How technology boosts your productivity without hiring new workers

The labour shortage doesn’t have to be an obstacle to growth

8 minutes read

Canada is in the middle of a decline in labour force participation. By 2024, 23% of Canada’s working population will be 65 and ready for retirement, while students who delayed post-secondary education during the pandemic will be going back to school instead of entering the workforce.

Businesses are feeling the consequences. More than half (55%) of entrepreneurs are working longer hours, and still have had to delay or refuse new orders, resulting in lost sales.

Fortunately, businesses of all sizes in almost all industries can use technology to gain a productivity boost without needing to hire, according to BDC Senior Business Advisor Leon van der Poel.

“I know of an Indian restaurant in Surrey and a sushi place in Toronto that use robots as servers,” van der Poel says. “You order on an iPad, and a robot brings the food. The cost to lease a robot server can be about $1,000 a month — which is about the same or potentially less than a human server. For a sector that’s struggling to find workers, this kind of technology could be a lifesaver.”

Another prime example is the Canadian manufacturing sector, which has been hit hard by the labour shortage and finding replacement staff for retiring machine operators.

“Manufacturing is one of the easiest places to start implementing technology to increase capacity,” van der Poel says. “Many companies are getting curious about how digital technologies can help, and those farther down the road are looking at more advanced technologies, such as machine integration, 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality, and robotics.”

Steps to using technology to overcome labour shortage

For businesses looking to increase productivity within their current teams, van der Poel lays out three key steps to follow.

1. Set clear, specific goals

“When I ask business owners about their goals, 99% want to increase revenues and profits,” says van der Poel. “It’s easy to say, ‘I want to double revenue in five years’, but you need to break down what that means and how it can happen.”

Getting specific about the how helps point the way to the kind of technology that could help. If the path to more revenue is ramping up production, some kind of automation may be what’s needed. If the goal is to speed up delivery, that could involve process optimization software or deploying physical devices, such as drones.

It’s easy to say ‘I want to double revenue in five years’, but you need to break down what that means and how it can happen.

2. Evaluate every step of your business processes

There may be multiple process points within your business where technology can help achieve the goal you set. It’s important to think through the implications of any one change, according to van der Poel.

“Say you’re a company that’s recently adopted an e-commerce platform. All of a sudden, you’ve gone from 50 orders a week to 50 a day. That might hit your revenue growth target, but do you have enough product for that? How are you going to pick and pack all the orders with the team you have?”

In a case like that, van der Poel says a company may want to consider automated back-end systems that move orders from intake straight into the accounting system, while simultaneously updating inventory and printing labels. the same time, they could purchase robots or automated guided vehicles (AGVs) to move goods around the warehouse. It all comes together to reducing the cost of processing and providing faster service.

It's that kind of holistic thinking that leads to his third and final point.

3. Don’t assume that your business can’t be improved with technology

Some entrepreneurs may be resistant to adopting technology because it’s unfamiliar or they think it doesn’t apply in their space, says van der Poel. But there are all kinds of unexpected ways technology can contribute to a business, he says.

He points to the example of field services, such as plumbing, electrical or HVAC, where companies dispatch technicians out to work sites on a daily basis.

“Those kinds of companies have to deal with time sheets and complex scheduling, tasks that are still often paper-based and completed manually,” van der Poel says. “That’s not only tedious, but also prone to errors and inaccuracies, and can create lag time between finishing a job and billing for it that has a direct impact on cash flow.”

The solution? Van der Poel suggests geofencing software, which works much like a home security system. Using GPS technology and a platform such as Google Maps, the user can remotely draw a virtual fence around a geographic location. The geofence is then programmed to trigger a response when a mobile app installed on an employee’s smartphone crosses the perimeter. It can automatically start the clock ticking when a truck arrives at a work site and stop when it leaves. Or technicians could be equipped with apps that generate invoices automatically as soon as they’ve done the work — and even have customers pay digitally on the spot.

“Get curious about technology,” van der Poel says. “Research what’s out there and be open to change. Look at what happened through the pandemic. Businesses had to adopt technologies to keep their company going. Now they love their videoconferencing tools and their e-commerce platforms and wonder why they didn’t do it sooner.”

Look at what happened through the pandemic. Businesses had to adopt technologies to keep their company going. Now they wonder why they didn’t do it sooner.

Cultivate a tech-friendly company culture to adapt to labour shortages

Canada was ranked one of the most Internet-connected countries in the world in 2020, yet its small- and medium-sized businesses are still largely cautious about spending money on technology.

“Compared to the United States and Europe, Canadian businesses are shy about adopting technology,” van der Poel says. “They see new tech as risky. That mindset is honestly one of the biggest barriers to the growth of Canadian companies.”

Another factor that often holds companies back from tech adoption is cost, but van der Poel points out that the price of advanced solutions is falling quickly these days.

“Those server robots — not too long ago something like that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars, but now you can rent it for about the price of a car payment,” he says.

With technologies once in the realm of science fiction now readily available on the market, and with the labour shortage not going away, van der Poel says there’s no reason to wait.

“Even the smallest business can significantly increase productivity and capacity with a modest investment in technology — taking the burden off the in-house team and without having to recruit and hire.”

Ready to learn more? Download our free study How to Adapt to the Labour Shortage Situation: Hiring Difficulties Are Not Going Away.