Why 2021 will be a big year for tech that supports doing business from a distance

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Why 2021 will be a big year for tech that supports doing business from a distance
We're seeing a significant trend in businesses of all sizes moving toward automation.
Photo by Good Faces on Unsplash

The events of the past year have proven that current digital technology solutions enable businesses to operate effectively with distributed and geographically dispersed teams.

The nine-to-five, office-based job has largely become redundant and been replaced with the anytime, anywhere workforce. This means that doing business in person is no longer essential for many organisations, resulting in a shift in workplace expectations for 2021 and beyond. One of the biggest shifts for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) is the undeniable need for digital technologies that help maintain stable operations and drive growth.

Businesses that adopted digital technologies such as automation either prior to, or during, the pandemic have managed the widespread disruption much better than businesses that are yet to leverage automation. An SAP Concur commissioned study found that Australian businesses that have adopted automation now have 98 per cent lower costs to process their expense reports, and a 30 per cent overall increase in employee productivity.

Automation driven by artificial intelligence and machine learning lets businesses operate more efficiently, be more flexible and adaptable to change, streamline processes and improve competitiveness regardless of the location in which the business and its employees operate. At the same time, automation improves data security, and reduces the risk of errors and fraud, while also lowering administrative costs. The business benefits of automation have led to an acceleration in the adoption of digital workplace technologies and cloud-based operational tools.

We're seeing a significant trend in businesses of all sizes moving toward automation and expects this to increase throughout 2021 as more companies understand the benefits of technology as an enabler to the new way of work.

Automation is also becoming crucial for businesses to attract and retain top talent. As millennials take over the workforce and bring with them expectations of being able to do their work effectively at a time and place that suits them, they must be empowered by mobile tools and processes.

However, there is still a long way to go for Australian and New Zealand businesses. A Finance in the New World of Work report conducted during 2020 revealed that one-third (32 per cent) of Australian organisations and almost half (47 per cent) of New Zealand businesses still completely rely on manual processes, particularly when it comes to employee expenditure and company financial systems. Considering that financial processes are core to doing business, the use of time-consuming, siloed and manual processes impacts the heart of business operations, which can cost the company customers and lost opportunities against savvier competitors that already have automated financial processes.

In the new, geographically dispersed world of work, businesses can no longer rely on physical signatures, receipts or invoicing. Those that do will have an increased risk of errors, fraud and non-compliance that could impact the overall sustainability of the organisation.

Business from a distance is likely to become even more mainstream, so organisations must put effective digital systems in place to avoid bottlenecks, manage budgets in real time, ensure compliance, and eliminate errors. SMBs are recognising and responding to the urgency for digital transformation. Currently, 38 per cent of Australian SMBs are actively working to automate key expense and invoice processes, with up to 70 per cent prepared to invest in technology to speed up these processes.

Automating financial processes is the best place to start on a digital transformation journey because business cashflow, efficiency, and overall success hinge on effective expense and invoice management. Adopting a cloud-based solution that seamlessly integrates with existing systems such as accounting, human resources, customer relationship management, and enterprise resource planning creates a single platform that brings organisational spend data together and speeds up administrative processes. The best approach is to use agnostic technology solutions that address a combination of organisational requirements encompassing existing IT infrastructure, available IT resources and budget.

As more employees are able to work from anywhere and expect to do so, efficient, fast and reliable automated expense and invoice management systems are essential. They let business processes continue to operate in a secure IT environment and provide SMBs with increased visibility and control of real-time budgets and expenses. At the same time, automation optimises staffing costs by eliminating repetitive, manual tasks that must be done in person. Rather than taking jobs away from people, automation elevates the role of employees to become more strategic thinkers who drive innovation and create higher levels of value for the organisation. This, in turn, leads to enhanced employee satisfaction and increased staff productivity because workers get to focus on creative and enjoyable tasks and leave the machines to do the manual, boring, repetitive tasks.

The broadscale shift to remote work in 2020 showed that employees can hit their key performance indicators (KPIs) and be productive and engaged even when working from home, with many increasing their productivity. The demand for workplace flexibility continues, with most employees wanting to work remotely over two days a week on average, and recognising that a good work-life balance has now become more important than securing a comfortable salary.

This means that more pressure is on businesses to eliminate manual workflows and improve remote capabilities around processes such as invoice capture, processing, approval, and payment. Now, 50 per cent of Australia’s best-in-class companies are more likely to have mobile apps and integrated cloud-based solutions to improve the employee experience with regard to administrative processes.

Businesses that take the plunge into automation will gain long-term benefits including an expanded talent pool with workplace flexibility letting them hire the best person for the job regardless of that person’s geographic location, reduced administrative costs, and improved data integrity and security.

This year, SMBs have an opportunity to innovate through digital technology as they continue to adapt to the norm of business from a distance. Digital automation will empower SMBs with enhanced capabilities to achieve real-time business insights, improve financial reporting, and achieve innovation that will help them improve organisational agility, drive growth and lead sustainable economic recovery.

Fabian Calle, managing director, small and medium-sized business, SAP Concur Australia and New Zealand.

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