New technology, such as automation, has the potential to create positive change in workplace productivity, and this isn’t exclusive to bigger companies – small and medium-sized businesses can also benefit if they take guidance on where to automate, looking around their industry to do so. When small Californian fast food chain CaliBurger introduced Flippy the Robot, a machine designed to shoulder the monotonous burden of burger-flipping earlier this year, it showed that AI can both provide a point of differentiation and drive efficiency within a company.

Indeed, rather than fearing technology as a threat to jobs, we should instead think of it as replacing processes in order to free people up to work to their best ability. A recent study from Ricoh and Oxford Economics, titled The Economy of People, found that if businesses were to invest in critical workplace elements that directly affect people’s performance – including automation technology – the UK could unlock £36.7 billion in untapped GDP. According to the report, both employees (77%) and employers (90%) agree that technology is the greatest driver of output per hour. In the current economic and geographical environment, automation has the potential to be hugely beneficial.

Introducing workflow automation

As we enter a new wave of innovation, the digitisation of information is an important technology trend that can be used to better equip SMBs and their employees to be more efficient. One particular area among SMBs that is generating a lot of interest is workflow automation.

Workflow automation can have many applications. Put simply, it is the process of digitising and automating document-intensive workflows. SMBs, in particular, stand to improve productivity and business agility, purely by carefully considering how technology can simplify processes to enable their employees to work faster and smarter.

Employees clearly want better processes and greater workflow automation, with our study finding that 82% cited the digitisation of information as the most effective technology in improving their productivity. However, business leaders are at risk of taking the wrong path. 93% of companies planning to spend more than 10% of their operating budget on office improvements identified facilities management (sensors, monitoring equipment, temperature, etc.) as the biggest driver of productivity, which is out of alignment with what employees feel will drive productivity.

Embracing new tools

A good example of workflow automation in practice for SMBs is expense claims. Right now, an employee may have to fill in a form and attach all of their paper receipts. This may have to go to a number of people for sign-off, depending on the amount. This is all before the claim has reached the finance team.

Using digital technology, the whole process can be automated and thus streamlined, saving people from a laborious task and freeing them up to focus on more important issues.

Staying with the expenses example, traditional systems can be inefficient and slow. An SMB needs to be nimble. Having a clear understanding of expenses enables faster and responsive planning for cash flow. By automating a slow and manual process, a business can achieve a quicker validation of its health, while increasing employee efficiency. As an added bonus, staff are happier as their expenses are paid more promptly.

A necessary priority

SMB leaders already recognise that technology processes are key to remaining agile and enabling them to capitalise on market changes. In a separate study by Ricoh of 1,608 SMB leaders, 52% were found to believe that without the benefits of updated workplace technology, their business will fail within five years. Over half (51%) are specifically introducing new technology to respond faster to trends. Not all are fooled by the hype around technologies such as virtual reality and blockchain and are instead wisely choosing to prioritise investment in the tools that will have a real, positive impact on the bottom-line.

It takes a creative workplace culture to identify areas where such forms of technology could improve a company’s operational efficiency. How this works for different use cases really depends on the process. Often, the higher the volume and the more steps you can remove in a process, the more efficient employees will be, ultimately leading to greater cost savings for an organisation.

Uber and Xiaomi, having built billion-dollar organisations by leveraging digital process and operating models to outperform their legacy competitors, are just two of the best-known examples of automation technology directly contributing to the success of a fledgeling business.

By streamlining some of the more common tasks, technology can play a major role in empowering employees to work smarter and focus on adding real value to their companies. Rather than have manual processes hampering a company’s ability to innovate, the power of automation will enable change and improve operational capabilities required for SMBs to thrive in today’s environment.