As businesses increase their use of automation, some stakeholders worry that robotic processes will replace human labor entirely. However, the future is likely not that dire. As I’ve covered in the past, AI-driven development is more likely to replace processes, not jobs.
The need to automate is especially relevant for Small-to-Medium Businesses (SMBs), which lack the extensive workforce to tackle complicated operations, such as app-to-app data integration and event-driven internal workflows. Instead of hardcoding such actions, tech-savvy SMBs may turn to no-code and low-code environments to streamline these operations. Such tools could help connect popular business apps in new creative dimensions while hiding complex API calls under the hood.
Zapier, a codeless environment for automating workflows, has a good eye on the state of process automations as constructed by citizen automators in SMBs. Below, we’ll analyze their 2021 State of Business Automation report to see how SMBs are putting workflow automation to the test. We’ll reveal the most prevalent types of automations and consider the benefits these new automated workflows are yielding.
Turning Digital Amid The Pandemic
COVID–19 transformed many sectors into digital-first businesses, and SMBs were not immune to change. As might be expected, the use of workflow automation soared during the pandemic. In many cases, COVID–19 accelerated ongoing digital transformation by several years. For digital laggards, it meant rapid change. 63% of SMBs say automation enabled quick pivots throughout the COVID–19 crises, found the report.
Automation helps enable remote digital experiences, such as contactless delivery, curbside pickup, or collecting business leads, at a much greater velocity. And, it seems for many, much of what was built during this unprecedented time is here to stay. 66% of respondents say automation is now essential for running their business. With new standards ingrained, there may never be a “return to normal” as we once knew it.
Common Workflow Automations
So, what are SMBs automating? The report’s findings highlight automations for documents, lead generation, data integration, and supply chain management as among the most prevalent workflow automations.
38% of automated workflows are related to reducing manual data entry, involving copying and pasting data across databases or documents. The next most common type is document creation or organization, at 32%. These workflows can help initiate actions such as updating meetings or lists. Next is lead management automation, at 30%. This could entail porting leads from Facebook Lead Ads into a Google Sheet or populating a CRM database. Lastly, managing inventory and distribution is at 27%.
Many desired workflows involve stitching together data between popular business apps. As such, Google, Slack, Mailchimp, Trello, and Twitter ranked as the top five business apps most commonly used in creating automated workflows. This is followed by well-known CRM and lead generation tools.
Automation: A Competitive Advantage
94% percent of workers say they perform repetitive, time-consuming tasks in their role. Undignified labor could take a toll on human workers and exact exorbitant time resources to maintain. Being bogged down by dull tedium could stifle innovation into other areas of the business too. This is paramount for SMBs, who must constantly shift to stay ahead of larger enterprises.
As a result of process automations, SMBs became more efficient within their marketing and customer support initiatives. Respondents cite these top advantages from utilizing workflow automation:
- Improved agility: 34% say they spend less time on administrative tasks.
- Better customer support: 28% say automations reduce time to follow up with a lead.
- Less human error: 34% say automating tasks like data entry reduces errors.
These advantages could help level the playing field for SMBs. In fact, according to the report, 88% of SMBs say automation enables them to compete with larger companies. Rather than eliminate human labor, 66% say automation frees up problem solvers to spend more time on strategic and creative projects.
The Human Side of Automation
As alluded to above, repetitive tasks can stifle morale. In addition to being business-friendly, the report found that adopting automation had the side effect of improving employee attitudes. “2 out of 3 respondents are satisfied with their role because they use automation at work,” reads the report.
Data entry, document creation, invoice management, and manually copying data from window to window are tedious processes that could decrease overall team spirit, leading to burnout. 63% of respondents said automation helps them fight burnout. It appears automation correlates to better work-life balance and reduced stress, as 92% report automation improved their lives in the workplace.
Upskilling to Citizen Automator
44% of SMB employees stated they aren’t highly efficient in their day-to-day work, found the report. To rectify this gap, workflow automation and no-code and low-code tools could bring greater efficiency and productivity to SMBs. Yet, increased automation will not be relegated solely to SMBs — it is trending across the board. A 2019 survey conducted by ManPowerGroup found that 76% of US companies plan to upskill their workforce utilizing automation.
Yet, upskilling a new citizen developer labor force, or in this case, “citizen automators,” is no silver bullet. Especially at an enterprise level, upskilling will require a culture change to explain new platforms, encourage their adoption, and govern their use to meet company guidelines while avoiding shadow IT. This is one area where startups and medium-sized businesses can get ahead — with less corporate tape and more independence, they are better positioned to quickly test new tools and automate minor aspects of daily office work as needed.
The State of Business Automation 2021 report queried 2,000 “knowledge workers” at companies in the US with fewer than 250 employees. For a full version of the report, check it out here.