Since the outbreak of the pandemic, we’ve published several updates on the impacts of the ongoing health crisis based on our own industry data. This time, we decided to turn things around. We asked almost 500 owners and general managers of small and medium businesses (SMB) across Europe how the pandemic is impacting their digitalisation.

Our main findings:

  • The majority of SMB owners and managers say COVID-19 didn’t speed up the digitalisation of their company
  • Lack of budget is seen as the main hurdle for accelerating digitalisation 
  • Satisfaction of government support correlates with digitalisation performance

Table of contents

How the pandemic is impacting digitalisation across Europe

At the beginning of the outbreak, commentators were quick to conclude that the measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus would have an obvious side effect: the acceleration of digitalisation. Nine months into the pandemic, Sortlist’s survey shows that things aren’t in fact that simple.

Across Sorlist’s European core markets – Belgium, France, Spain, and Germany – 43.8 % of SMB owners said the pandemic did, in fact, accelerate digitalisation efforts, whereas 30.5 % said it slowed it down. Another 22.7 % said there was no change at all.

Where COVID-19 has in fact accelerated digitalisation

In Spain, an overwhelming majority of 67% of SMB owners said in our survey that the measures to mitigate the spread of the virus sped up their digitalisation efforts, while 11% said it slowed it down and 22% said they observed no impact on their company.

Spain is the only surveyed country where a majority of the business owners said that the COVID-19 pandemic did accelerate digitalisation.

Where COVID-19 hasn’t accelerated digitalisation

Results for Germany fell short of the 50% threshold. 47% of business owners said their digitalisation picked up some speed, 28% said the opposite happened and 23% said there weren’t any changes.

Our survey shows a similar picture of Belgium. 42.9 % of SMB owners saw an intensified digitalisation at their companies, while 36.7 % say it slowed it down and 17.3 % say there were no changes.

In France, 39% more business owners said the pandemic has slowed down digitalisation than that it accelerated going digital (33%). A further 25% said nothing changed.

In the Netherlands, the results are very similar. 38% of SMBs saw a slow down of digitalisation, while 29% saw an acceleration. 26% saw no changes.

Country-by-country close-up

Spain

A clear majority of Spanish SMB owners said that the COVID-19 pandemic positively impacted their efforts to make their businesses more digital.

Taking a closer look, of those Spanish business owners who saw an acceleration of digitalisation, 40.2 % said they took additional measures to enable remote working during the lockdowns, 28% said they moved their sales online, 20.5 % added new external communication channels, and 11.4% took further measures.

Spain’s big step towards making business processes more digital could be linked to where the country stood at the beginning of the pandemic. According to the European Commission’s 2020 report on Integration of Digital Technology by Enterprises, Spanish businesses performed below EU-average just before the outbreak.

 

EU ranking on the integration of digital technologies in businesses

In their efforts, however, Spanish SMB owners often don’t feel sufficiently supported by the government and public authorities. 43,0 % say there is no help available and another 43,0 % say there is some help available with room for improvement. Only 13,0 % say there is enough help available.

Germany

German companies entered the first lockdown at a similar place as their Spanish counterparts with a digitalisation score below EU-average, according to the 2020 report on Integration of Digital Technology by Enterprises.

45.9 % of German SMB owners who saw an acceleration in digitalisation at their companies enabled working from home, 28.2 % moved their sales online and 20% added new external communication channels.

Compared to Spain, business owners in Germany are much more satisfied with government help. 25% say that there is no sufficient help available for their digitalisation efforts. Another 25% say there is enough support from public institutions and a further 45% say there is some help available.

This could be linked to the fact that the German economy so far suffered less from the consequences of the pandemic, according to the OECD.

Belgium

The results of our survey for Belgium are similar to those in Germany. 46.8 % of businesses who saw an acceleration in their digitalisations implemented additional measures to enable remote working. 24.2 % digitised their sales, 14.5 % added new channels to their external communication and another 14.5 % took other measures.

Belgian business owners are comparably satisfied with the availability of public aid with their digitalisation. Only 16.3 % say that there is not sufficient support, 57.1 % say there is some support and a further 20.4 % say that there is sufficient support available.

This relatively high level of satisfaction with government help could be a reason why Belgium entered into the crisis at a different level of “digital readiness”. Belgium was among the top 3 EU countries in terms of integrating digital technologies in their processes before the outbreak of the pandemic.

France

Contrary to the countries above, in France, the majority of SMB owners said that the ongoing pandemic had slowed down their digitalisation. 

The main reason for this seems to be money. 46.2 % of those who said their digitalisation was either slowed down or unimpacted said that they didn’t have enough money for significant changes. 39.1 % said, however, that they were already digital enough to continue operating and 7.8 % said they lacked the expertise to enhance digitalisation.

The lack of budget could be linked to the fact that France is among the EU countries which are particularly hard hit by the economic crisis. However, the French seem to be rather pleased with the availability of public aid. Only 15% say there is no sufficient help, whereas 47% say there is some available and 24% say there is enough public aid available.

The Netherlands

The results for the Netherlands are comparable to those of France. However, the two countries started from different positions into the first lockdown. Whereas France was close to the EU-average in terms of digitalisation, the Netherlands ranked 4th just behind Belgium in the EU’s ranking.

However, fewer business owners in the Netherlands judged themselves sufficiently digital to make it through the crisis than in France. 27% said they already had enough digital technology integrated compared to 39.1 % in France.

33% of Dutch SMB owners said that a lack of money slowed their digitalisation down and 13% said it was due to a lack of know-how. 

Entrepreneurs in the Netherlands seem to be rather happy with government support for their digitalisation. 34% say there is sufficient help available and 44% say there is some help available. 15% say there is no adequate support available.

Conclusions

Our survey does not show a clear result on whether the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic positively impacts digitalisation of businesses across Europe. This might have different reasons.

  1. European countries entered the first lockdown at very different levels of digital integration.
  2. Digitising a business includes more than enabling remote working and communicating online.
  3. Innovation costs money. For many small and medium businesses, investments in digital technologies can already be a hurdle when there is no crisis. The current situation might make it even harder for businesses to keep up with the demands of the market.

Our study additionally shows a clear correlation between the satisfaction of SMB owners with public aid and their ranking in the EU’s digitalisation report. This means that governments play an important role. Public bodies should hence continue those programs which work well and improve efforts where there is a lot of room for improvement. This might become even more relevant in the aftermath of the pandemic when governments need to decide where to cut back public spending and where not. 

Methodology

For this report, Sortlist surveyed 498 owners and general managers of small and medium businesses in Spain, France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. An SMB is a business with fewer than 250 employees and annual sales of no more than 50 million EUR. The survey was carried out between 27 November and 7 December 2020 through online questionnaires.