4 Ways COVID-19 Will Change SMEs Forever

Darrell McClarty June 01, 2020

We’re a couple months into the COVID-19 pandemic. By this point most businesses have made their way through the initial shock to the system and adapted as best they can. Now, as the economy is slowing starting to re-open, it’s a good time for reflection. Without a doubt, coronavirus has created challenges for businesses that we never could have imagined. But is it all bad? To some, that will sound like a crazy question to ask. But if you stop and think about it, you’ll probably learn a few things about your business – and the way you’ve handled this crisis – that could have a positive impact moving forward.

What you learn will be specific to your business – industry, location and business health prior to the crisis will all play a role. But chances are that at least one of these trends we’re seeing among our SMB customers will apply to you as well.

5 tips for an effective remote work strategy →

1. Work-from-home will be the new normal

Companies that didn’t already have a work-from-home policy usually held off over concerns that employees would be less productive. COVID-19 has forced them to give it a test run and see that the opposite is true. In fact, research by RescueTime shows that remote workers spend 4% more time on core work and 18% less time on communication (email, chat and meetings). When you look at that over the course of a year, that’s:

  • 58 more hours on core work

  • 256 fewer hours on communication

Now multiply that by the number of employees in your organization that can do their job at home…

That’s a lot of time gained. Which means you’re accomplishing more and driving bigger, better results for your business. If that’s not enough proof, let’s look at the impact remote work has on your employees. Eighty percent of remote workers experiences less job stress and they’re 57% more likely to be satisfied with their job.

So, if your people are more productive and more satisfied, why wouldn’t you make work-from-home part of your long-term plan?

To do this successfully, you need to restructure your business to support remote work. This involves reviewing and updating your internal processes to ensure the proper tools and policies are in place to keep the business running smoothly and keep your team connected.

Outline communication guidelines

Technology gives us multiple ways to connect with people, but to be effective, your team needs to know which communication tools you use and when to use each of them. Try to keep the tools to a minimum and provide clear, simple guidelines for use. For example:

  • Use email when requesting action or when you want a record of the conversation.

  • Use instant message (Skype, Teams, etc.) for quick questions or social interaction. Update your status to let others know when you’re free to chat.

  • Use video calls for meetings whenever possible.

  • Use team channels (Teams, Slack, etc.) for group collaboration on topics. This becomes the online version of your typical in-office discussions and keeps the clutter out of your inbox.

  • Use document change tracking / review to collaborate on specific documents in real-time. You can easily make changes, add notes and notify others of your comments in Office 365 (Word, Excel, PowerPoint). This keeps the conversation contained to the document and out of your inbox.

Maintain social interaction

One of the biggest challenges with remote work is keeping that team feeling alive. It’s certainly more challenging to keep your team connected when they’re working remotely, but not impossible. Think about the social activities you would normally do in the office, then find creative ways to transition those online. Schedule standing video call coffee breaks at the same link, so people can join on the days that work for them. If you have information you want to share with the team, a virtual lunch and learn is easy to do. Take a quick survey of your staff to see what they’re interested in. And if you don’t have a social committee, this is the perfect time to create one, so you have people dedicated to the social aspect of team building. Make sure your people know that taking the time to maintain social connections is not only important, but encouraged, to keep your team strong.

Ensure proper cyber-security for remote teams

Hopefully you have strong security measures in place already. But as you move to a broader long-term remote work policy, this is the time to evaluate your existing security protocols and make any necessary improvements. Make sure your policies are documented and accessible to all employees. And be sure to provide training to your team so everyone is doing their part to keep your data secure.

2. Find creative solutions to drive efficiency

Whether you’ve had to layoff staff, reduce employees to part-time hours or pull back spend on outside services, COVID-19 has forced every business to think critically about what’s essential. This isn’t limited to your leadership team either. According to Harvard Business School expert, Jeffrey Polzer, this crisis is driving employees to audit their commitments, along with the other miscellaneous items that take up their time (emails, meetings and the like). Guided by the goals of the organization, encourage your employees to become more focused and intentional about how they spend their time. You’ll likely find there’s a lot that just comes off the list entirely – the things that would be great to do if/when there’s time, but they aren’t critical to achieving your goals.

