means our leadership team explores every other alternative before making decisions that impact the stability of our talented and dedicated team. Simply because they’re people, we believe they deserve that level of respect. We know and have communicated that layoffs or salary cuts may be needed, but that it will always be the absolute last option.
The people who power our political movements across the country deserve to know that while they’re leaving it “all out on the field” in the name of justice, that their leadership, whether in the White House or in their office, has their back.
Your favorite campaign tools work internally too.
Sometimes we just simply forget to use the toolset we give our clients for our own firms. With everyone focused on billable hours and responding to the latest tweets, a choreographed internal town hall is a distant dream. But a quick poll is a simple way to help you gut check your decision-making. For example, we used our online form tool to conduct an employee poll to answer the question: If legally allowed, should we reopen our office this year?
Through the privacy of the poll, our team shared their personal safety concerns, their family’s needs and overall feelings about returning to a space many of them had helped design and build. After the poll, we reported back our findings to the team. It prompted a conversation about how we continue to move forward productively and with enough snacks in a remote environment.
Family comes first. Build policies to prove it.
Last year, I recommended that you “set office hours and keep them” because “our employees have responsibilities outside of our offices and we need to make space for them.” I continued, “this is especially true for the women on your team who are more likely to be primary caregivers for their children and parents.”
In 2020, I’m thanking my partners, our team and our clients for respecting and holding us accountable to this value pre-COVID. Our stability and success throughout the pandemic rests on our existing institutional knowledge about how to create space for family using strategic redundancy and prioritization.
COVID-19 forced us into a moment where everyone needed flexibility all at once, especially parents and primary caregivers. Most businesses began to make necessary “temporary” adjustments (remote work, expanded sick leave, etc.). Before your firm reverts back to previous policies and employee expectations, find permanent changes to make it just a little bit easier to work hard and take care of your family.
COVID-19 isn’t the only fight for our lives in 2020.
Pre-COVID, I was a mother to a toddler, a primary caregiver to a parent with cancer and a business owner. My priority balancing is not unique, especially when compared to other Black women in the United States. I credit COVID with shining light on the many roles our teams play professionally and personally. It’s our responsibility as progressive business owners to validate and support our employees, our clients and our communities as full people.
That also means in the middle of a pandemic when our focus feels like it needs to solely be on protecting our business, we still need to find the time to fight to make sure Black lives matter in this country.
In March, it only took a matter of days for our firms to transform how we organize and train our teams to build movements. Imagine, if we applied the same solution-driven urgency to tackling racism.
Francesca Dulce Larson is a partner at Mosaic Strategies Group, a progressive digital firm based in New Jersey.