Digital skills boom: Over a third of SMEs in the UK say the pandemic has super-charged their business


Over a third (35%) of UK small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) believe the pandemic has been a positive catalyst for change as digital skills soared during lockdown, according to the findings of PayPal’s inaugural report, The Business of Change: Recovery and Rebuild.

The poll of 1,000 SMEs reveals 30 per cent believe their business plans have been expedited by a year or more due to COVID-19, with one in eight (11%) stating they are now at three or more years ahead of where they expected to be, despite recent lockdowns.

Back to Business Post-COVID: on the path to recovery and rebuild

Small businesses were the hardest hit during the global pandemic, with 42 per cent stating they considered giving up on their business during the toughest moments of lockdown.

While recovery will not be overnight, the potential for lockdown lifting on July 19 in England brings a renewed sense of optimism across the country, with nearly six in ten (57%) of SMEs feeling confident about England and the rest of UK fully reopening. But what kept them going throughout the pandemic? Government support (31%), positive customer feedback (27%), dedicated staff (20%) and emotional support from loved ones (16%) were cited as key factors in enabling UK SMEs to recover and rebuild.

Navigating a digital-first world

Of those SMEs that moved their business online, 32 per cent did so to navigate the pandemic, while almost two thirds (60%) expect customers to continue shopping online despite restrictions lifting.

Additionally, PayPal’s report reveals the pandemic has seen 73 per cent of SMEs that moved online forced to rapidly develop new digital skills to reach their customers, with social media marketing (21%), e-commerce (16%), website design (12%) and enabling digital payments (11%), as leading skills acquired to help navigate lockdown and achieve success.

Permanent ‘digital’ changes we can expect from SMEs include: working from home (33%), using social media to sell and promote products (25%), holding meetings online (25%) and accepting digital payments (16%).

Vincent Belloc, managing director at PayPal UK, said: “Optimism is high, with one in five SMEs expecting Britain’s reopening to be bigger than traditional key trading periods including Christmas, Black Friday and Cyber Monday. However, we know that the future for business is digital. Small businesses need help envisioning their future and a failure to protect them will put the speed of recovery at risk. As a long-standing and trusted partner of UK SMEs, we will continue to be a pillar of support and growth and help them achieve their ambitions.”

Engaging with international sales

Despite the unprecedented economic challenges, global business opportunities look promising, with one in ten admitting the impact of the pandemic has seen their sales increase to customers outside of the UK.

With reopening on the horizon, businesses are feeling optimistic (69%) about the future and ambitious plans are due over the coming 12 months. Within England these include:

– Increasing digital capabilities (45%)
– Entering new markets (40%)
– Taking new payment methods (39%)
– Hiring workers from overseas (16%)

“Small firms must apply the hard-learned lessons from the pandemic, building on their new digital capabilities and retaining the focus and effectiveness demanded by these tough conditions. These lessons will make them stronger, more resilient to future shocks, and more likely to be in a position to grow and thrive in 2021 and beyond. ” adds Michelle Ovens CBE, Founder of Small Business Britain.