The Covid-19 pandemic is a difficult time for everyone; none more so of course than those on the NHS front line. Businesses and workers across the globe have had to adapt in ways that may have seemed unimaginable just a few months ago. As part of National Small Business week (3-9 May), this article will focus on how small businesses specifically are adapting to ensure they weather this storm.

Whether it’s been uprooting offices and adapting to working from home set-ups, or the closing of entire market sectors leaving staff furloughed or unemployed, the challenges for businesses – of all sizes – have been both testing in nature and plentiful in number. But this pandemic has also taught us what’s possible – from keeping teams and customers talking through technology, to identifying ways to adapt. It’s true to say that coronavirus has forced business owners and employees to find innovative new ways of working and serving their clients.

In many cases, the Covid-19 pandemic has driven businesses to take stock, focusing on their more fragile business areas, or markets which are too heavily relied upon. This worldwide pause for thought has put business practices under the microscope like never before. Many small businesses have rallied, especially the more entrepreneurial ones, and are at least starting to seek out – and prepare for – future potential opportunities.

We spoke to a handful of small businesses to get a better understanding of the specific challenges Covid-19 is posing for them and how they are adapting.

The challenges of working from home

In response to encouragement from the media and business groups, the majority of those able to have switched to working from home. This ensures social distancing is adhered to and limits journeys made outside of the home. However, for small businesses, the resulting challenges go beyond the simple practicalities of IT set-up and server access.

Staff engagement is a huge area – looking at how management stay in touch with staff, how staff stay in touch with each other and how this impacts on productivity is of vital importance. As, depending on your industry, the definition of ‘small’ could differ, it is worth clarifying that the UK Companies Act of 2006 defines a small company as one employing no more than 50 members of staff.

Managing the individual needs of a workforce of 50 is no mean feat. Those who live alone will of course have different needs – and concerns – to those with young children at home. Mindfulness has never been more important than in the current climate and taking off the managerial cap and having frank and open conversations at this time will serve to bring the team closer together in the coming months.

Technology has, in many cases, eroded traditional boundaries, meaning that even with a workforce of 50 there is nothing to say that they all need to be located in the same country. As a result, your internal resources and correspondence may well need to be provided in multiple languages. If you need to furlough members of staff, it’s important to ensure that the paperwork provided is appropriate. If that employee’s first language isn’t English, then the documentation will require translation.

Language and globalisation

As mentioned above, with staff at many companies being furloughed, looking to new markets isn’t just for the here and now. When business resumes, the economy could be in a recession, with challenging times ahead. This is why it can be worth considering taking your small business to new geographical locations. Just some of the benefits include: investment from other locations, access to more talent and multilingual staff.

One of the key challenges for small businesses entering foreign markets is the language barrier. In order to operate successfully around the globe, it’s important that translations are accurate and localisation of materials is done properly. If your small business sells directly to consumers, you need to consider how different cultures in each country speak, right down to slang and colloquialisms. You also need to be mindful of intellectual property protection, trade regulations and policies in these new markets. You only get one chance at a first impression and by getting these things right first time, it will give you the best chance of effectively marketing your business in different countries.

New business development

The Covid-19 pandemic has driven businesses across the globe to refocus. It has exposed more fragile business areas, as well as highlighting markets – and countries – which businesses perhaps rely upon too heavily. As some income streams become unviable, it is important to develop new opportunities.

In the future, it may well be seen in retrospect that the Covid-19 crisis in fact gave small businesses a chance to innovate, whether via new products or services or even a change of target market. Many businesses are now taking their operations online and selling to different countries in order to survive. The headlines are filled with manufacturing businesses that have responded to the Government’s call for help with ventilator production, or have switched their production to meet new demands, for example producing personal protective equipment or scrubs for the NHS or hand sanitiser for both healthcare use and to restock supermarket shelves.

A client we are working with is investigating the possibility of converting its anaesthesia machines into long-term ventilators. This provides a timely example of the need to diversify, innovate and be open to new ideas. It also shows that even the toughest of times can be a source of inspiration.

Some businesses may find themselves expanding into new European markets, as well as global ones. As translation experts, we have seen a surge in demand for the translation of documentation, labelling and other items for businesses in a variety of sectors to allow entry into these new markets.

Innovation and the future

Many small business owners may admit that, under normal circumstances, they may be rather slow to innovate. The same reasons crop up time and again: ‘we understand our customers, so we don’t need to’, ‘we’ve got targets to hit in the short term and we don’t have the time’. Why think outside the box when things are going well? When unexpected events happen, it forces businesses and people to think on their feet and come up with new ideas.

Being creative under pressure isn’t easy but businesses of all sizes could take this as an opportunity to learn what processes are missing for the future. Is time ever set aside for employees to be creative? Do you encourage teams to share thoughts and explore without the fear of repercussions? If not, now is surely the time to future-proof.

The strategic decision to enter international markets often requires organisational changes. A business can tie itself in knots worrying about who will be in charge of the international business. Should the company be organised by product lines or by geography? But now is the time to untangle those knots, plan effectively and then act.

If your small business has successfully adapted to be able to support the health service during this unprecedented pandemic, then it could be carving an entirely new niche in this previously untapped market. If you and your engineers aren’t working at full capacity, perhaps make time for innovation sessions. What could be adapted? What could be repurposed? What gaps in the supply chain could be filled?

Planning for easing of lockdown

It may be difficult to look beyond the present, especially when the future seems so uncertain, but planning has never been more important. Once restrictions start to be lifted, there will be new challenges for small businesses. It is likely that you will have paused various contracts, from car leases to cleaning contracts; these will all need to be reinstated. If you have managed to negotiate a holiday period on business rates, or on the lease on your office, these will all need to be followed up and you’ll need to keep them all aware of your plans moving forward.

If your business qualifies for grant funding, the fine print needs to be scrutinised so you understand the terms in detail. Thorough planning now is very important as you’ll need all available help when markets reopen.

Next steps

In advance of the gradual lifting of lockdown measures, many companies are considering their potential strategies for the rest of this year and beyond.

Whether you are looking at new markets and need linguistic support to build a new network or usage of your website has surged and you need advice on website – or software – localisation, as a highly experienced and reputable translation service provider, Albion Languages can help, just click here to get in touch with our expert team.