By eliminating the clutter, you’re able to focus your energy on higher value work. For many companies, this crisis has uncovered issues with their internal processes that can’t be ignored. The upside is that, with limited resources and perhaps reduced staff, you’re forced to get creative and come up with innovative solutions to quickly solve these problems. One business owner we spoke with was forced to layoff nearly 70% of his staff shortly after the crisis hit. Two months later, he’s up to 100% of his pre-crisis revenues, but with 12% fewer staff. The situation forced them to find ways of doing more with less, which will end up generating long-term labour savings.

3. Customer experience will be more important than ever

The businesses that are most successful operate with a customer-centric view. This is even more important now than ever before. In times of crisis, people don’t want to be sold to. They want to work with companies that are trying to help in an authentic, caring way. Typically, one of the best ways to do this is to connect with people one-on-one. In fact, a pre-crisis study on customer experience showed that 59% of consumers feel companies have lost the human element and 80% of Canadians want more human interaction in the future. And yet, COVID-19 has forced us to nearly remove the human element all together – or at least keep it at a 6-foot distance.

This presents a unique challenge, but many businesses are navigating it quite well. Retailers of all sizes have pivoted to digital commerce and added new lines of service, like curb-side pick-up. These businesses are adapting to the way their customers buy, but they haven’t necessarily lost the human element altogether. It’s surprising how easily you can connect with the person dropping your order on the curb with just a smile and a wave.

In the B2B space, think about unique ways you can embed human interactions in the digital experience with your customers. Think about ways you can help, even if it goes beyond your typical product or service. Are your customers doing good work to support causes in the community? Do what you can to help their cause and recognize them for their efforts. Send referrals to your customers or help them connect with other partners where it makes sense. They’ll appreciate your effort to support their business and will likely be willing to do the same for you.

Customers’ desire to connect with the companies they buy from won’t wane quickly. What you do now and in the months ahead will impact customer loyalty for years to come. So, think about how you can stand out among your competitors by being helpful and authentic. Entrench that mindset throughout your entire organization, not just until the crisis ends, but for the long haul.

4. Technology investment is a must to maintain your edge

For many small or mid-size companies, this crisis highlighted some major gaps in their technical infrastructure that restricted their ability to adapt quickly. Some managed to get the necessary tools in place, but they suffered from the downtime. Others simply couldn’t adapt at all. This is a major lesson learned for many. As we start getting back to business, evaluating essential technology should be top of the list to ensure you’re prepared for a second wave and any other unforeseen disaster.

Increased demand for cloud solutions

Companies that host their core systems (their ERP, accounting software, etc.) on-premise can likely only access the system at the office. Work-from-home simply isn’t an option if they want to keep the core functions of the business going. Business owners in this situation have been forced to quickly implement and enforce strict policies and distancing measures to allow their employees to come to work. Or they have to make the difficult decision to pause certain functions and keep only the essential people working. On the flip side, if you run cloud-based systems, your team simply connects to the internet from home and they have access to everything they need.

As we get back to some semblance of normal operation in the coming months, we expect to see an increased demand for cloud-based solutions, particularly in the ERP space. What is ERP? An ERP system houses the core data for your entire business, so it presents a significant risk if you can only access it from one location. Making the shift to a cloud-based ERP system opens up opportunities for your business in the long run, giving you and your team greater location flexibility.

Integrating new eCommerce sales channels

In the B2B space, eCommerce hasn’t been as prevalent among small to mid-size distributors. COVID-19 changed that. We’ve seen wholesalers add eCommerce as a new, easier way for their existing customers to buy from them. We’ve also seen companies quickly spin up eCommerce sites to extend their reach to consumers. When the crisis ends, these channels won’t go away. They’ll become part of the mix to add greater diversity in their sales channels and customer base. The distributors that add online sales are also primed to increase revenue when the markets level out.

How many of these trends ring true for your business? It's worth taking the time to reflect and see how you can make your business even stronger coming out of the crisis.

[eBook Download] Why eCommerce Point Solutions are a Mistake for Growing SMEs

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