Small businesses lost a staggering £830m due to the recent floods, according to the Federation of Small Businesses. Chris Evans looks at the lessons learned and what companies should be doing to protect against future flooding
There are three certainties in life for those living in the UK: death, taxes and rainfall. But few could have predicted the extent of the deluge that befell this country between December and early March; the wettest winter in 250 years. Its effects have been clear for all to see. People in boats were seen drifting down the high streets in the Thames Valley area, and the insides of businesses up and down the country were visibly destroyed by water. But how much of the flood damage could have been avoided with more forethought and better provisions in place?
“Once a business has established they are in an area likely to be affected, it is vital that they plan in advance precisely what they’re going to do in the event of flooding,” says Mary Dhonau, a community flood consultant and chair of the Flood Protection Agency. “Plus there are practical measures they can take straight away to help prevent any future damage.”
Many businesses (and homeowners) in recent months have been dumping sandbags at their doors in a desperate attempt to block the water coming in. Bu these only keep out water for short periods, and are difficult to dispose of once contaminated. Instead, Dhonau recommends businesses install things like water-resistant barriers and doors, self-sealing airbricks (which can cost less than £50), and airbrick covers.
“I would also recommend any business to have a flood survey done on their property to see what the surveyor thinks about where the water is likely to come in,” adds Dhonau. “This will then dictate what products are required.”
Aside from physical protection, business managers and owners need to consider the potential service disruption of flooding, as well as logistics, health and safety of staff, and have a communication plan in place in the event of them being away at the time of the flooding, delegating responsibility to someone else.
“There are a whole series of steps companies can go through to assess the impact of flooding and come up with a strategy to manage the risk,” insists
Martin Baxter, executive director of policy at the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment. “One simple, but effective, measure is to collaborate with neighbouring businesses. Together they can set up an alert system, potentially share the costs of damage, and assist each other in a clean-up operation.”
Other useful practical steps that can be taken include backing up all data and documents (as many times as possible and on a regular basis). This may seem obvious, but there were several recent examples of businesses that lost valuable customer, supplier and employee documentation because they were stored in files on low shelves or on computers that were destroyed by water, with no back-up.
Saving documents in the cloud is probably the safest bet. Using productivity suites like Google Drive or Office 365 ensures all documents are safe and sound. Plus hard drive space is pretty cheap, so for ultimate peace of mind, businesses could invest in one or two big drives to keep as a master backup.
In the event of flood waters causing extensive damage to a business, managers need to have a contingency plan in place. Alternative office space may be required or the possibility of working from home explored. Every day a business operation is disrupted is a day it goes without income.
Hosted cloud services that allow users to log in from anywhere are the best way to guarantee continuity of service. Google Apps, for example, gives users access to their emails, calendar, the Google Drive productivity suite, and more, with a single login. VOIP services like Skype can also prove helpful as they allow managers and staff to chat and brainstorm ideas about what to do. If some employees don’t have access to a computer at home, it might be worth having laptops on standby.
Alternatively, other temporary office locations could be looked at. Regus, for example, offered free work space to flood-hit companies last month. While some businesses whose properties were only partially damaged recently attempted to soldier on, but if this is the chosen course of action, it is advisable to get the office safety-checked first.
Keeping customers in the loop is also very important. Sending out a blanket email informing them of the situation is a must, and possibly providing updates on social media sites with pictures could prove effective. If customers see that a business is making efforts to fix the problem that will provide reassurance and might even result in them offering help.
“It is also important for businesses to establish what their customers and suppliers are doing to manage their own risks,” says Baxter. “They don’t want to make several key changes to their own site, while major suppliers are not taking the same precautions in other parts of the country.”
The toughest and often most costly aspect of flooding is the clean-up operation afterwards, which can potentially take months. “The first thing they must do is take pictures and/or video the extent of the damage, and mark with an indelible pen how high the water has gone. This is to show to your loss adjustor when they come,” says Dhonau. “Then all affected carpets must be carved up and removed from the premises immediately because they trap water and inhibit the drying time. But don’t throw them away because the insurers will need to see them.”
Dhonau also advises all staff involved in the cleaning to wear gloves because they don’t know where the water has been. Also all doors and windows should be kept open for ventilation. Then, as long as a business has the right insurance in place, a lot of the difficult work and the damage costs will be covered.
There’s also government support available to those who need it. These include a new £10m Business Support Scheme to provide hardship funding for SMEs affected by floods (covering clean-up costs, materials etc), and a £5,000 grant to pay for repairs that improve a property’s ability to withstand future flooding. As well as helpful measures like extensions for filing accounts, business rate relief, and more than £60m investment in transport resilience. For further information and support, businesses can call the Government Business Support Helpline on 0300 456 3565.