This blog has been written by Professor Sue Smith, Director of the Centre of SME Development and Dr Adrian Wright, Director of the Institute of Research into Organisations, Work and Employment at University of Central Lancashire. You can contact Sue and Adrian at [email protected]
Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of the economy in any country. In the United Kingdom they account of 99.5% of the business population. It is well recognised that a flourishing small business sector is central to socio-economic growth. Regarded as anchor institutions and playing a pivotal role in the communities in which they reside, higher education institutions are increasingly playing a central role in regional socio-economic development. SMEs are the lifeblood of this fabric. The pandemic is changing the way in which higher education institutions are working with SMEs (and indeed themselves as employers) offering research-based support and practical advice to support SMEs in challenging times. Parliament is inviting academics to contribute expertise on COVID. We hope to give policymakers food for thought in terms of supporting SMEs and the role higher education institutions play in their regions.
The Centre for SME Development and the Institute for Research in to Work and Employment has conducted research on COVID and SMEs. Called ‘Phoenix’, the study’s aim was to understand better and support SMEs to rise from the COVID ashes. We might not quite be there yet in terms of rising from ashes, but the research has led to some practical advice to re-imagine work through good remote working principles. They are applicable to any size SME (indeed any size of business) adopting remote working or a hybrid model. Research-informed, they are designed to act as a guide to respond to the ongoing challenges while being productive and supporting employees’ wellbeing.
- Understand flexibility to consider employees’ needs to achieve secure, sustainable and productive work wherever possible.
- Support skills development and training to focus on development and progression for the whole workforce.
- Create a platform to understand the employee voice and create an inclusive work environment to ensure minority voices are heard.
- Foster social relationships between co-workers to enhance the informal dialogue across the organisation.
- Be aware of digital presenteeism and work intensification to improve work-life balance.
- Support physical and mental health and wellbeing.
Where there is crisis, there is opportunity. Here it is in re-imagining the workplace. The ‘Phoenix’ project is an example of this, i.e. research, engagement and impact by supporting SMEs to create a productive and sustainable workplace.
Higher education institutions work with SMEs through the knowledge exchange agenda, often with business support funding to help SMEs to grow, although survival may now be the new growth. Many graduates go on to work in SMEs or start their own business. We have seen an increase of student start-ups during COVID as our students speak of their concern of future employment.
These remote working principles draw attention to some key issues which SMEs are facing which can be supported by higher education, for example:
- through the curriculum (nurturing future responsible leaders and managers);
- developing student enterprise (setting up businesses built on responsible practice for productivity); and
- through knowledge exchange (putting research in to practice and enabling socio-economic development).
COVID has enforced a drastic shift in the way we work to which organisations and employees have had to adapt. Recent studies have shown around three-quarters of directors expect home working to continue after the pandemic, although staff’s mental health & wellbeing and interaction with employees are cited as the most worrying challenges from the shift away from the office.
Our ‘Phoenix’ research has found that some have found this difficult whereas others have enjoyed the flexibility of working from home. Common sense could probably tell us this, but the research has enabled us to delve deeper into the challenges facing SMEs thus identifying some of the many ways higher education can focus support for them.
Challenges facing SMEs
Enforced homeworking has impacted hugely on social relations at work, as meetings have become more instrumental and interactions more fleeting. The boundaries between the workplace and the home are increasingly blurred and the new proximity to work has left many feeling like they are living at work.
There has been a tendency for managers to respond by being more task-orientated and transactional, emphasising deadlines and tasks to the detriment of employee wellbeing, stress levels and isolation.
Employees and sole traders alike are facing issues of loneliness, but also are feeling the need to appear to be constantly available for work, using technology and social media as a medium to show virtual presenteeism to bosses or even suppliers.
Remote working is impacting on different people, from those who live alone without family support, to those with caring responsibilities, to those struggling with the pace of work. Rather than noise, what is clear is that there is a silence with regards to these feelings in the SMEs.
Workers are facing anxiety around justifying new work arrangements and needing reassurance that new ways of working are okay, although seemingly struggling with lack of control and direct reassurance from line managers.
Most SMEs have been in survival mode as rules and restrictions change on a near weekly basis. But some are looking to the future and policymakers could look to the socio-economic role higher education institutions play in their regions to support SMEs in their communities.
Remote Working Principles to Support Good Work
Of course there is a moral and legal case for supporting employees and ensuring safe work conditions, but there is also a case for productivity: employees with higher levels of health and wellbeing are a happier, more productive workforce. A key challenge for SMEs is the organisational capacity to manage the workforce (or themselves as sole traders) working remotely, or in a hybrid capacity, while meeting customer needs and maintaining productivity. We look to policy makers to further the anchor institution role and civic duty of higher education institutions in the socio-economic regional agenda and the importance of SMEs in this mix.
These principles are gaining traction with a growing number of higher education institutions, Local Enterprise Partnerships and business support bodies. We are developing partnerships to work together to continue to co-construct them for the benefit of SMEs, socio-economic regional development and the role of higher education.