While the News talks of re-opening, businesses know it won't be the same.
Many of us are now used to remote work, but for millions across the country that's much easier said than done. Small Businesses tend not to have remote working, so there was a scramble to get something working, and many are left hobbling along with a barely working solution. More businesses still simply couldn't make remote-work, work. Cafe's, retail, in-home services, even some professional services such as lawyers and accountants shut up shop, some temporarily with promises to return, many permanently.
This blog will cover some of the ways that those small businesses can bounce back, potentially stronger than ever, with inspiration taken from the likes of Matt Mullenweg (founding developer of WordPress, amongst many others) and David Eagleman (Neuroscientist and Author).
Kathleen Morrison, in News & Views (“Failure and how to avoid it” 440, 752–754; 2006), notes that societies have often prevented collapse by adopting new technological strategies. In today’s world, where one of the most-talked about prospects for collapse is an epidemic of infectious disease, it is worth remembering that perhaps we already have the technological strategy to avoid it — the Internet. - David Eagleman
That was written in 2006.
In this new world of remote working and blended learning, small businesses face the biggest hurdle. How do you stay productive and safe while getting customers back?
Larger companies have done this by largely giving up the idea of the office, with many even stating they plan on keeping remote working permanently. How can smaller companies, many of which may not even have an office, do the same?
In reality, the magic bullet isn't remote working, but asynchronous working. If you can decouple each task from others, then you enable that task to be done anywhere, or more importantly, anywhen. To see how this works, let's take a look at one of the industries that traditionally requires physical presence the most.
Take a small retail store, for instance. Traditionally, someone keeps the shelves stocked, someone runs the till, someone helps customers find what they want, and someone orders new stock and manages the others. In micro-business, one person may fill multiple roles, in a larger business, teams of people fill each role. Still, at a fundamental level, it's the same thing.
In a traditional environment, everyone needs to be there at the same time. The till worker is no use if there's no stock on the shelves, the shelves can't be stocked if no-one orders stock, and full shelves are useless if there's no-one at the tills.
Taking advantage of more modern approaches, and drawing inspiration from them can even make this business asynchronous.
E-Commerce allows consumers to browse the store even if there's no stock on the shelves, and make purchases even if nobodies at the till.
ERP allows stock orders to be queued without needing to check the shelves.
CRM and Social Media allow workers to help consumers without being there.
Communication systems and Modern IT keeps them all connected and on the same page.
Till workers become delivery packagers or drivers, in-person support and marketing transitions to online marketing, and managers transition to ERP operators.
All of a sudden, even those that do need to be "in the office" to package deliveries or receive stock, can do so safely because they're the only ones who need to be there. Every other role can be moved either remote or offset to spread the workforce by shift. There will still be a place for in-person retail, however with the efficiencies gained elsewhere, keeping the store open safely with a minimum of staff present becomes easy.
5 Levels of Asynchronous Working
Matt Mullenweg proposes a 5 level rating system for remote and asynchronous working, which roughly described are:
Level 0: Jobs which truly must be done in person.
Many companies believe that they have more of these that they actually do. Examples include construction workers or firefighters.
Level 1: No deliberate Effort.
This is the level where most businesses were before COVID-19, workers may have been able to do limited work outside of the workplace in a pinch or keep things moving for a day or two. They do not have any systems or infrastructure in place to make asynchronous work easier and would need to return to the office to get any meaningful work done.
Level 2: Remote but Synchronous
At this level, many companies will have the infrastructure in place and accept at an organisational level that work will be done at home. However, many of these systems and infrastructure are centred around making home like the office, and recreating the office in the remote setting. They may use tools such as Microsoft Teams for meetings. Still, communication remains synchronous, and workers days are full of interruptions.
Many companies stop at this level, assuming its good enough, however by fully utilising systems and the internet, productivity can be greatly improved.
Level 3: Remote First, or Distributed
At this level, companies start to realise the benefits of distributed and asynchronous work. By investing in solid equipment and making good use of written communication such as shared documents and chat functions, communication and decision making no-longer needs scheduled meetings by default. At this stage, companies make use of MDM and modern BYOD practices to break the reliance on traditional IT infrastructure.
When lockdown stops, you may plan meetups of your teams, but rather than doing so out of necessity, you plan meetups for social purposes.
