Much has been made about the COVID-19 pandemic ushering in a new era of remote digital work, with proponents advocating increased efficiencies, cost savings and more personal freedom.
While large companies have the resources and expertise to successfully make remote-online operations and services work long term, that won’t necessarily be feasible for many small and medium businesses (SMEs).
Even with the resource endowment of large companies, many have struggled with the sudden operations adjustments necessitated by the pandemic, especially in relation to staff predominantly working remotely.
SMEs forced to rush operations online amid coronavirus shutdowns, have had to, and will need to make even tougher decisions, as to which aspects of their business operations and services they continue performing online and which they bring back into the office.
Generally, businesses are re-emerging into a hostile environment, with some predicting up to 60 percent of SMEs could be wiped out through the economic downturn.
And while businesses look to rebuild, uncertainty prevails – as we’ve seen, virus spikes and second waves across nations and cities have quickly stalled efforts towards economic recovery.
The main danger is that, in such a situation, a badly implemented and maintained digital operating or service system has the potential to alienate, not just that customers but employees alike, ultimately causing havoc for the bottom line.
SMEs which get the transition right, however, i.e., maintaining remote digital operations that bolster savings and efficiencies, while shedding those that do the opposite – give themselves the best chance to succeed.
It is a question of deliberate, measured and delicate balance.
It’s not one size fits all, each company must analyse their individual business operations and markets to find a tailored solution that provides them with a streamlined and cost efficient operating model to not only survive, but potentially thrive in the period ahead.
A rigorous and objective systematic analysis is therefore needed to ensure the right decisions are made now to avoid costly wrong turns that will be impossible to turn around once shutdowns are fully lifted and it’s game on.
There are four factors businesses will need to take into consideration when assessing their strategy.
While large tech companies like Twitter may have the resources, technological expertise and business models suited to run the majority of their operations online and remotely, most SMEs don’t.
Thus, such businesses need to weigh up whether they are equipped to maintain and continually upgrade digital working and services systems in the long term. Issues of scale are important here – a $500K spend on a system upgrade makes sense for a company making $100+ million in revenue a year, but it’s not feasible for a SME, operating month to month with diminishing cash flows in an economic downturn.
Also, bear in mind there was a scramble to move business operations online amid the immediate corona outbreak and shutdowns – ad hoc systems will not be sustainable in the long term.
While digital and remote working can certainly increase efficiency and decrease business costs, it can also have the opposite impact if done badly.
Employee satisfaction will be a key in deciding between remote and office based operations.
While many employees are enthusiastic about the flexibility and freedom of working remotely, there are, and will be significant issues related to social isolation, decreased motivation and increased anxieties, particularly considering skills and technology related uncertainties.
There are certainly savings to be made in the shift to remote working.
Companies may save money by shedding commercial office space and the associated overheads, with a workforce rotating between office and home shifts, but what does that mean for long term employee satisfaction, productivity and the flow-on impacts to customer service and revenue.
While there is a lot of accommodation during lock-down periods following the ‘we are in this together’ attitude, customers are likely to be a lot less forgiving once the restrictions are lifted.
They are likely to be more impatient with operational inefficiencies, technical glitches or communication difficulties that were tolerated in the crisis conditions.
The same goes for employees who will be less willing to make the sacrifices asked of them during the crisis.
A good company culture is often hard to define, but easy to spot when it’s gone astray.
A company’s culture among its staff, stakeholders and customers is heavily shaped by personal interactions that help build strong relationships – defining and maintaining the company ethos and brand.
Yet many organisations will, of necessity, undergo a re-definition of culture in what is likely a new post-pandemic normal.
Will a company culture at a family owned SME for example stay intact if most workers no longer see their colleagues or clients and only interact over Microsoft Teams or Zoom.
A good company culture can take decades to build, and it underpins the value and identity of the organisation, but just months to erode.
While it is possible to emerge with a new, strong and value-defining culture, cultural disorientation is also a major possible outcome.
For SMEs this is an important defining consideration.
Online security will be a major factor for SMEs considering whether to have the majority of their operations online.
Sensitive, critical business information/communications become vulnerable to cyber attack once conducted and stored online.
Security protections are costly, resource intensive and often fail.
It is crucial therefore, to realise how damaging a breach of security could be to your business, particularly in the hostile economic environment, where mistakes will be compounded and potentially lethal.
Considering all these, businesses must act now to assess which parts of their operations stay or migrate online and which parts remain in the office. But they must do so diligently.
There is a short window to act before shutdowns and government support is rolled back, thrusting businesses into the volatile new economy.
Because once it’s game on, you’ll need to dedicate 100 percent of your time to your core business in order to survive.
Conduct a rigorous assessment of operations now, to ensure you capitalise on technology that provides cost savings and efficiencies to your business, while avoiding well marketed, but ill- fitting offerings that cause long term harm.