Since the arrival of COVID-19, small businesses have been faced with challenges including border closures, changing restrictions and lockdowns, staff shortages, and subsequent disruption to global supply and distribution chains. While there have been some curve balls in 2022 so far, small businesses are in a better position than ever to pivot and adapt to thrive.
We spoke to SME business specialist Ross Cameron from Cameron Research about the sentiment amongst business owners going into 2022, and how they are reevaluating priorities to navigate these challenges.
The findings of a recent online poll by the Australian Retailers Association has shown that 50% of businesses named staff shortages as their number 1 challenge going into 2022. How can small businesses affected by limited worker availability continue to operate and move forward?
You can register on Jobs Victoria’s online hub to post jobs and connect with candidates. Jobs Victoria can also support you with wage subsidies, recruitment support and partnerships with industries that need workers. Job Active also works with suppliers to tailor recruitment services to their needs.
The federal government is now offering visa fee refunds to entice students and backpackers who come back to Australia in the next few months. Changes being considered include isolation requirements for close contacts in certain “essential” industries and the number of hours students on visas can work in a week. We should therefore soon see an influx of international workers in the employment pool, lessening the recruitment strain for some.
Research from all over the world tells us that diversity is good for the workforce, the economy, and the community. Diverse workplaces are shown to be:
Diversity promotes success, and is a critical asset for any team for resilience in a crisis. Culturally diverse teams are shown to be more creative and able to solve complex tasks more efficiently than culturally homogenous teams.
The Victorian Government has established Victoria’s Social Procurement Framework, with objectives that relate to fair and inclusive employment. Social procurement prioritises creating social value from employment, and the Framework focuses on Aboriginal Victorians, Victorians with a disability and disadvantaged Victorians.
Suppliers can access support to put in place recruitment processes, pre-employment support and training on job support that align with social procurement goals and values.
Bruce Bilson, from the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, has called for family and small businesses to be age-inclusive when advertising for jobs, and to consider the benefits of mature age workers in the workplace. ‘Age diversity is good for business. Older workers can elevate an entire workplace, with their knowledge, experience and transferrable skills forged over many years.’
Businesses where employees feel valued, trusted and respected not just through policies, procedures and processes, but in real-life interactions, will be the ones to attract talent.
The last two years have made many people reevaluate their workplace and job priorities. ‘The Great Resignation‘ has seen an increasing number of people wanting more flexibility and meaningful roles seeking career changes and alternative employment.
While there may not currently be widespread resignation in Victoria, a high volume of job-hopping is forecast for 2022. Small businesses can take advantage of this trend as they often offer impactful, interpersonal roles that many people are seeking after a post-pandemic shift in perspective.
Whether you run a retail store or e-commerce, it’s likely that the widespread global supply chain issues have affected your business in some way. ‘It’s about getting stock and raw materials and getting them in a timely way. But also, there’s a lot of cost pressure around all of this,’ Ross says.
While there may not be a simple fix, there are steps businesses can take to overcome supply chain challenges and continue running smoothly.
While supply chains may continue to be disrupted by factors such as climate change and political instability, there are also positive developments and creative solutions on the horizon, such as blockchain development of supply chains. The best thing small businesses can do is be prepared for all possible outcomes by staying informed and keeping customers informed, tracking and studying data and having alternative products and suppliers at the ready.
Supply chains can be affected by many local and global factors. Staying up to date with news affecting your industry and products will mean you can predict likely shortages and take steps to curb the impact, for example by using an alternative supplier or stocking alternative products.
Staying informed also means that you can update your customers regularly and remain transparent with them about potential upcoming and current issues with supply beyond your control. This will prepare them for any delayed shipping times.
Research alternative suppliers in different locations so that stock can be maintained even if your usual supplier is unable to fulfil your business’ needs. You can also take this time to implement sustainable, long-term relationships with local providers and manufacturers as there is a movement away from wholesale supply.
While supply chain management (SCM) software is mainly used by larger businesses, small businesses can use these automation tools to manage their supply chain efficiently, particularly while there are supply chain issues. You can manage supplier relationships and associated business processes, track inventory and keep an eye on shipping.
Staying on top of your stock, what there is enough of and what needs replenishment, is vital during a supply chain crisis. While it can be difficult to balance the right inventory when supplies are low or inconsistent, you can increase your inventory by buying up as much as possible when a product is available, sourcing discounted items, seeking financing to invest in more stock or renting further storage space.
For many small businesses in particular, the pandemic has accelerated digital transformations. Ross notes that the advance further into the digital landscape, not just with online sales and ecommerce, but also in terms of internal processes, was ‘necessary and inevitable’.
‘When the lockdown period started in March of 2020, it brought on a lot of changes that business owners had in mind but may not have gotten around to doing. People have now seen firsthand how powerful digital changes in their businesses can be, so the sentiment around it is very positive.’
However, Ross’s research shows that social media and digital advertising is still seen as a pain point. ‘The constant surveillance of social media and customer service online can be exhausting.’
The need for continued digital innovation encourages businesses to continue embracing new technologies, streamlining processes and automating online services. Mastering the click and collect model is an easy pivot for small businesses, providing ease of experience for customers and helping your business to remain competitive.
