How embracing globalisation and the flexible working phenomenon can boost SME business growth

 
Annabel Denham
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IN TODAY’S globalised world, businesses of all shapes and sizes need to maximise the potential of communicating and trading internationally. According to a recent HSBC forecast, trade conditions are improving for UK businesses, with 63 per cent of exporters expecting trade volumes to rise over the next six months.

And with the rapid pace of technological change, it has become more important than ever for companies to look ahead and see how these advances, as well as people’s desire for more flexible working, will affect the way business is carried out. “This future of work not only matters in the way we work, but also where we work,” TomorrowToday founder Dean van Leeuwen recently told Recruiter.

Indeed, the changing nature of the global business environment, and how we choose to live and communicate in our personal lives, means that people want more flexibility and choice. And by allowing flexible working, employers can enable the growth of trade, ideas and the flow of people between locations. Further, it helps businesses boost intrapreneurship (behaving like an entrepreneur within a large organisation) and innovation. “The common view supporting flexibility is that working out of the office is often seen as much more productive. Creative ideas happen when and where they happen, not necessarily between 9am and 5pm,” Vodafone report The Fluid Society points out.

This, in turn, can drive business growth. According to recent research by the Confederation of British Industry, firms can save up to 13 per cent of their workforce costs by embracing more sophisticated and less rigid working practices.

“Flexible working has knock-on effects across a business that you might not expect,” the Vodafone report says. “If your people are working remotely, the cost of your office overheads, like utilities, may shrink.” And letting employees work where they choose – whether in business centres, public libraries or other “third places” – is a modern way of bringing people together, even from different firms.

But while barriers, such as physical location and language, are evaporating, challenges remain for smaller companies. “Businesses need better, faster and smoother collaboration tools to become more empowered in a global economy,” says Graham Wylie of the Chartered Institute for IT. And to do so, they must embrace powerful technology enablers, like cloud computing, big data, smartphones and 4G, which allow people from different countries to communicate and collaborate across borders.

Here, One Net Business steps in. Described by Vodafone as “an integrated communication system that makes it easy for people to collaborate with colleagues and customers,” the system has a lot to offer SMEs. Because everything is digital and runs over an internet protocol (IP) network, calls and messages can be received and managed alongside other forms of communication – meaning communication and collaboration become extremely flexible.

Take Tommy Hilfiger, which has implemented a made-to-measure high definition video conferencing facility that allows all employees to see and share the latest designs, fabrics and samples in an instant, wherever in the world they are. The business benefits were manifold.

Yet SMEs with more modest internal IT skills may be concerned about the upheaval involved in trying to run voice over a data network, not to mention the cost. “But systems integrators specialising in these solutions note that a range of options now exists which have been designed – and priced – with the SME in mind,” Guardian research has found.

And Richard May of virtualDCS thinks it imperative that small businesses keep up – particularly as the cost of hiring premises, notably in major cities across the globe, becomes increasingly prohibitive. “Online collaborative working is now mainstream, with services like Skype, Meetme and PowWowNow providing easy access to services such as video conferencing and shared desktops.”

Fortunately, organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) offer support. It has launched a factsheet for businesses wanting to export for the first time, offering advice on understanding the country you may export to, knowing the competition, and finding collaborative opportunities.

The organisation estimated in July last year that if more of its members took the plunge to export for the first time, £792m could be added to the UK economy annually. So it is hardly surprising that the UK government is also doing all it can to support SME exports. Its Export Market Research Scheme, for example, sources expert research support. The UKTI’s Tradeshow Access Programme, meanwhile, provides grant support for eligible SME firms to attend trade shows overseas.

Annabel Palmer is business features writer at City A.M.

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