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By Garsen Naidu, Cisco General Manager, Sub Saharan Africa

If there is one sector of the South African economy that has been tested in 2020, it is definitely the SME sector. From combatting financial challenges and having to swiftly shift their working environment, SMEs have exercised grit in an exceptional manner throughout the year of 2020. With these companies forming the backbone of our economy, they need to be resilient.  The SME sector in South Africa employs 47% of the nation’s workforce and contributes more than 20% to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

One of the ways SMEs have been impacted is that they have been forced to adapt their work systems into a far more virtual world, as well as shift the manner in which they work. Two pieces of research that shed a light on this are Cisco’s South African Remote Work Readiness study and its global Workforce of the Future survey, which explore the new work environment brought about by the COVID-19 crisis as well as examining what SMEs should consider as they move into 2021.

Give your employees options

Since 27 March 2020, multiple corporations within South Africa were forced to move their offices to employee’s homes. This new-found fluidity with regards to the workplace provided employees with vast options on how they could undertake their roles.

According to Cisco’s Workforce of the Future survey, nearly 9 out of 10 workers want to be able to choose whether to work from home or the office, once COVID-19 workplace restrictions ease, and want to have greater autonomy over their hours. Furthermore, 65% agree that one of the big positives to come out of the COVID-19 lockdown is proof that employees don’t need to be in the same room to collaborate effectively.

For that reason, whether you are an SME adapting to the new normal or an entrepreneur wishing to take a leap of faith in the current market, investing in a flexible working environment is now fundamental to the productivity of employees. This includes providing employees with the right tools for work productivity, as well as presenting them with more options than just working from an office every day.

Prioritise taking time out

Although working from home has become a preference for many, the perception that remote working is stress-free has been rejected by participants of Cisco’s Remote Work Readiness study. According to this research, nearly two-thirds of IT decision-makers (64%) report that remote working does not lead to less stress for employees. Nine out of ten workers agree. In fact, stress, anxiety and depression levels have skyrocketed throughout the course of 2020. Therefore, responsible and compassionate leadership has now increased in importance.

Cisco’s Remote Work Readiness study went on to highlight that 51% of respondents reported that the emotional impact of working from home has been severe for staff, as well as managers. Therefore, SMEs that claim to really value their employees, now more than ever, have to put action behind their words.

Investing in an employee assistant programme (EAP), encouraging employees to take leave as well as opening conversations regarding mental wellness are key to promoting a happy, healthy working environment.

Become tech-savvy

Transforming an SME into a digital world can prove to be a difficult task if you don’t have the correct support or tools. Thus, when wishing to roll out a digital transformation strategy within your business, it is key to learn from your organisation’s mistakes and hurdles. Cisco’s South African Remote Work Readiness study highlighted that only 37% of businesses had fully rolled out a digital transformation strategy at the start of the Covid-19 crisis. In addition, before the national lockdown, 57% of businesses had issued less than a quarter of their staff with laptops to allow for remote work.

If SMEs want to continue to do business in the new normal, then it is vital that they create and set a digital transformation plan that can evolve over the years as their businesses grow and new technologies become available. This includes investing in technology tools, skills and strategies for both employees and management.

As the world continues to shift before our eyes, it is imperative that SMEs adapt with the times and new world of work if they want to remain relevant and be successful.