Many businesses have had to adapt the way they operate to survive the seismic change brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. But small and medium-sized enterprises in particular have faced unique challenges.  

This is worrying for the wider economy since SMEs account for 50% of the total revenue generated by UK businesses and 44% of the labour force. 

As the UK navigates the process of lifting restrictions, SMEs must be quick to adapt their business strategy to ensure they thrive in the long-anticipated post-lockdown world. To achieve this, business leaders must focus on 3 key areas: fostering talent; renewing a sense of purpose; and defining the new working normal. 

Fostering talent 

For businesses to grow their teams and ultimately achieve their goals, focusing on employee development and company culture is paramount. Hiring and retaining the best talent will be key to driving long-term growth and building an organisation that is fit for the future.  

But, beyond important conversations regarding salary and company benefits, people are also looking for a workplace that provides them with the opportunities to develop, upskill, and have a sense of belonging within an integrated and diverse company culture. 

At my own business, upholding company culture has been critical for us during the pandemic. From organising company-wide games nights and virtual coffee hangouts to setting up ‘Special Interest Groups’ on significant topics including Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) and running quarterly Team Days, we have worked hard to ensure our team feel supported and connected – even whilst remote.  

As a deeply multi-disciplinary team, we’ve also rolled out a Slack integration called ‘Donut’, which randomly pairs people across the organisation to spark new ideas and conversations, and we’ve increased our team All Hands to once a week to ensure the team remains aligned on our mission and progress.  

All of these initiatives are critical to our culture of transparency, collaboration and connection, and we know from internal survey tools like Peakon, that culture is directly linked to role satisfaction and retention.  

We’ve also kick-started a programme looking at career development at the company, recognising that as a team of now over 80 people, we need to formalise our commitment to helping people grow. To that end, we’ve grown out our People and Culture Team over the last year and have collaborated closely with managers to ensure we’re building attractive opportunities for our staff. 

Investing in career development and manager training is really important for SMEs as they approach the next phase of scaling, in order to ensure people continue to feel nurtured and motivated in their role.  

Renewing a sense of purpose 

The pandemic has made many business leaders rethink and reassess their organisation’s core mission as consumer and investor behaviour shifted away from product-first businesses towards more mission-driven operations.  

Indeed, increasingly employees, investors and the wider public expect companies to have a strong sense of purpose beyond just making money – and this will be critical to ensure long term success.   

In the wake of COVID-19, many SMEs have seen it as a catalyst to adapt or to try something new entirely—such as making food tours virtual, or taking a singing studio from London online and diversifying the classes. To thrive in this ever-evolving climate, SME companies need to work with their key stakeholders to (re)define their company mission and create meaningful ways to reinforce that on a daily basis to both internal and external audiences. 

Defining the new working normal 

Remote work forced businesses to transform the way they operate and communicate with employees overnight. As a return to the office slowly becomes a reality, organisations must lead the way in defining the new working normal for their team—whether that be in-office, remote or distributed.  

In the transition out of lockdown, large financial institutions such as HSBC, Standard Chartered, Lloyds Bank and Metro Bank have already indicated they plan to drastically cut their office space over the coming years, while bank bosses at Barclays and Goldman Sachs have stated that working from home is ‘not sustainable’ and expressed a desire to swiftly shift from remote work to a hot-desk or cubicle working environment as soon as possible.  

There are many options out there, and it’s important for leaders to find the model that works best for them. We see the future of our work as a hybrid model—and we recognise how tools like Slack, Zoom, Miro and Jira will play a key part in keeping our teams connected, aligned, and motivated no matter where they are.  

We also see the benefits of having a more globally distributed team, such as access to a broader talent pool. This won’t work for everybody, but it’s important organisations communicate early and often about what the plans for the ‘new normal’ will look like – so get thinking now. 

The developments of the past year have shown that remote work is not a passing trend and hybrid models are expected to become the new normal post-pandemic. To thrive in this new world, SMEs must invest in their team, their mission and the technology that will allow teams to collaborate no matter where individuals are based.  

Despite the uncertainty that lies ahead, if organisations take on board the above tips, they can future proof their chances of success for years to come.