How technology is maintaining human connections during tough times

By Kevin Fitzgerald

It’s no surprise that the COVID-19 outbreak has completely changed how SMEs in Singapore are operating. Work-from-home arrangements have been implemented by a significant proportion of businesses; business continuity planning (BCP), which was low on the list of priorities for many SME owners due to the strong level of political and economic stability that Singapore has always enjoyed, has now become the default mode of operations for a number of businesses here.

As one of the initiatives by the Singapore Government to help local businesses deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, Enterprise Singapore released a BCP guide to help organisations minimise operational disruptions; among its key recommendations, it encourages businesses to develop “flexible work arrangements for the high-risk employees, as well as employees who need to stay at home due to other reasons relating to the novel coronavirus (nCoV)”.

However, in my conversations with SME owners here, one of the biggest concerns they generally seem to have with such work arrangements is the impact on team dynamics - even if it would theoretically be possible to work from home, SME leaders value the team chemistry that has been carefully cultivated in their small crews, and worry that the loss of physical presence would disrupt collaboration and cohesion.

While I don’t deny that face-to-face interactions are excellent at fostering interpersonal bonds, I’d also argue that technology (particularly cloud) has not only helped overcome the need for teammates to be physically present in offices, but also brought colleagues even closer together. As such, cloud should be an essential part of the BCP for SMEs here - on top of some other crucial benefits that the technology offers.

Developing seamless teamwork

The availability and use of collaboration tools like Google Docs, Google Hangouts, and cloud file sharing services has proliferated. Leveraging cloud solutions, teammates can work on the same document at the same time - no need to patiently wait to take your turn to make changes to a document, or to pass a physical thumb drive back and forth to share files.

The move to a strong digital-first foundation where most, if not all, business systems are on the cloud is empowering employees to be able to work anytime, anywhere, and even on any device.

Software and services have also become significantly more integrated; for example, some cloud accounting platforms have evolved into an operations platform that serves as a single source of truth for SME owners and their advisors. It has the ability to extract data from multiple functions both internally and externally, such as retrieving real-time financial data, extracting insights from other business functions such as HR and supply chain. Cloud accounting platforms can also incorporate direct bank feed from corporate bank accounts, further ensuring that SME owners and their advisors have access to real-time financial data to support collaborative and well-informed decision making.

Maintaining human connections with your stakeholders

One of the key challenges encountered by internal and external stakeholders during extended periods of work-from-home arrangements, is the lack of human connection. This can result in a disconnect that impacts productivity and communication.

As I mentioned above, collaboration tools are helping teams work in a more seamless and cohesive manner. Cloud-based HR solutions - many of which are conveniently integrated with business platforms - also offer SME leaders the chance to foster deeper connections with their teams.

As it is, it is no longer sufficient to rely on quarterly town halls or employee newsletters to communicate internally - today, employees value timely two-way conversations and want to know that their opinions and feedback are being heard, considered, and actioned upon. HR solutions can help survey employees and collect anonymous feedback to better encourage them to share opinions and suggestions without fear. SME owners can also determine the level of transparency they want to have, as cloud-based solutions allow for feedback, action items, and goals to be shared with others. Progress towards achieving those goals can also be tracked in real-time.

Beyond that, technology also helps businesses to foster connections with their external stakeholders, including partners, customers and clients. By continuously connecting with your external stakeholders - taking the time to understand their needs and wants, and continuously communicating that your business is always looking out for their best interests - a deeper level of mutual trust and understanding can be developed. After all, if a business loses touch with its customers, partners or employees, it runs the risk of becoming completely irrelevant.

Meeting modern workforce expectations

Modern talent attraction and retention strategies are no longer limited to monetary remuneration. Employees are now seeking non-tangible benefits such flexible hours and working arrangements, a good standard of organisational culture and welfare, as well as career growth opportunities.

The utilisation of cloud solutions and tools, which are quickly becoming the standard for organisations globally, is now something that job applicants actively look out for. And in uncertain times, such as the current coronavirus outbreak, employees now expect employers to allow them to work from home using cloud technology to safeguard their wellbeing.

The writer is Managing Director – Asia, Xero.