Examining “The Future of Digital Work” for small businesses

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Image credit: Adobe Stock/ Nina/peopleimages.com.

In this digital economy and hybrid world, small businesses must work smarter and faster than ever before. But is that the reality right now? Many are challenged to run successful businesses, while at the same time ensuring that their employees are supported to do their best work.

Ahead of National Small Business Week, we commissioned new Adobe research called “The Future of Digital Work,” asking over 1000 small business employees across the US, UK, Australia, India, and Japan whether technology helps or hinders how productive small businesses can be, especially with socio-economic factors like inflation, recession, layoffs, and global unrest ever-present. Here’s what they said.

How small businesses define productivity

Nearly half of respondents reported that they associate “being productive” with doing work that’s more impactful (45 percent)) compared to generating income for the business or even doing more work, faster with less. It’s no surprise then that more than half of small business workers (52 percent) take personal, primary responsibility for how productive they are at work, going as far as making more of an effort to be back in the office 100 percent of the time (47 percent) compared to larger businesses (37 percent).

It's clear that small businesses care about being productive. While workload and how the work is done can get in the way, economic and societal stressors continue to kill productivity. Those stressors are still a bigger concern for large companies (72 percent), but still, over 60 percent of respondents report that their productivity is impacted by external economic worries like a possible recession and inflation. The top three worries that keep small business employees up at night are the high cost of living, the possibility of inflation, and wage disparity, in that order.

Small businesses are playing digital catch-up

The reality for small businesses is that external stressors and workload continue to impact their productivity, and global brands aren’t doing enough to support worker productivity even as economic pressures increase. A near majority (85 percent) know that technology plays a critical role in helping them work faster and smarter, so that they can focus on more impactful work. They’re still playing catch-up in the digital literacy game, though, with over 88 percent of SMBs saying that poor technologies are hurting their company’s productivity.

For example, just over half (55 percent) of SMBs say that at least half of their company’s work is still paper. Antiquated ways of working like this only add to small business workers’ frustrations, with more than a third (34 percent) wanting to scrap their work altogether because of poor technology. This frustration has resulted in over half of SMBs (58 percent) losing between two and four hours a day in productivity.

The costs of bad technology aren’t just in hours, it’s also in morale. Nearly a quarter (21 percent) of small business employees will complain to their boss about poor work technologies, with just as many workers (22 percent) considering quitting in the next six months due to poor work technology.

The digital opportunity

The good news is that when technology is hurting their productivity, small business employees are willing to take positive action including 1) looking for better solutions and recommending them to their leaders, 2) encouraging their organizations to invest in better technologies, and 3) finding better solutions to use on their own. While companies can’t do much to impact how external factors are hurting employee productivity, they can do a lot more to provide them with the right technologies.

But what are those technologies? Our research suggests that automation and AI aren’t just for the enterprise — they can have a positive impact on how small business work can get done. A near, unanimous number of SMBs (85 percent) say that automation is helping their companies’ productivity. An even higher percentage (92 percent) of employees at AI-savvy SMBs say the technology is having a positive impact, with nearly a quarter (22 percent) calling it “a miracle.”

"Technology is a top priority in everything I do, helping me streamline operations, increase efficiency, and reduce costs. As a Neurodiverse small business founder, I use technology to stay on track and not lose focus,” said Peter Shankman, Futurist-in-Residence at BluShark Digital. “By using cloud-based software, social media, and e-commerce platforms, I can improve my customer reach, enhance my online presence, manage and analyze data better, as well as boost sales. Overall, technology helps me stay ahead of the curve and keep achieving long-term success."

Automation and AI continue to be the categories ‘du jour’ for getting work done smarter and faster, but digital documents continue to be an underrated, but critical currency of productivity. According to the research, of all the technologies small businesses use at work, they rank digital documents like PDFs and e-scan as the number one technology they “can’t live without.”

“Digital documents are an integral part of our business. We use them for everything from invoices to agreements to product catalogues,” said Sofiya Deva, Founder of The Postcard Edit. “For example, we find that it’s frictionless and easy to edit, share, and finalize agreements with Acrobat. We operate globally and collaborate with both big retailers and emerging designers. PDFs supports us in communications that feel professional and are agile and user friendly.”

Collaboration technologies and video conferencing tools — which saw high peaks of popularity during the pandemic and to this day — were #2 and #3, respectively. Another interesting tidbit — even in this mobile (6 percent) — mobile phones, 5 percent) — tablets) era, small businesses still do most of their work on laptops (58 percent) and desktops (38 percent).

Great technology not only helps small businesses be more productive, it also helps attract great talent. Nearly all (92 percent) small business workers say work technology is a factor in whether they’ll accept a role at a new company, with nearly a quarter (24 percent) saying it’s “absolutely critical,” because their success depends on great tech.

Looking ahead

Small business leaders today are simultaneously playing roles in operations, finance, sales and customer engagement, while managing the stressors outside of their work. They’re doing all of this without enough resources to get the job done — chief among those are technology. Small businesses have a clear and present opportunity to make sure technology helps their employees and businesses grow, not get in the way.