Navigating uncertainty: are SME leaders out of touch with the requirements of the ‘new normal’?

It is crucial that SME owners receive the mentoring and hands-on help necessary to survive the impact of Coronavirus now, and avoid having to close further down the line, says Justin Small

Over the course of the past three months, the private sector has undergone a seismic shift.

The business world has changed dramatically in this time – namely, many firms have had to transform their business strategy to help cope with the impact of office and workplace closure; whether that be by introducing an e-commerce arm to keep sales, or by implementing a working from home policy for employees. Now, the outlook is bleak for some small firms who are facing the reality of the financial and logistical issues caused by the Coronavirus. A fifth of SMEs in the UK alone are expected to have to close permanently, so the need for hands-on and active solutions cannot be underestimated.

Nationally representative research commissioned by The Future Strategy Club across 2,000 UK workers shows that 45% of business leaders think their working environment will change for the better after the pandemic, while 29% have already streamlined their teams. However, 51% of workers believe that decision makers in the workplace are out of touch with the processes that allow teams to work effectively and productively. It seems, therefore, that SME owners could benefit from first-hand assistance to not only reengage their teams, but to adapt their business models further to meet the financial challenges presented by Coronavirus.

Mentoring and help

It is crucial, therefore, that SME owners receive the mentoring and hands-on help necessary to survive the impact of Coronavirus now, and avoid having to close further down the line. This help can come from highly-skilled and dedicated freelance consultants, who can provide vital business guidance and expertise to navigate one of the most uncertain periods in living history.

Undoubtedly, business owners and managers will have faced innumerable challenges over the past few months, as supply chains have been disrupted, trading temporarily ceased and employees had to adapt to working from home. Now is the time when business leaders do not just need advice on how to see their firms through these unprecedented times, but require a hands-on approach.

An outside consultant can bring a fresh perspective to struggling businesses, and integrate a new, more flexible ethos to firms who are looking for the best way to accommodate new business models and a more flexible working approach after the lockdown period. Consultants talk to other consultants and these peer-to-peer conversations help to share the knowledge of those experts who have dealt with previous crises, such as the 2008 crash, that now can be applied to help small firms weather this pandemic.

Every firm in the UK alone has undoubtedly been affected by the pandemic – either positively or negatively – and business leaders have had to review what works well and what does not within their firms.

Data from The Future Strategy Club shows that 29% of business leaders have already done this. It is clear that in-house talent is to become a luxury for the foreseeable future as businesses – especially in the SME space – begin to rebuild. With overstretched budgets and the streamlining of teams, often it is the most creative members of the private workforce who have suffered as affording high-end, permanent talent is no longer maintainable for many firms.

Rethink productivity and efficiency

Covid-19 has demanded businesses to rethink, with a time sensitive shift, what they think to be both productive and efficient. Recalibrating team structures to get the most output out of the least resource must not come at a price, especially for clients who have remained loyal to their suppliers. Striking the correct balance in saving talent whilst nurturing your bottom line is a tall order, especially for some of the youngest businesses. In most cases, only essential workers are kept on as businesses operate with a skeletal staff structure.

For businesses to recover fully and to thrive beyond the impact of Coronavirus, innovation to supplement the new profile of how offices function will be key. Now more than ever, with creative talent being a luxury for most, considering a freelance or contracted worker may provide the very tool to help nail this dynamic of innovation and reduced resource.

Freelancers provide a vital lifeline for those who are in dire need of expertise without the long-term commitment during the most financially uncertain period the UK has seen since the 2008 recession. Lockdown is easing, and this brings the opportunity for the first time in months to begin to resume business and trade with some normalcy. With this comes progression; firms will need to start following their business plans once again to evolve and remain profitable.

But with a reduced staff – and, perhaps, reduced morale – it may be tricky to get projects off of the ground. Many companies that have needed to scale back in order to survive will still need to invest in talent in order to deliver and complete these projects, even if it is on a part-time or short-term basis.

Additional working options

Furthermore, many skilled workers may well be exploring additional working options, such as the gig economy and contract work. The role of freelancer is likely to shift; historically, part-time contractors have missed out on company benefits and socialisation, but now – as their talents become far more appreciated and in demand – freelancers have the opportunity to become some of the most integral and core members of teams, especially if hired to lead special projects.

The perception of freelancers and gig economy work has been long overdue an overhaul. Historically, freelancers have been excluded from the benefits of the permanent workforce including workplace culture, socialisation and support networks. Now, with the turbulence caused by the lockdown crisis, the private sector’s reliance on flexible workers will not only become apparent but crucial to its survival, delivering a positive step for the gig economy and its importance to the wider economy as we grow out of the Covid-19 period.

Freelancers with experience can lead teams to success and truly take the helm to deliver creative projects that will ensure businesses succeed. The global freelancer community has survived and thrived over the years, functioning with a culture where workers are only as good as their last job. Furthermore, workers are only as good as their last fee. For this very reason, their continued dedication to each project can deliver results over and above the output of an individual who is consistently buffered by notice period and contractual safety.

Navigating uncertainty

The period through and post-Covid-19 means that the entirety of the UK workforce now functions with a similar degree of uncertainty; yet it will only be the freelance community who will understand how to navigate their output under such circumstances and therefore must be relied on heavily due to their experience in converting this sentiment into amazing results.

Now, business leaders should be exploring every avenue of growth and innovation to survive the fallout of the Coronavirus pandemic. By treating freelancers as true colleagues and fully embracing short-term contractors into the culture of the workplace, businesses can drive forward with purpose and overcome the challenges presented by lockdown.

Justin Small is the founder of The Future Strategy Club.

The Future Strategy Club is a cutting edge consulting agency built with c-level consultants and creative talent helping clients deliver game changing innovative outcomes – and using the profits to help members build new social impact start ups

Justin is a proven executive advisor in innovation and transformation with a focus around customer experience, new product and service design, and experience strategy. He has worked with corporations, SMEs and start ups to help them succeed in a continually disrupted world.

Previous clients include Scotia Bank, BT, EE, Heathrow Airport, National Grid, ScotRail, Greyhound, Savills, Arrow, BBC, Bupa, Visa, TfL, Vodafone, PlayStation, BAE Systems, Lloyds Bank, Co-Op Bank, HSBC, AXA, Standard Life, and Battersea Power Station.

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