To manage the pressure of ‘always being on’ that comes with more online presence, digital tools such as those for content planning and scheduling are big time and stress savers. Chatbots, auto responses functions and AI tech can assist with customer service out-of-hours and building sales funnels.
Engaging with your audience in an authentic, relevant and meaningful way will be the key for brand marketing going into 2022. Conversational marketing, personalisation and audience-focused engagement through digestible chunks of information – such as short, DIY videos (i.e., TikTok and YouTube Shorts) – are examples of ways to build trust with customers, create quality interactions, and use feedback to tell real stories that create an impact.
To fill the gap of face-to-face customer interaction, there are more opportunities than ever to interact with your online community. Online feedback forms, social media and community management are ways that you can engage with your customer base from afar; the trick is to find ways to make this meaningful. Luckily, as Ross explains, small businesses have the edge here.
‘The personalised services that small to medium businesses are able to offer will always be attractive to customers,’ he says. ‘Bigger businesses are more about commodity output, whereas smaller businesses are less of a volume game and more about customers, which people warm to, especially post-pandemic.’
If the past two years have confirmed anything, it’s that the future is digital. The traditional workplace has given way to a hybrid model – WFH (working from home), and now a more distributed WFA (working from anywhere).
Whether or not WFA becomes the norm, experts agree that hybrid working arrangements are unlikely to change as a preference for many workers. So how can small businesses embrace the future of hybrid working, and what do they need to consider?
As Ross explains, small businesses were able to pivot very easily to WFH as they already have the tech in place. While there is an increasing expectation of flexible work arrangements, many small businesses are finding remote working unsustainable.
‘We’re now facing a situation where there’s an increasing number of business owners who want to get the band back together. Business owners feel that when working from home, you can tread water, you can break even, but you can’t really push your business forward. So, there is a view that a lot of businesses would like to at least go with a hybrid model.’
How can you balance the traditional working model of having teams together, with workers who want the balance and flexibility that comes from WFH/WFA model, without losing out on team innovation and collaboration?
Hybrid work digital advancements will continue, with software and hardware tools continuing to innovate to further enable remote collaboration and productivity. Business owners can keep an eye out for advancements from companies like Zoom, Cisco, Microsoft and Google. While there are plenty of tech tools and advancements available from the tech giants, there are low cost and free alternatives available from smaller businesses that might just as easily fit your business’s needs.
With staff shortages in Victoria mirroring those around the country, the employee/employer dynamic is shifting towards one where employees have more say. Business owners can take this time to work with staff to figure out what works for them and identify what roles can be done remotely (social media, accounting and bookkeeping are examples).
Businesses are also free to craft their own future workspace – while it may not be WFH or WFA, it may not necessarily be in an office space either. Some are looking into workplace flexibility, such as ‘work near home’ (WNH) office hubs and coworking spaces.
The effect of the pandemic has caused many people to reassess their priorities in both life and work. This has brought about a shift in workplace values, with the focus turning to wellbeing and work/life balance.
As Ross explains, managing a business and staff through two years of change and uncertainty has been at times a mentally draining and lonely task.
Communication, both between business owners and from employer to employee, has never been more important; not only to benefit from small businesses networks but to ensure that business owners and staff alike feel connected and supported.
‘It’s really important that business owners continue to be engaged with other people,’ says Ross. ‘A lot of business owners internalise their issues to put on a brave face for their staff, for example. Staying socially engaged and networking, particularly with other business owners, reminds you that you’re not alone. It makes you feel like you’re a part of a team.’
Small business support groups and networking tools, such as Business Victoria’s Facebook group I am a business owner in Victoria, Australia, are a great way to reach out and collaborate with other small businesses going through similar challenges.
Other free wellbeing resources to check out include:
While workflow tools, such as Trello and Slack, have simplified communication for employers and employees, developing effective and empathetic communication with your staff is more important than ever.
The way that businesses respond to mental health and workplace wellbeing challenges going into 2022 is likely to impact staffing and employment. There is an increasingly high premium on workplace wellbeing, and many people are now seeking work that brings them joy and a better work/life balance.
COVID highlighted the challenges faced by working caregivers. Support to offer staff includes incorporating practices like flexible working, phased part-time and cross-training to prepare for employee absences.
While making constant changes and improvements can be challenging, you can achieve your resolutions for your small businesses if you begin working towards them in small steps. A resilient business can adapt to disruptions and keep operating while looking after its people, assets and brand equity. You can take steps to prepare your business for disruption and build business resilience.
‘Business owners are opportunists and there are always opportunities, especially for small businesses that are able to twist and turn and adapt very quickly,’ Ross says.
Ross left us with three top tips on how small businesses can safeguard against uncertainty in 2022:
Ross emphasises the importance of remembering to take care of yourself in the wake of another uncertain year. ‘If you’re stressed or feeling under pressure, know that you’re not alone. It’s so important to remember to be kind to yourself and take your foot off the accelerator every now and then to ensure you don’t burn out.’
Ross Cameron is the founder of Cameron Research, which he established in 1992 to research small and medium-sized businesses. Over the past 30 years Ross has personally conducted over 3,000 face-to-face interviews and 700 focus group discussions, always with the owners of small and medium-sized businesses – looking at what they aspire to, what they are experiencing, the ‘thrills and spills’ of running a business, challenges etc.