As 2013 draws to a close it looks like the business community has some cause for optimism in the year ahead.  There are clear signs the economy is picking up and commentators are suggesting that prospects are looking much brighter for small and medium-sized businesses with ambitions to grow.

Despite the brighter outlook, however, a recent survey has shown that 40 per cent of SMEs still don’t think they have the right people or finances in place to support expansion.  There are a number of government funded initiatives growing businesses can tap into to help them get ahead.  There are now financial incentives to help SMEs expand their workforce via apprenticeships, for example, as well as the GrowthAccelerator programme, designed to help companies spot opportunities.

But there is also plenty ambitious businesses can do themselves to ensure they are well placed to seize the opportunities a more vibrant economy will bring.  So what are the six key issues businesses need to have on their radar if they are to set themselves up for success in the year ahead?

Keeping up with emerging trends

As Blackberry’s recent experience has shown, keeping on top of what’s happening in your market is vital.  The pace of change is so fast that what customers want today is not necessarily what they will want tomorrow.  If you want your business to grow, you need to have your finger on the pulse of emerging social and technological trends, keep a close eye on your competitors and look at what other leading edge businesses are doing both in and outside your immediate market.  The most successful businesses are those who are constantly finding new and better ways of doing things, transforming their working practices and developing new spins on old products or services.  None of this comes without concerted effort.  If you want to stand out from the crowd, you need to have strategies in place for noticing and responding to what is happening around you.

Staff retention

As the economy picks up, so will the job market.  The pundits are already predicting we will see a significant growth in jobs in 2014, and businesses will have to work hard to hang on to their best talent.  Employees who have been ‘coasting’ in their jobs while times are tough will start to look around for new opportunities.  Staff who have been feeling disengaged will also see it as a time to head for pastures new.  Now is the time to take a long hard look at morale and engagement in your business.  A recent BUPA survey found that lack of motivation and poor health is causing employees to work well below their peak productivity and is holding back potential growth.  Half of the five thousand workers surveyed admitted they were not going above and beyond the call of duty because they felt their efforts wouldn’t be acknowledged or rewarded, and only seven per cent of employees said they were working to their full potential.  Companies who want their best people to stay need to invest in their development, pay attention to their well-being and make sure they are recognised and rewarded for what they do.

The rise of internal social media

Recent research from the CIPD suggests employers are missing key engagement, collaboration and training opportunities by not harnessing the power of social media inside the business as well as externally.  In its recent report ‘Social Technology: Social Business’ it says that while three in four employees are using social media in their personal lives, only one in four are using it for work purposes. Many companies, it seems, are yet to be convinced that internal social networks or HR portals (such as the one included with Cezanne OnDemand) have a role to play.  Forward-looking businesses, however, are realising that internal platforms are a great way to build engagement, share information and get teams working together more effectively.  Engaging with social media is particularly important for companies who want to attract and retain Generation Y employees.  These ‘digital natives’ have grown up with social media and are frankly quite confused when they get into the workplace and find these tools are either not available or viewed with suspicion by employers.

Data driven business

There’s been a real buzz in recent months about the potential for data to revolutionise the way we make business decisions.  Technology which allows companies to collate detailed information about everything from sales leads to employee performance is now widely available – and thanks to the advent of the Cloud, is within the budget of even smaller businesses.  But many companies have not yet embraced this technology – and those who have are often not using it to its full potential.  HR software systems, for example, now have sophisticated functionality which allows companies to draw down detailed reports about head count, salary costs, absence rates, skills gaps, performance and development needs – all really useful intelligence that can be used to inform business decisions and support company growth.  There is a widely held misconception that these systems will be complicated and time-consuming to use, whereas in fact the opposite is true.  They are an easily accessible business tool that no company serious about growth can afford to be without.

Multi-generational workforces

The disappearance of a default retirement age means that people are now working longer than ever before.  Currently, 29 per cent of the workforce are over 50, with demographics dictating this percentage will grow signficantly in the coming years.  At the same time, Generation Y are entering employment, bringing a whole new set of demands and expectations with them.  Women are also playing an increasingly important role in the economy, currently representing just under half (47 per cent ) of the workforce.  This multi-generational and increasingly diverse workforce presents a whole host of challenges for employers.  Forward-looking businesses are realising that if they are to get the most out of their teams, they need to devote time to helping the generations work harmoniously together.  It will also be important to look afresh at how jobs are designed and how work is organised in order to accommodate employees varying needs and hang on to the talented people who can help to drive the business forward.

Changes to employment law

2014 will see another raft of changes to employment law.  The right to request flexible working will be extended to all staff with more than 26 weeks service – with commentators suggesting this could lead to a glut of requests and possibly a large number of people seeking a shorter week with Fridays off.  Flexible working can of course bring enormous business benefits, but requests will need to be managed carefully by employers to ensure resources needs are met and people are treated equally and fairly.  In another change, from 6 April, anyone wishing to make an employment tribunal claim will have to submit details of their dispute to ACAS and go through a mandatory ‘conciliation’ process.  The aim is to reduce the number of time consuming and expensive tribunal hearings, a move which can only be good news for employers.  Finally, the latest stage of pensions auto-enrolment is also looming for some businesses, with the CIPD urging SMEs to plan ahead to avoid unnecessary costs and last minute panic!

What are the key issues on your agenda for 2014?  Let us have your views about the challenges ahead for mid-sized and growing businesses.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.