For smaller businesses, this is often a sweet spot. Without additional investment, significant productivity gains can be had, even post-COVID.
Level 4: True Asynchronous Work
At this level, companies shift to evaluating work not on how or when the work is done, but objectively on what they produce. Decision making is largely done with written communication, rather than by meetings. This means that while decisions may take slightly longer to get made, the quality of the decision-making process is greatly improved, and documentation becomes inherent in business processes.
At this level, a company would be just as, if not more effective than in-person, while simultaneously increasing employee satisfaction, reducing costs, and improving quality of work.
At this level, scalability becomes effortless. With asynchronous work becoming the norm, you can utilise an international talent pool and scale your business extremely quickly. With carefully planned technology infrastructure and systems leveraging the cloud, scaling your technology to match is also seamless.
Level 5: Nirvana
At this (Largely impossible to reach) level, you outperform every possible in-person organisation. Every task is performed asynchronously by a 24/7 global workforce. As one timezone signs off for the day, the next logs on and picks up the work. You are country and time agnostic. Through extensive documentation and automation, it's effortless to keep track of work and people, and handoffs are instant. Decisions are made with transparency, enabling anyone to provide insight, even those who would not normally have the confidence to speak up in a meeting.
Achieving Asynchronous Working
Bringing it back, how can smaller or local businesses make use of this way of working?
First, identify the tasks carried out by each type of worker. Considering not only those tasks but how they relate to other tasks. For instance, someone working in sales may have the task of preparing and sending a quote, however, you should also consider where the information for that quote came from, how the quote is sent, and what happens when it's accepted or rejected? For instance, an accepted quote may be sent to finance to generate an invoice and sent to a service operative or purchasing to be fulfilled.
These links between tasks are the main barrier to effective asynchronous work, and the vast majority are based on communication.
In most cases, the first thing to think about is communication. That can be achieved through VoIP, Video Calling, or Chat (often all three). You should consider which type of communication suits your business best and implement that first. Email should also be updated if your business is still using onsite email or personal email accounts (e.g. Hotmail, outlook.com, or normal Gmail).
For instance, if many of your tasks require short, simple questions to be asked of other staff, for instance, "What's the lead time on product ABC?", go with Chat first. On the other hand, if your tasks require more complex discussions with other staff, consider Video Calling. Outside communications are normally best handled with VoIP, so sales teams, for instance, should prioritise that.
The next big challenge is access to data. For instance, if sales can't access your software for creating Quotes, or quickly find availability, then they can't work effectively, and much the same is the case for other departments. Businesses already using online ERP or CRM solutions should have this in place already, simply login to the site. Onsite or legacy solutions, however, would require either "uplift" to the cloud, or adaptation. For simpler document storage (such as shared NAS drives many businesses use), remote access to that resource can be made with a VPN.
With communication and data access sorted, you've reached Level 2. Moving beyond Level 2 to 3 is a comparatively simple process.
Firstly, as a company policy emphasis should be given to written communication with tools such as Teams, this enables communication to be asynchronous. Additionally, legacy NAS devices can be transitioned to Cloud storage such as SharePoint, to enable easier collaboration and eliminate the need for a VPN. Making good use of collaborative editing and similar features becomes an indispensable skill, and company policy should reflect this, moving away from real-time meetings where they aren't required.
At this point, IT requirements are slightly more complex, and supporting the wide range of devices your workers may have access to whilst ensuring security becomes a challenge. For this reason, many companies embrace MDM and Cloud Managed PCs. A good IT service provider and Microsoft Partner will be able to implement a high quality, cost-effective and timely solution (nudge nudge).
From Level 3, achieving level 4 is largely an exercise in mastering these tools and capabilities, and adapting your policies and processes to match.
What Tools We Recommend
We've had great use of the following tools and services:
From Communication with Teams to Collaboration with SharePoint, we consider this to be an indispensable tool.
Dynamics 365 Business Central
For medium to larger businesses, this is a great ERP and CRM solution, to help you centralise, access and manage your data. The full integration into Outlook is a huge positive.
Having your VoIP PBX exist in the cloud makes it seamless to transition from on-site to remote and vice versa. Mobile apps and Softphone Clients make it easy to set up VoIP on any device.