On Friday, February 28, Sam Pardue heard the breaking news: Oregon officials had just confirmed the state’s first case of the novel coronavirus, and it was in Portland, where Pardue’s company, Indow, is based.

“I was really concerned about the safety of our team,” Pardue says. “There was no guidance on what we should do as a company or as an organization.”

Little was known about the coronavirus then, including how it spread or the best defenses against it. Fear was high, and federal response was painfully slow. If the virus were to reach pandemic proportions — as it eventually did in March — Pardue knew he would need to have a plan in place that would keep his employees safe, maintain their trust, and allow his business to stay afloat.

Small businesses are a lifeblood of the U.S. economy, employing about 58.9 million people or nearly 50 percent of the country’s private workforce. They’ve also been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic.

More than 4 in 10 businesses nationwide are considered part of high-risk industries like retail, food service, arts and entertainment, and child care — the types of jobs where social distancing can be especially difficult or that are more vulnerable to unemployment fallout or chronic environmental and racial injustice. Businesses owned by women, people of color, and immigrants have suffered some of the greatest losses during the pandemic: More than 40 percent of Black business owners were out of work in April, compared to 17 percent of their white counterparts.

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Economists estimate that more than 100,000 small businesses have since shuttered their doors for good. The going is hardly easier for those who are still weathering the storm — nearly half of small business owners think it could take more than two years for their businesses to fully recover from financial losses sustained during the pandemic. Many don’t have enough cash savings to stay afloat for more than two months at a time.

Independent businesses don’t just keep America’s workforce running, they help weave the country’s cultural fabric. Dollars invested in local economies circulate within the community — instead of being funneled back into the corporate cogs of a chain or big-box store — giving rise to richer, more vibrant places to live.

Small businesses also give buyers opportunities to vote with their dollars. Supporting Black-owned businesses, for instance, helps close the country’s racial wealth gap, strengthens communities of color, and rejects the racial injustice that has historically made it more difficult for Black-owned businesses to thrive.

Workplace Safety in a Pandemic

Back in Portland, Indow, a VertueLab-supported company, produces window inserts that reduce noise and heat loss. Because the inserts are custom-made by hand, a number of Pardue’s 40 employees — some of them at high-risk for complications from COVID-19 — didn’t have the luxury of working off-site during the pandemic.

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Pardue drew from his skills as an entrepreneur and an innovator to come up with a solution. He adapted techniques from lean manufacturing, which originated in Toyota factories in Japan in the 1930s as a means to empower employees to systematically eliminate waste and inefficiency. But instead of streamlining his production line, Pardue and his team used lean practices to reduce the risk that his employees might be exposed to the virus.

By the following Monday, just three days after Portland’s first confirmed case of the virus, Pardue had outlined the framework of his response plan. In a play on “lean” practices, he called it “Clean Practice.”

In addition to guidelines for mask wearing, physical distancing, and hygiene, Pardue asked his entire staff to get involved in coming up with solutions. Decision-making power isn’t concentrated at the top rungs of Indow’s management; it’s distributed equitably among employees. This is especially important now, given the highly contagious nature of the coronavirus. Just as a single bottleneck can derail the manufacturing line, it only takes a single employee to expose an entire production facility to a potentially life-threatening virus.

“I was really impressed,” Pardue says. “Clean Practice grew from an announcement to a really broad-based effort across the entire company … The team started really getting involved to make sure that we had a safe workplace.”

To minimize surface transmission, for example, Pardue replaced all of Indow’s doorknobs with levers that can be opened with forearms or elbows, an idea spearheaded by his creative collaborator. He removed the handle on the communal fridge too, and replaced it with a foot pedal. Finally, he outfitted the facility’s toilets with tiny plastic rods for hands-free flushing.

Pardue now leads regular Gemba walks through Indow’s manufacturing facility, another lean practice pioneered by Toyota. He’ll tour a work area to watch how the job is done, chat with employees (while staying physically distant and wearing a mask, of course,) and reflect on potential improvements. A pile-up of inventory, for example, might signal a holdup in the inspection line.

Since the pandemic began, Pardue has been on the lookout for high-touch surfaces that could transmit the virus during his Gemba walks. He also divided Indow’s manufacturing facility into zones and assigned a captain to each. Each zone captain is responsible for identifying and disinfecting high-touch surfaces on a regular basis.

“One of the fundamental principles of ‘lean’ is that you need to get everybody in your organization involved to get the best outcomes,” Pardue says. “You need buy-in from senior management; you need buy-in from the line workers. It gives a lot of power and engagement to the line workers.”

Spreading Knowledge, Not Coronavirus

Pardue first shared his ideas for Clean Practice in March. To better help other companies and business workers navigate the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, he created a website with downloadable templates and webinars.

“I really was looking for templates, ideas about how to talk about this, or ways to reassure the team that we are doing everything possible to make sure things are safe,” says Crystal Sincoff, who manages workplace experience, diversity, and inclusion at Zapproved, a Portland-based software company. “That stems from the physical things we do in our space that people can see, and the things we can communicate out to the team so that they can be reassured we’re doing all that we can do to make the space safe.”

Inspired by Clean Practice, Sincoff had door handle extenders installed throughout Zapproved’s new office space, and also added brightly colored stickers on high-touch surfaces that get inspected during Gemba Walks.

Most of Zapproved’s 150 employees are working remotely but have the option to come in to the office if they feel comfortable doing so. Sincoff has been communicating regularly with her team about the new safety measures in place, and they’re also using software that tracks who is coming into the office so they can reserve a desk space for the day.

“We have a Slack channel, and we post pictures of the new handles we’ve installed on the doors to show folks what we’re doing,” she said. “I think seeing those types of things really reassures the team that we’re thinking about them, and if they do need to come to the office, they’ll know what will be waiting for them when they get there.”

Moving forward, the lean principle of continuous improvement, Kaizen, is Indow’s North Star. Innovation isn’t just about coming up with a good business idea; it’s about making that idea a reality, finding the necessary support and resources to scale the business, and being able to continue innovating in the face of challenging circumstances.

The pandemic is just one of a slew of disasters that are bound to increase in scale, intensity and frequency as the world continues to warm. From folding climate change into a business’ corporate social responsibility plan to understanding how crises like the pandemic disrupt the nation’s food supply chain, businesses should be prepared to respond, innovate, and build resilience.

“I think one of the most powerful messages of Clean Practice is that a really effective COVID-19 response that engages your whole team can have a really positive impact, not only on safety, but on morale,” Pardue says. “When you get everybody involved in finding issues and resolving them, it builds trust. It gets people out of fear mode.”

VertueLab is a nonprofit fighting climate change by providing funding and holistic entrepreneurial support to cleantech startups. Through a decade of work they have a proven model that can help accelerate climate solutions that are key to reversing the climate crisis.