British SMEs head online to cope with effects of COVID lockdown — and find some surprise benefits

SMALL UK businesses are moving the bulk of their services online as the sector takes tentative steps towards recovery.

Small Business Britain and BT Skills For Tomorrow polled more than 1,000 firms and found a high degree of adaptation — and plans to keep some changes in place.

Zoom conference call on laptop
Photo: Zoom

The survey found that 42 percent of respondents had moved online due to the pandemic, and 37 percent were planning for a future with less face-to-face contact. A full 24 percent are considering making the work-from-home regime more permanent.

The need for physical offices is now being reassessed by many. Some 28 percent of respondents have been running their businesses remotely, and 43 percent now operate from home. An encouraging 38 percent see these changes as positive.

The agility and entrepreneurial spirit shown by the small businesses community has received widespread praise, but 57 percent of those contacted expected their profits to reduce by half as a result of the pandemic shutdown.

Just 34 percent of small businesses now feel confident, while 39 percent report that drastic cuts have been made to operational costs. Emergency aid from the government, such as the “Bounce Back” loan, has been a financial lifeline for some firms; 28 percent of respondents access such support.

Digital skills and tools are increasingly becoming a key focus. Chris Sims, managing director of commercial and marketing at BT, was impressed that many SMEs have managed to find the positives in the situation. “We’re seeing an increasing shift towards businesses moving online,” he said, “and small businesses should be proud of the way they’ve embraced this.”

A positive spin-off is that the right online presence could help them to reach a global audience or a new customer base, he added. “It’s important that we continue to support small businesses to develop and enhance their digital skills so they are in the best position for recovery.”

Michelle Ovens, founder of Small Business Britain, said it was uplifting to see what she described as a “mass digital pivot” across the UK. “There has always been a huge opportunity for small businesses to make more of their digital potential,” she said. Focusing on digitalisation could be “critical” to the recovery of UK SMEs, she believes.

Small Business Britain is launching a Back To Business programme for the summer, with workshops, advice and support. This follows its campaign, The Big Support, which has been running over recent months. That effort aims to amplify the help available to small businesses and open up the conversation around mental health challenges resulting from the crisis.

BT is supporting the programme by offering a series of free digital skills webinars specifically designed for small businesses. They tackle subjects such as online visibility, remote working tools, how to stay connected with customers, and innovation principles for a crisis.