Adapting to survive: an optimistic approach to low business confidence

The annual Optimism Index carried out by accountancy firm BDO, has again raised fears that the UK will re-enter recession over the next six months. The current state of the UK economy has put real pressure on businesses, and it comes as no surprise that many are finding it difficult to be confident about what the future holds. Peter Boucher from Vodafone UK explains that to attract customers who are themselves increasingly cautious about spending money represents a big challenge.

Having said that, small business owners and entrepreneurs often see opportunity where others see risk. Around half a million businesses were started in 2012 alone, which is real cause for optimism and shows that entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well across the UK.

In our experience, many businesses are talking about ‘adapting to survive’ by becoming more flexible and agile at every level of their business, whether in sales and marketing, or HR. For businesses that have been willing to embrace change and try new and better ways of working, this greater focus on flexibility has made for significant commercial advantage. As a result, many have been able to compete with, and even outperform, their larger rivals.

Indeed, by taking a few practical steps, it’s possible to reap the benefits of a more flexible and agile approach. For example, a smarter use of office space can reduce rent, which is one of the biggest costs small and medium sized businesses face. In most businesses, employees work away from the office – leaving behind empty desks that can cost a fortune.

Small firms can get rid of unnecessary space and reduce rent by introducing a flexible working environment in which staff are given laptops, mobile phones and other collaboration tools, and are not tied to any particular desk. By doing this it’s only necessary to rent the amount of office space needed on any given day rather than enough for every employee, such as by moving to a desk to employee ratio of 7 to 10.

We’re also finding that SMEs who are embracing more flexible working are often successful in providing great customer service. Responding quickly to customers is vitally important in a service-based economy like the UK, where business can be won or lost over the course of a couple of minutes. By enabling staff to answer customer calls and emails anytime, anywhere, rather than being tied to a desk, companies are able to retain existing customers and easily attract new ones.

One example of this is Think Drinks, a company based in Somerset which provides soft drinks to pubs, restaurants and festivals. By linking their smartphones to the office, customers who have an issue can get through to an engineer straight away, and have their problem fixed in a couple of hours. Think Drinks has recently won large contracts with national restaurant chains as a result of their ability to turn customer calls round extremely quickly.

What’s more, our own research has shown that there are ‘softer’ benefits to embracing these new ways of working. Generations Y and Z who are currently entering the workforce have little experience of the old 9-5 office-based culture.

They now expect to be able to do their job from anywhere, without sitting at their desks all day long. In fact many think it is as important as financial benefits such as a pension. Offering flexible working is an inexpensive way for small businesses to attract the best talent – during a recession having the best staff can mean the difference between thriving and failing.

By moving to a more results-based culture, rather than judging employees on ‘presenteeism’, small businesses can also boost productivity in the workplace. The same research showed that, when asked, employees who worked flexibly said they were more productive as a result. 75 per cent of those asked also said that the increased flexibility boosted job satisfaction and 72 per cent said it made for a better work-life balance. All these make for a better workplace and more efficient business and mean small firms are well-placed to gain and retain their piece of the pie.

We understand there are huge challenges facing UK businesses right now, and these issues, especially the macroeconomic conditions, can’t be resolved overnight. However, by embracing more flexible approaches, businesses and especially small firms, are better positioned to weather the storm and take advantage of the any opportunities that appear while the current economic uncertainty persists.