Nick Hedderman, Director, Modern Workplace Business Group, Microsoft UK looks at how technology can drive collaboration and productivity for small businesses.
It’s no secret the UK is facing an ongoing productivity crisis. Multiple reports show we’re working harder and longer than our European neighbours, but not necessarily smarter. Indeed, recent figures from the ONS reveal the nation is currently suffering the sharpest fall in productivity levels in five years.
Tackling this ongoing “productivity puzzle” is a daunting task for any organisation, regardless of their size, industry or location. Yet as the backbone of the UK economy, accounting for 99.3% of all private sector business, we are relying on small and medium sized businesses (2-499 employees) to help tackle this challenge head on. So, how can SMBs drive the productivity improvements we need, while also acting as the cornerstone of local communities across the nation?
Seize the first mover advantage
There’s no easy fix for addressing the productivity gap, yet small businesses must find a way to seize every competitive advantage available to them to improve performance, retain top talent and boost growth. Lacking the hierarchical structures and complex systems of their bigger corporate rivals, SMBs typically have one clear advantage – an agile culture. SMBs can usually be more flexible, reacting quickly to the business environments and employee needs, faster. This “first mover” advantage is a major one – if it can be capitalised upon.
Creating open paths to communication is vital for SMBs looking to grasp this advantage and steal a march on their larger rivals. Indeed, Microsoft’s recent research Driving Growth in Small Businesses reveals 85% of SMB leaders agree that employees perform much better when empowered with information, indicating the importance of transparency in driving performance and productivity. Despite this however, many of today’s small business employees don’t feel their company is supporting meaningful collaboration, with just 36% saying their organisation has a culture of transparency. Additionally, just 15% of SMB employees believe their organisation has clear communication, revealing that, for the most part, this cultural advantage isn’t being realised when it comes to comms.
Flatter structures and closer links between leadership and staff might make SMB leaders think they’re interacting with staff more regularly, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re communicating effectively. This was a challenge Clifton Coffee Roasters faced after experiencing a period of rapid growth. Going from six employees to 29 in a short period of time meant the organisation struggled to keep communicating with staff proactively. With too many overlapping and disjointed communication tools, fragmented communications between staff and employees meant the company was unable to remain agile and adapt to change as well as possible, threatening its ability to compete in the UK’s booming coffee industry. To address this, the company streamlined its communication channels, removing disparate and disjointed applications to prevent conversations and important information getting lost, and to make it easier to find.
By simplifying its collaboration tools, adopting new file sharing services and embracing a mix of face-to-face and chat-based communications, Clifton Coffee Roasters was more able to support real-time collaboration, achieve faster responses to staff queries and customer demands and ultimately, boost workplace productivity.
Create a shared company vision:
Equally important for boosting productivity in SMBs, is ensuring staff understand and agree with the company’s vision and mission – and genuinely want to work towards it. Creating this sense of confidence and participation is vital to encouraging motivation as well as performance, offering staff a sense of ownership or pride in the organisation they work for. As Gen Z enter the workforce, this will be all the more pressing, with research highlighting just how important company mission and purpose is, to attract the next generation of top talent.
Worryingly however, our research reveals only 18% of SMB employees believe their organisation has a strong vision or mission. This kind of disengagement often leads to employee departures, which can be a huge loss to business productivity for SMBs. Similarly, while 70% of SMB leaders are confident that they can fulfil their career ambitions working in a small or medium sized business, this figure drops to 49% when employees are asked the same question.
To tackle this, SMB leaders must focus on ensuring employees are involved in co-creating the company mission. So, whether its holding collaborative working sessions to refine company goals or scheduling in-person forums with senior leadership, ensuring productive conversations happen between staff and leaders is of the utmost importance for driving workplace productivity. By gathering evidence, facts and aspirations from staff at all levels of the business, organisations can craft a company vision that everyone will buy into.
Harness the power of technology:
As we’ve seen, increasing high-quality collaboration will prove vital for solving the productivity equation for SMBs. At Microsoft, we’ve learned from working with our customers that it’s easier said than done. You can’t expect people to work well together just because they’re in the same team, just as you can’t expect staff to start using new collaboration tools just because you’ve invested in them. Getting staff buy in up front and working with them to adopt new tools is critical to the success of any deployment.
The good news is there is significant appetite for new tools and ways of working amongst SMB employees, with 55% feeling optimistic, confident or excited about incoming technology. Nearly a third of staff (29%) also revealed that if given £30,000 to invest in the company, they would spend it on new technology for the workplace – signalling a demand for the benefits this can bring, boosting workplace productivity.
A positive outlook towards new ways of working is promising, but it’s important to remember that technology cannot solve productivity challenges by itself. To ensure success there must be clear direction from senior leadership and the right training and education to help staff achieve success. While most SMBs are aware of this and act accordingly, nearly a quarter (24%) of SMB employees say they have never received training on new workplace technologies.
Today’s SMB leaders need to focus on ensuring their staff understand new tools and technology, as well as how these are being introduced to solve identified business challenges, to better support productive collaboration. Offering practical tutorials and workshop sessions can help remove barriers to adoption and ensure staff are doing so. Nominating suitable “change champions” to set an example of how and why new tools should be used will help drive further adoption. Business leaders must also walk the walk by using new tools and channels in the right way, themselves.
While there is certainly no single solution to the UK’s productivity puzzle, it’s clear we need small and medium sized businesses to capitalise on their strengths and create a strong, transparent company culture to thrive, and strengthen the nation’s economy.