How to build a strong work culture: 6 tips for small businesses
Building a strong culture at work is high on most small business owners’ agenda—as it should be. After all, companies seen to have a strong culture perform up to four times better than companies seen as having a negative one. But what is this mysterious ‘strong work culture’, and how do you cultivate it in a small business?
Simply put, culture at work is the environment created for employees: from attitudes and behaviours, to the office space (or lack of). Culture’s growing importance in modern workplaces stems in part to cultural shifts, driven by younger generations entering the workforce and bringing with them changing expectations of work. Millennial and Gen-Z workers are more likely to seek employers who are value driven and are seen to care for their wellbeing beyond the bottom line. This is where culture is fundamental in creating a strong identity so employees feel connected to each other as well as the company mission.
According to a recent survey, 94% of people managers agreed that a strong work culture creates more resilient employees. So, while there’s no denying that company culture is crucial, there are a few tips you should bear in mind when building one that works for you:
1. Live and breathe your values
Values are fundamental to any company culture but particularly for small businesses. Identify what your purpose is as a company, what you want people to think of when they hear your company name and how you would like your employees to act. All these factors contribute to defining your company values in a meaningful and authentic way. For example, outdoor lifestyle brand, Patagonia’s values are:
- Build the best product
- Cause no unnecessary harm
- Use business to protect nature
- Not bound by convention
If you’re familiar with the brand, you’ll know these ring true—everything Patagonia does keeps these core values front and centre, contributing to their well-documented, strong work culture. Think about what you’re striving to do differently in your small business and make sure your chosen values not only align with your goals, but embody your company’s uniqueness in the market too. This feeling of authenticity is the foundation of any good small business culture, helping your employees understand why working for you is different from working for any other company
2. Hire the right people
Once you’ve got your values documented and visible across everything you do, it’s time to think about who will be executing on them. Hiring the right people is arguably the single most important challenge facing small businesses owners today and with 46% of jobseekers citing company culture as an important factor, it pays to get it right. Thankfully, with your values in hand, you can ensure that your job descriptions and interview processes are shaped to find candidates that match your expectations and share your beliefs.
It’s important to remember that hiring using values as a guide doesn’t mean you’re compromising on diversity—quite the opposite in fact. Focusing on shared beliefs (such as making sure your business efforts aren’t causing environmental damage), helps people equally as passionate to find you and add to the culture you’re trying to build, irrespective of gender, age, race or cultural background. For practical examples of how companies hire with values in mind, check out Pinterest, Vestiare Collective and Marshmallow.
3. Set clear goals
Nothing helps you get to where you want to be quite like knowing where you’re going. Breaking down large goals into smaller OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) helps everyone know where they stand, what’s expected of them and, most importantly, know when to raise an issue that is stopping them from achieving it. Ideally, you’ll only have one overarching goal eg. to become the number one provider in your industry, with all other targets contributing towards achieving that top goal.
Demystifying company goals is a simple but incredibly effective way of engaging your team and shaping your best work culture. Every person in the company (yes—including senior leadership), should know exactly what they need to do to meet their goals, what great, good and poor looks like for their role, and how their contribution adds value to the overall company mission.
4. Create transparent channels of communication
A strong culture takes time to implement, yet can be knocked down swiftly if mistrust sets in. Once you’ve done the groundwork for building your ideal culture, keep the positive momentum going by implementing clear channels of communication. Set up a weekly or fortnightly company-wide meeting to share top level progress. Ensure line managers have a structured one-to-one template so employees can track their progress and raise problems. Invest in hybrid-working technology to ensure that information transparency is a way of life. All these small communication wins build trust which is the largest contributing factor to a strong work culture.
5. Celebrate wins and acknowledge losses
When you’re building a company from the ground up, the never ending targets can start to take their toll if you don’t stop to celebrate the wins. Working in sprints with clear timelines allows you to pause, take stock and show appreciation for everyone’s hard work. In fact, a study conducted by Socialcast found that 69% of employees worked harder when their work achievements were recognised on a regular basis.
Likewise, it’s also important to acknowledge losses. Missing targets can happen for a number of reasons and it’s important to have clear protocols in place so employees know what to do when things don’t go to plan. Regular check-ins can help keep nasty surprises at bay, but ultimately employees need to understand how to fail. Failing fast and pivoting quickly are highly prized skills (and hugely necessary in a small business), so making sure employees feel safe to make mistakes and know what to do to correct them is vital to create a strong culture.
6. Encourage feedback
Finally, make it easy for feedback to flow. Opening up the conversation can give invaluable insights into what employees really care about and ways of continuously improving. Sometimes a particular mindset and culture works when you have 30 employees but no longer works at 100 employees. Company culture is always evolving along with your business so it’s a great idea to get a temperature check every so often. Employee wellness tools, surveys and even anonymous feedback boxes can all be useful ways of gathering information and making sure your small business culture is in a good place.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to building a strong culture at work, however, these tips should provide the building blocks to get the ball rolling. Just remember not to take your eye off the ball once the momentum has taken hold—your employees (and bottom line) will thank you.