Keys to small business resilience in uncertain times

young woman working from home, using her laptop on the floor, resilience

By Professors Gregory B. Fairchild, Jared D. Harris and Morela Hernandez of Darden School of Business, University of Virginia

Businesses have come through hard times and often traumatic events before. But today what feels different is the timeline.

In the case of a fire or burst pipe, owners and stakeholders may be able to predict when the problem will be fixed and make plans for when business as usual may resume. But what can they hold onto in the uncertainty of a global pandemic? As infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci so bluntly put it, “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline.”

Faced with a limited customer flow at best, forced shut down of operations at worst, and a looming economic recession, this uncertain timeline leaves small businesses to decide what is best for the company and its stakeholders without knowing what the future holds. What lessons can they take from the success and resilience of other small businesses that have survived crisis?


The reach of a small business goes far beyond the walls of the building. Employees rely on their salaries, customers rely on the products, and the community relies on them to keep jobs and profit local, as well as drawing on them as a form of identity. During a recession, it is unlikely that all of these relationships will remain intact. To stay afloat, businesses will have to make difficult decisions that will affect their stakeholders in negative ways. Although the business owner cannot control the loss of employees or decrease in production, she or he can control how the business responds and communicates with the stakeholders about it.

In times of transition, communicating with full transparency is one opportunity for business owners to demonstrate their commitment to the community. Being transparent about the difficult decisions being made will not make the decisions any easier, nor will it alleviate any of the financial strain that may be part of the decision. It will, however, provide an opportunity to build a lasting bond with stakeholders, one centred on trust and honesty. For example, keeping the company informed on all of the measures taken to try to avoid having to lay off employees throughout the process can lessen the emotional and psychological toll of such measures. It might show lay-offs in a different light; perhaps as a mutual temporary sacrifice that can engender feelings of solidarity and commitment. Sharing both the decisions and the difficulty with stakeholder networks can help community members empathize with the small-business owner. It will help both parties see the importance of what, collectively, they have created.


In the midst of all of this uncertainty, it is easy to get lost and feel helpless. It is essential that small-business owners — that everyone — remembers that there will be a time when this is over. The world will get through this, and it will begin functioning once again. There will be a period when we will begin moving again. While we may not know when it will be, we do know that this will not last forever, and looking toward that future is imperative to keeping hope alive. While this pandemic is life-changing, both on an individual level and for society as a whole, eventually life will get back to normal — even if it will be a new normal.

Partnership between small businesses and local community members is important because it offers a path forward and reinforces the prospect of recovery.


Now more than ever, small businesses must call upon their resourcefulness. Through our work on organisational resilience, we found that during hardship, resilient organisations remain flexible and adaptable, [and adjust] to current hardships while building the capacity to respond to new challenges in the future. A lot of small businesses have rolled out a range of measures in order to continue trading through the Covid-19 crisis. For example, one distillery is using its equipment to produce hand sanitiser. Restaurant food suppliers start home delivery food services for customers. Fashion designers start making face masks and PPE for health professionals.

These are a few examples of what many small businesses are doing. Not only is this a way for business owners to respond with flexibility, it is also a way for them to support the community throughout this crisis.

We are in uncharted territory. As a result, there is no handbook for small businesses to follow. For small businesses as well as individuals, it is important know the world will get through this. As a small-business owner, be transparent, be creative and lean on the community, for they will return the support as soon as possible.

About the authors

Morela Hernandez, Jared Harris and their co-authors wrote “Organizational Resilience: A Social Exchange Perspective” in B. Caza, N. Powley and A. Caza’s Handbook of Organizational Resilience. Greg Fairchild is the author of the case study Johnson Lumber: Bet on the Upside or Avoid the Downside? (Darden Business Publishing) with Brad Rourke.

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