Building Workplace Resiliency – How small and medium-sized enterprises can improve organizational resiliency

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some Canadian bio-economy companies fared better than others despite facing similar challenges. What’s behind those different outcomes? In part, varying levels of organizational resiliency. To learn more, BioTalent Canada explored organizational resiliency, its contributing factors and how companies can cultivate it.

Based on that work, this resource identifies challenges and opportunities for building organizational resiliency within small and medium-sized enterprises.

What is organizational resiliency?

Organizational resiliency refers to the capability of an organization to anticipate, absorb, react and adapt to internal and external disruptions and associated impacts. Fundamentally, it’s about how organizations overcome adversity to ensure sustainability.

This definition was validated in interviews with bio-economy employers, whose comments suggested three major characteristics shared by resilient organizations:

  • They are agile, flexible and adaptable with their operations and internal processes.
  • Their employees are engaged with leadership both formally and informally.

They have empowered cultures stemming from engaged employees who feel they are listened to and their needs considered during times of change.

Why are small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) considerations important for building organizational resiliency in the bio-economy?

The Canadian bio-economy is essentially a sector of “small businesses,” defined by the Government of Canada as businesses with fewer than 100 employees. Recent industry profiles found that meet this definition. Most of the remaining bio-economy companies fall within the “medium-sized business” category of 100–499 employees, with very few “large” companies of 500 employees or more. As a result, to a large degree, building organizational resiliency in the Canadian bio-economy means building organizational resiliency in small businesses.

What challenges do SMEs face in building organizational resiliency?

Previous research has identified three main challenges to building organizational resiliency. These were confirmed through recent interviews with small and medium-sized bio-economy companies.

Scarcity of time and resources for strategic risk and business continuity planning

Many of the SMEs interviewed said they were in start-up (often pre-revenue) phases and are focused on keeping the business going on a month-to-month or even week-to-week basis. This results in a “firefighter” approach to dealing with issues that allows them to address the most challenging, immediate “fires” but leaves little time or resources to build stronger plans and infrastructure to prevent future issues.

Talent management and the lack of formal HR functions

Organizational resiliency is strongly associated with a company’s effective management of talent. Finding and retaining the right people with the right skills, mindsets and ability to work as a team in a supportive workplace are key to building organizational resiliency. A strong, formalized HR function that can actively develop and support the company and its employees is very helpful, but 70 percent of Canadian bio-economy companies do not have such a function. Smaller companies are also less likely to offer or invest in training, and are more likely to struggle with finding and retaining adequate C-suite level leadership — both important components of effective talent management.

Developing and implementing diversity initiatives

Diversity is another strong contributor to organizational resiliency. Many SMEs reported that they are thinking about aspects of inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility (IDEA), but do not yet have formalized policies or processes in place. Many suggested they may implement these elements “down the line” when their companies grow and become more established, but waiting may actually hinder their development and leave them more vulnerable. Research has found that IDEA can be a facilitator of growth and beneficial for small companies.

Harnessing diversity to support growth and resiliency

After more than doubling in size from 30 to over 60 employees, one small bio-health company is starting to explore how to develop IDEA as a strategic priority to help it continue to grow and improve its resiliency. The company is working with experts to develop and implement IDEA metrics, deliver training on unconscious biases during interviews, improve diversity in management and leadership, create mentorship pathways, and support inclusion in the workplace.

What opportunities do SMEs have for building organizational resiliency?

SMEs also have some key advantages and unique opportunities for building organizational resiliency when compared with larger, more established companies.

More flexibility and adaptability

Smaller companies are often more flexible and adaptable, which can help them deal with risks and crises. Their simpler structure and smaller size enable them to more rapidly make decisions, change processes and reallocate resources. In interviews, smaller companies said they believed their response to the COVID-19 pandemic was more effective because they could be “nimble,” react more quickly to risks and implement necessary changes.

Less reliance on other industries and businesses

Many of the smaller companies interviewed were in the start-up phase of business, which meant they were still relatively inward-focused, working on developing processes and products. As a result, they were much less reliant on other businesses, clients or supply chains, which enabled them to avoid some of the large-scale impacts of the pandemic. Many of the challenges noted by medium-sized and larger companies — such as having to quickly adapt production and marketing based on client impacts or encountering significant supply-chain issues — were not as consequential for the smaller, start-up R&D companies.

Innovation, creativity and problem-solving

The Canadian bio-economy focuses largely on R&D, which is strongly associated with key factors that contribute to organizational resiliency such as innovation, creativity and problem-solving. While not unique to SMEs, the skills that support these factors are characteristic of the industry and are already prevalent in many of the smaller companies. These companies were therefore able to approach the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic the same way they approach other challenges: by using their existing problem-solving skills to develop innovative and creative solutions.

Approaching the pandemic with a problem-solving mindset

One small start-up bio-energy company with about 10 employees believes much of its success in navigating pandemic-related challenges can be attributed to the same problem-solving approach it uses for its R&D work. Described as “a company of engineers”, the team adopted a problem-solving mindset to understand the scope, impacts and requirements of challenges faced throughout the pandemic, then assembled the necessary resources to address the challenges.

One key strategy was to contract out some HR functions to a third party, including developing health and safety protocols for staff and contractors, adapting onboarding techniques, and ensuring active leadership involvement in connecting with staff on a continuous basis.

How can bio-economy SMEs build greater organizational resiliency?

There are various resources available to help bio-economy SMEs enhance their organizational resiliency.

Some BioTalent Canada resources include:

Learn from others

Incorporating IDEA principles into your organization’s operations and culture is also a critical element of building resiliency. Check out these stories for insight into how other organizations have incorporated IDEA principles into their business — and the benefits they’ve seen as a result.

Methods and sources

BioTalent Canada recently conducted research on organizational resiliency in the Canadian bio-economy in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the project, BioTalent Canada is producing a series of resources, including brief introductions to some of the key topics related to organizational resiliency.

This resource on the challenges and opportunities for SMEs in the bio-economy that wish to build and sustain organizational resiliency is based on findings from:

  • A survey of 344 employers in the Canadian bio-economy
  • In-depth qualitative interviews with 33 employers
  • A systematic environmental scan of literature and available training, tools and measures related to organizational resiliency