3 Key Learnings Australian SMEs Can Take From Our Response To COVID-19

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For the majority of Australians, it’s the first time we’ve worked as part of a full-time distributed workforce—and many of us are still feeling our way around. A lot remains uncertain, but as the government works toward a COVID-19 exit strategy, it’s clear that we’re still a way off from ending this battle.

To discover how small and mid-sized businesses (SMEs) are coping, Capterra surveyed 500 Australians currently employed by an SME. Respondents included in the survey were working remotely full-time, but only as a direct response to the outbreak. Before this, they were primarily office-based.

The findings highlighted the areas where we demonstrated a smooth transition into remote working, as well as some common obstacles. In this article, we’ll reveal what we can learn from an experience that many of us didn’t prepare for.

How did Australia adapt to remote working?

Technology adoption

To operate in a home office environment, 41% of respondents had to adopt new technologies and an additional 22% are planning to.

Looking into the five main sectors interviewed, Architecture and Construction demonstrated the biggest increase in terms of technology adoption.

This figure makes sense given that architecture is an industry that had not previously embraced remote working. The results found that 80% of respondents from this sector were previously office-based, either full or part-time, but are now working from home.

More than three quarters (74%) of companies in this sector are using cloud-based software, fully or combined with on-premise tools. The remaining quarter of respondents rely fully on on-premise tools.

Across all sectors, the most cited categories were:

Key challenges

Communication is the biggest obstacle for remote workers; be it with colleagues or maintaining contact with clients. Of the top ten challenges identified in the survey, half referenced an issue of this kind.

top 10 challenges identified by australian employees since working remotely
Good communication is the foundation for a productive remote workforce. Taking the time to figure out the most effective communication policies for your business now will lead to healthier, happier employees as well as a more functional business.

Areas of opportunity

Australian SME workers have had little difficulty with adapting to the new technology adoptions. Only 7% of respondents said they’ve found learning how to use the new software difficult or very difficult.

how easily have sme employees picked up new remote work tools

This ease has given respondents a remote working confidence boost. More than half of the respondents now believe their business could continue functioning with a distributed workforce—87% of Australian’s want them to. This could be connected to the many benefits respondents listed they’ve experienced since remote working.

top 10 benefits indentified by australian employees since working remotely

For the most part, Australian employees like working from home. 70% of respondents said they’re enjoying remote working during the lockdown. Transitioning back to an office environment full-time may be met with some resistance.

What can SMEs take away from this experience?

The worst thing SMEs can do now is to ignore what they’ve learned about how their workforce operates best. What have they liked about this experience? And what don’t they like? What drove them to be their most productive? To that end, we’ve identified three major takeaways for business leaders to take note of.

1. There’s a strong argument for remote working

Capterra’s study points towards the potential for greater flexibility around work policies within Australian SMEs. Now that workers have had a taste of working remotely full-time, many of them want to continue with it after the pandemic is over (as stated earlier).

More than half (54%) of respondents said they want to combine remote working with going to the office, while 33% said they want to switch to a remote regime completely.

To retain the best talent and meet employee demands, businesses would be wise to continue investing in remote working technologies.

2. Communication in remote settings cannot be an afterthought

Transitioning to a remote workforce cannot focus solely on installing new tools. After all, technology is just an ally. Companies should look inward at internal processes too—especially when it comes to communication best practices.

The survey results indicated that poor communication is the biggest challenge for remote workers so far. For businesses to operate at peak productivity, communication is key.

At minimum, an effective communication policy should cover the:

  • Purpose of communication
  • Best channels to communicate (linking to each purpose)
  • Frequency of communications
  • Points of contact.

Assume that some (or all) of your processes will need to change. Unless you clarify how adaptations should be made, employees will likely tweak them themselves. Don’t assume they’ll do this in the same way.

3. Face to face interactions are difficult to replicate, but not impossible

Loneliness affects 35% of SME workers who adopted remote working as a response to the pandemic. Those who are teleworking for the first time suffer more.

Almost two-thirds (57%) of those who point out loneliness and lack of social contact as a problem did not usually work from home before the outbreak. At the same time, only 37% of respondents claim to have received some kind of guidance from employers on how to balance work with personal life in this time of social isolation.

Managing staff wellbeing and appreciating the new pressures they’re facing should be a priority. Besides simply being a better employer, there is also a business case for it—companies tend to see 20% more profit when they show appreciation towards their staff.

Check out some management tips, prepared by consultancy Gartner, for those companies that did not have a remote work policy before the crisis:

  1. Look out for signs of worker stress

    Make it clear that the company will give employees all the support they need—from managing workloads to juggling outside-work responsibilities.

    How can technology help? Use meeting software to keep in touch with your employees and listen to them whenever necessary.

  2. Make sure employees know how to use the tools available
    More than offering a multitude of new software, it is important that companies help their employees to work effectively in a totally virtual environment.

    How can technology help? Each employee will react differently to the situation. While an email with basic instructions on activities will suffice for some, other tasks may require more personalised attention. Team communication software, such as Trello, is essential.

  3. More than ever, focus on goals and results

    Focus on what your employees have to deliver and offer greater flexibility around the processes they follow to achieve it. Office processes may not work as well in a virtual environment so allow your team to complete tasks in their own way.

    How can technology help? Adopt productivity software, workflow management software and task management tools. Jira is a great example and offers free versions of its platform, which is particularly useful for teams still figuring out their software requirements.

  4. Trust your employees
    This is not the time to micromanage your team. Monitoring their every move will only demotivate and tire workers who are already stressed with the current situation.

    ‘The best thing you can do as a manager now is to place your employees in the utmost confidence that they will do the right thing – which will happen if employers provide a support structure.’ – Distinguished Vice President, Research, Gartner.

    How can technology help? Try a daily or weekly team catch up using video conferencing software . This will provide you with the relevant updates, without overbearing staff.

The typical Australian work environment is evolving into a new hybrid

Even as lockdown ends, people may be nervous to step straight back into a busy office. Companies risk falling behind by not embracing the opportunities that have come to light during this period.

Rather than transitioning back to old ways, look for how (and why) COVID-19 made your workforce stronger. For one, Australia has become more effective collaborators, and we’ve certainly pushed our ability to think outside the box. But to improve, we have to learn from the challenges we’ve faced.

There will always be a place for a company office, but one thing is for certain: The typical workspace after all this is over will be forever changed.

To gather the data present in this study, Capterra conducted an online survey between April 3 and 4, in which it heard 504 professionals working in small and medium-sized companies (with up to 250 employees) from different sectors across the country. Respondents included in the survey were working remotely, but only as a direct response to the outbreak. Before this, they were primarily office-based.

The results are representative of the research, but not necessarily of the population as a whole.

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