December 9, 2020 Trends en_US Sinead Bovell shares 3 fundamental changes to the workforce that will be pivotal for small businesses, including remote work and artificial intelligence. Ask the expert: 3 small business trends and predictions for 2021

Ask the expert: 3 small business trends and predictions for 2021

By Sinead Bovell December 9, 2020

What three pivotal changes are on the workforce horizon?

As the founder of a mission-centered company preparing young enterprises for the future of work with advanced technologies, I see a challenge before us. That core challenge exists in incentivizing businesses to position themselves for a world that does not yet exist.

Not even the most advanced AI-powered statistical modeling could predict the future with 100% certainty. But for small businesses and sole entrepreneurs who usually have more constrained resources, the future isn’t about predicting. It’s about preparing. It’s about minimizing the impact of events that could throw a wrench in operations. It’s about navigating events that could force a business to adapt in unreasonable amounts of time, losing the edge over a competitor. Such events are often referred to as “black swans.” We have all experienced a black swan with the onset of a worldwide pandemic.

COVID-19 has accelerated us into the future of work. The changes we are witnessing today were forecasted to happen over the span of a decade, not 48 hours. What we are experiencing right now is truly unprecedented, and has been difficult for businesses and individuals alike.

In the middle of the pandemic chaos, it’s easy to miss the trends and the inevitable changes needed to move our businesses forward. But for small businesses, longevity isn’t just about adapting for the present, it’s about adapting for the future.

For example, our two-three year strategy involved building up a digital event series alongside our live event series, WAYE Talks. However, the pandemic brought those plans to a halt. But instead of prematurely moving our live event series to a strictly digital channel, we leveraged industry partnerships to soft-launch our digital events with platforms that had the capacities already built-in, while simultaneously working on accelerating the launch of the fully digital WAYE Talk series in one years time.

Amongst the chaos, however, it’s easy to miss the magnitude of second and third order changes along the horizon. Most of which were inevitable, but are now on a fast track to disruption as a result of the pandemic.

There are three fundamental changes to the fabric of the workforce that I see on the horizon:

1. Artificial intelligence will catapult the entrepreneurship and side-hustle economy

If you are a small business, an aspiring entrepreneur, or currently building up your side-hustle, befriending artificial intelligence could be your winning ticket. Artificial intelligence (AI) is predicted to contribute $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030. A significant portion of these contributions come from productivity increases and labor efficiencies. As an entrepreneur, I know that wearing multiple hats comes with the position. In the early days of business, you often sit as the head of sales, operations, logistics, social media, and administrative tasks. Of course, the plan is to hire more employees to help you scale, but that is all contingent on early-day success.

Queue machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence, powers platforms like Netflix and social media. Queue learning will revolutionize work for entrepreneurs and startups. Over the next few years, machine learning software will likely be able to take on a significant portion of administrative tasks. These tasks could include responding to emails, setting up meetings, answering phones, conducting social media analyses, and taking notes in meetings. Some of these capabilities are already possible. AI gains in productivity could free up time for you to focus on more complex tasks. You could use this time to add another product to an Etsy product line or get out into the marketplace to raise capital.

But machine learning capabilities don’t stop there. Making data-driven decisions, such as which customer group to target or where to open a pop-up store, is critical in our current data-driven market. This will only become more important as technology continues to advance. Hiring a data scientist or financial analyst can be incredibly challenging for a sole entrepreneur or small business. Fortunately, artificial intelligence is not only better equipped to analyze data and present recommendations, it’s also cheaper. This makes it an undeniable solution for small businesses.

For example, an area we are considering off-loading to artificial intelligence is presentation building. Depending on the client engagement or event, presentation-building can be incredibly consuming for our organization (that runs incredibly lean). Instead of contracting someone for each project, using artificial intelligence to help draft our presentations is something we hope to implement in the future.

Once artificial intelligence gets deployed into the workforce at scale, it will lower the barriers to entry for entrepreneurship. We can expect a surge in the number of people stepping into the entrepreneurial and startup market to take advantage of the possibilities AI presents. In fact, by the year 2027, up to 60% of the workforce is predicted to join the gig economy. So if scaling your own business or side-hustle is your lifelong dream, this certainly could be your decade.

2. Remote work will be a competitive strategy

Remote work has been a hot topic as a result of the pandemic. In fact, 72% of office workers want to continue working remotely at least two days a week at a minimum in a post-COVID world. The majority of remote work right now, however, is responsive not structural. There was no high-level strategy to roll out remote work as a competitive strategy (aside from a few companies, such as Twitter). But all that is about to change.

Post COVID-19, a significant portion of companies will have realized the potential advantages of remote work. They will reposition their operational models to make it a part of the core infrastructure. This will have a significant impact on how work gets done.

