As the days get shorter, we begin to think of winter with all the problems it brings. However, are we excessively negative? Winter itself is inevitable — we will have cold weather. And inevitably other problems will arise and interfere to some degree with our business operations, but we can minimise the occurrence or impact of many of these difficulties by careful thought and planning, says Bob Patchett.

Before the weather changes for the worse, make an inspection of your premises. You need to ensure that they are in good condition and also do not present health or safety hazards to your employees. Look at your heating system. Does the boiler need servicing? Are radiators in good and safe working order? Are thermostats and cut-outs working? Do pipes need lagging? Are they protected from cold draughts? In the event of a heating breakdown, have you the resources in-house to effect repairs and do you have adequate spare parts? If you have to use outside contractors, do you have a good contact? Is it worth paying a retainer to guarantee immediate service? Look also at the drives and walkways to and within your premises. Do you have a supply of salt and sand to spread over icy surfaces? Have you the means to clear snow? If you do not have machinery that can do this, might it be prudent to have local people on standby to come in early to clear access routes? Consider also what hazards might arise in case of an interruption to the electricity supply. Although many devices have fail-safe protection, employees should be advised to switch off all electrical plant immediately both to avoid a dangerous surge as power is restored and to ensure that unmanned machines do not suddenly become dangerously active.

Although a short-term power cut or a fall of snow would be inconvenient, something longer could seriously jeopardise the running of your business, therefore you need to make provision for keeping operations running as best as you can. Your computers, for example, should all have battery back-up sufficient to allow operators to save critical work and, if appropriate, transfer it to external storage. Consider what machinery is critical to maintaining operations. Could it be powered from generators, in which case should you buy them or rely on being able to hire them quickly? Might an ice cream seller be prepared to earn a bit of winter income by providing you with power from the van? Could these devices provide power for lighting and heating? Should you store battery lamps and portable gas heaters? Whatever emergency power supplies you have, determine in advance which facilities will have priority use of them.

A problem such as flooding or major power breakdown might render your premises unusable for a long period. Should you, therefore, make arrangements in advance to use alternative premises such as a village hall? The owners doubtless would welcome your rent payment. You may be able to have your phone lines transferred to the new premises, but otherwise you should find some way to tell your customers and suppliers how to contact you. If the temporary premises do not have a landline connection, perhaps you should ask your employees to use their mobile phones at your expense. How would you cope? Should your workforce be struck with an epidemic of, say, “flu”? Take action now to train your employees as far as you reasonably can to do each other jobs to an adequate level, so that they can keep at least a minimal service going. Your customers may be sympathetic to a point but, if they do not get their orders fulfilled, they will — understandably — go elsewhere and may stay there. Take care also that you can maintain an adequate cash flow to your business should you have major problems, so focus on getting in your materials, getting your orders out and getting customer payments in.

Finally, spend some time considering how you can maximise the attendance of your employees throughout the winter season. Again, do your best to ensure that every critical job can be carried out by at least two people. This may not be as challenging as you may think because people generally like variety. They may not wish to swop jobs frequently, but may welcome a change occasionally and also feel more valuable, more skilled if they have a broad range of capabilities.

An obvious personnel problem is of course absence through ill health, the usual coughs and sneezes, and sore throats of winter. A dose of “flu” probably will cause an absence of at least two weeks, and even then the employee may return to work still a little below par. Check when local surgeries are offering free “flu” jabs and urge your employees to go along. Medical centres are anxious for people to have these jabs as it means fewer people then call on their service because they have caught the bug, therefore they may be happy to come along and give jabs on your premises during work hours. A doctor or nurse may be prepared to come in, say one lunchtime, to talk to your people and advise them how to avoid illness, and what to do if they become sick. At least you should produce a leaflet showing this advice and give it to each employee. Suggest that they keep a warm sweater at work in case the heating fails. Recognise also that there is much confusion among employees about what they should do if they develop a cold. Should they stay at home and leave you with a staff problem? Should they struggle into work and spread their germs? Should you isolate them to a corner of the office? There is no general right answer so weigh up the options, make your decision and communicate it to your employees.

Bad weather can cause absence. Talk to your employees about this. Make clear that you expect everyone to make reasonable effort to get to work if there is heavy snow on the roads or public transport is not running, but that you will take into account each individual’s fitness and travelling distance. In all these areas show that, although you are trying to run your organisation as normally as possible, nevertheless you understand your employees’ difficulties and discomforts, and will do your best to alleviate them. If you show sympathy and understanding, you are more likely to gain their co-operation in covering for each other, doing a bit extra, and making an effort to get to work even though they would rather stay at home.

In summary: carry out a survey of your premises to ascertain what practical work needs to be done before bad weather sets in; consider how you would cope with any of the problems that winter weather can create; establish a set of plans that can be implemented immediately if any of these problems do arise; and finally train appropriate management staff to handle them effectively and calmly. Be prepared! That after all is just good management.

Last reviewed 27 October 2016