People will remain at the heart of small businesses—even as AI adoption grows

There is no denying that AI is one of the most important developments to impact the world of business in the last decade

People will remain at the heart of small businesses–even as AI adoption grows

This month, it was debated on the world stage through the UK Government’s Global AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park. There is some fear about what this means for jobs and life. There is also huge excitement about the opportunities it brings; but one thing is certain: everyone wants to know where this new path will go.

And with its recent growth, not to mention interest from small businesses, you might be forgiven for thinking that people will give way for digital in the future. After all, recent research we conducted with Indeed in our People for Business white paper shows that one in three small businesses (38%) are now using AI or are considering it, with no sign of slowdown. But what is also clear is that small businesses are, at their core, about people. And from this we can see that AI will be a critical asset, but never an alternative to a vibrant and engaged staff and community. 

There are 5.5 million small businesses in the UK. There are incredible people behind these numbers, with personality and passion for their work that I cannot imagine us living without. There are the entrepreneurs, who bring their spirit and drive to each new project; there are the staff, bringing their skills, commitment, and variety of background and life experience that props up the business; then there is the wider community of stakeholders, suppliers, and customers, who develop real investment in their favorite small firms, and the people who run them. 

The value that people bring to small businesses cannot be understated. 

With the People for Business programme, we wanted to understand just that—how will AI affect staff? How will it integrate into current operations? How can people use it to enhance their day-to-day, rather than fear it will replace the? Only 6% of business owners say they have cut staff due to new tech, which is more than balanced out by the 10% who have created new roles to manage digital. Most of the businesses interviewed for the report echoed this sentiment. AI is seen as a tool for entrepreneurs and their teams—a very powerful tool, but one which still relies on enhancing the knowledge, understanding, and confidence of small business owners to make the most of it.

But they cannot do it alone. Another finding from the research was that 22% of small businesses understand how to best deploy AI within their business. This is a strong start, but still a new concept for entrepreneurs. Many have yet to uncover big opportunities with AI for their business: for making operations smoother, automating for greater speed and efficiently, and of course, recruitment. 

Just as small businesses have been open and eager to embracing AI, so have they understood the benefits of flexibility. From the research, three quarters of small businesses (78%) now allow flexible hours and over a third (35%) enable staff to work from home and offer flexible holidays (36%).  While the COVID-19 pandemic pushed businesses in the direction of work from home, small businesses are spearheading its implementation in long-term business plans, given its benefits for staff. 

It is evident that adoption of new technologies and flexible ways of working are tied together to signal an openness, a willingness to always try new strategies and adapt to the things that work for our nation’s entrepreneurs, even in the face of some extremely difficult hurdles.

Brexit, COVID-19, the energy crisis, the cost-of-living crisis, and now persistently high inflation and interest rates have put huge burdens on small businesses. But in their characteristic way, they are finding new ways of overcoming these challenges. With the right support to upskill and integrate AI, and the right investment in their people, we can supercharge a vast pool of entrepreneurship, which has profound positive impact on not only local communities, but the whole UK economy. 

So, when we think of the future of small business, even in the advent of AI, people should be right at the heart of our conversations.  

How do we support the people, the development, the wellbeing, and the aspirations of a whole nation? Here at Small Business Britain, we are committed to doing just that. Join us. 

Michelle Ovens
Michelle Ovens

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