Remote work as a strategy means that companies will no longer be constrained by geography when it comes to hiring. This means competition in the talent pool will truly go global. This is a transformative win for startups and small businesses who are often outbid by larger companies for local all-star talent.

In order to use remote work as a successful strategy, startups and small businesses need to truly start thinking global. You can post job openings on international job boards. Consider connecting with schools outside of your city or state. Think about building a strategy for an organizational culture that doesn’t rely on physical proximity to foster community and belonging. All of these initiatives have to be intentional and well-thought-out to be successful.

On the flip side, remote work as a strategy also presents challenges for some small businesses like coffee shops, tailors, and restaurants. Those whose core revenues were based on thriving industrial parks and proximity to booming business centers will need to pivot. The Atlantic stated in a recent article, “emptier offices mean fewer weekday lunches at restaurants, fewer happy hours, and fewer window shoppers.”

But these challenges also present an opportunity to adapt for the future. Here’s how you can pivot:

Initiate targeted marketing campaigns to reach your customers. If you run a restaurant or coffee shop that relies on local office traffic, you have likely built up a list of loyal repeat customers. Utilize any emails you have collected or loyalty programs you have implemented in the past to connect with your customer base.

Update your website and app to optimize for delivery and takeout. Join food delivery apps such as Uber Eats that are offered in your area.

Consider implementing artificial intelligence software to optimize staffing and inventory so you can cut costs efficiently for any small B2C business.

Build out a digital strategy to become a part of your customers’ daily digital routines. Initiate Instagram Live interviews with relevant guests in your industry or Instagram Story takeovers. Feature related podcasts and Tik Tok videos. Offer value-added newsletters.

Your ability to pivot and embrace remote work as a strategy could chart the course for your future success.

3. Soft skills will be viewed as a competitive advantage

While it may seem counterintuitive, soft skills and AI go hand-in-hand. You will need both to navigate the future successfully. A common misconception about a future with artificial intelligence is that only those who can code it will be able to use it. But this is far from the truth, and it presents a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Think about the first time you used Siri, Alexa, or Netflix, products that utilize some of the most advanced artificial intelligence to date. For us, the user, the inner workings of the system are almost irrelevant. You certainly do not need to know code to benefit from AI. This is the power of machine learning. It can learn how to do a task without being explicitly programmed to do so. For example, you could simply give it past examples of completed sales forecasts and the algorithms will learn what to do on their own. Or you could show examples of how you respond to customer emails and AI would begin to craft new emails in the same style. This is a game-changer for entrepreneurs.

So where do your soft skills come into play? You have to possess a basic level of digital literacy to use AI. But you do need to be adept in employing soft skills, such as empathy, communication, and critical thinking. If your machine learning software is learning how to reply to emails through examples of your past correspondence, it will reflect your skillset. Your treatment of the recipients of your past emails will shine through. Or say your machine learning software takes over all of your data analysis tasks. It’s your critical thinking skills that are required to choose the best course of action based on what the data is telling you.

In a world where smart machines become the backbone of most operational tasks, your empathy, compassion, and leadership separates your company from the rest. This is, arguably, the most important case for soft skills. This skillset determines how you treat your customers, how you make your employees feel, and how you make an impact in this world. Your uniquely human skills and values will appreciate over time. And that is something that no competitor can copy.

At WAYE, building soft-skills is not only something that we work on internally, but externally amongst our community as well. Internally, for example, we build skills such as communication and empathy through initiatives such as a weekly what I’m working on initiative. Where each team member is given a chance to share what they are working on (to build communication skills), and team members are encouraged to contribute suggestions or offer support (empathy). Externally, we share a list of key skills for the future of work as part of our weekly newsletter, and share examples of how you can build that skill and why it’s important.

Embracing AI, using remote work as a business strategy, and building out your soft skills can help you prepare your business for the future. Recognizing these three trends will help you pivot, no matter what black swan events you may encounter. Capitalizing on these trends will likely require some repositioning. But doing so will help entrepreneurs, side-hustlers, and small businesses to scale quickly, staying one step ahead of the bigger players.

Being a small business or a new entrepreneur certainly has its share of challenges, but it also comes with some advantages. Your ability to adapt, pivoting quickly and frequently, is one of those advantages. In the tech-based future that lies ahead, it might just be the most important one!

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Sinead Bovell is a futurist and the founder of WAYE. WAYE is an organization focused on non-traditional and minority markets, and preparing youth markets for a future with advanced technologies. To date, Sinead has educated over 10, 000 young entrepreneurs on the future of technology. She has spoken at world-renowned institutions including the United Nations, the US Chamber of Commerce, Cornell University, and Bloomberg. Sinead has served as a tech contributor for publications such as Vogue, The Star, and The Globe and Mail. She was recently recognized by WIRED magazine for her work in bringing new faces to the table in tech. Prior to founding WAYE, Sinead received her MBA from the University of Toronto and worked as a management consultant for A.T. Kearney. Read more