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Tied Up in Red Tape? How to Cut the Admin Burden on SMEs


If you feel you are constantly wading through admin tasks, with too little time left for your core business activities, you’re not alone. A new survey by Sage has once again underlined just how much time UK SMEs are losing through red tape – an estimated 120 working hours per year on average. Other research has put the level even higher.

Much of the burden tends to fall on company bosses. Another recent survey, by an online printing firm, suggests that the average SME owner now spends around 25% of their time dealing with regulations and red tape.

Where Time is Being Lost

Keeping on top of accounts and cashflow often presents a particular problem for small businesses. There has been a lot of publicity about late payments, and, despite government pledges to tackle this, they are still a major source of financial stress.

Business banking and tax both also take up a lot of time, and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has estimated that, together with accounts, these financial activities together take up 31 hours of the average small business’s time per month.

Another major admin area is keeping up with HR issues and employment law, ranging from holidays and sickness absence to annual appraisals. Pensions are a related field which has become increasingly time-consuming over recent years because of new legislation affecting small companies. Health and safety compliance can also take up a lot of staff time.

Ways to Streamline Admin

Outsourcing – As a business owner, you may feel you are saving money by doing things yourself, but your time is a valuable business asset and needs to be costed. There is a risk of spreading yourself too thinly by getting caught up with admin which someone else could do. Taking paperwork home and tackling it in the evening isn’t the answer either, because it means you will be tired in the day and your core business is likely to suffer as a result.

For all these reasons, it is vital either to delegate routine tasks to someone else inhouse or to get some extra input from outside.  If you are a sole trader, you may feel you have nowhere to turn, but when you are working on your own it is, if anything, even more important to concentrate your time on carrying out the business which makes you money.

Alternatives to employing someone full or part-time include finding a virtual assistant or an online accountancy or book-keeping service. Outsourcing all or part of your accounting means you can be sure that your tax returns will be filed on time and your company will meet all its legal obligations, avoiding the risk of fines.

Partially outsourcing HR is another popular option, either by signing up to a support line which can offer advice as and when it is needed, or by finding a provider who will get to know your business. Pensions and legal services are among the HR areas where companies often look for outside support. Networking with other small companies can help you to get recommendations and find someone who provides the level of service you need.

Technology – Digital and automation are increasingly taken for granted in many types of business. With new apps and digital tools constantly being developed, there is no doubt that technology can save a lot of time. However, it is often hard to work out which of the host of tools available is the best for your purposes, or whether your current software is still adequate, so consulting a technical expert can be helpful.

Many small companies are now moving into using smartphones and tablets for more of their business, so you may need to find software which works well on these platforms. This is especially useful if your staff travel out and about or sometimes work from home and other locations, such as clients’ premises,

Daily Organisation – When your business is busy, you can easily fall behind with recording tasks as they happen and end up with a huge backlog of routine work which it is hard to get on top of.  Being organised and taking a few minutes now to record or file away something as it happens can often save more time later.

Brainstorming with staff can help, because people will often have ideas about ways of cutting time in their own area of the business, which can help to streamline the way you work overall. Technology is again relevant here too, because there is a growing choice of tracking and scheduling systems which can help you to keep on top of your business overall, without having to search for a document or email. This can involve using “digital whiteboards” for collaborative working, or CRM systems for keeping track of customers.