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Improving the workplace

Most small businesses start out with just one employee – the small business owner – and it doesn’t matter if you’re running the operation out of the backseat of your car or a shed out the back, symptoms as you can just put up with it. But when the business starts to experience a little growth, unhealthy and a staff member or two is needed to fill a need, then all of a sudden you have a little workforce.

That’s when the light bulb moment will usually occur – particularly as almost every small business owner starts out thinking they will be ‘the best boss ever’. In reality, being the nice boss isn’t always possible, or always the best choice, but creating a great place to work, where people actually enjoy walking through the door, is.

This is where workplace culture comes in – which is really just a fancy way of saying all the things that make up a workplace. In big multi-nationals the term of choice is ‘corporate culture’, which is effectively the same thing on a grander scale.

This doesn’t mean the big boys are the only ones who get to play, as even the smallest operation can make improvements around the office, with the aim of one day becoming that workplace that everyone talks about.

Such is the case for Craig Somerville, general manager of Reload Media, who was the first person hired by Llew Jury, the founder of the company.

“About three and a half years ago I was the first employee hired as part of the growth process. Since then, I’ve come on as a director and equity stakeholder, so it’s basically been the two of us. We have gone through this process of taking it from two to 35 worldwide staff, with about 22 in Brisbane,” explains Somerville.

Reload was setup with a strong focus on workplace culture from day one. Somerville points to a long list of initiatives that have been employed to keep staff members happy.

“We do things like weekly massages for the staff, and they’ve all got iPhones and Androids depending on their preference,” he says. “Then there’s the touch footy teams, and we do personal training every week with one of the trainers nearby. We’ve got industry events and networking nights and then of course the Friday drinks. Plus, there is always the opportunity for personal development.”

One of the great flow-on effects of employing a workplace culture strategy is that it creates hype around the office. Having amazing perks, particularly when you’re working for a small business, and not a massive corporation, is a conversation topic that will come up when staff are out of the office chatting to friends and family.

Personal touch

Megan Simpson, the employee experience manager at RedBalloon devotes a large chunk of her time to creating just that situation. The experience-gift selling company has gone all out to make the office an enjoyable place to be.

“We have one thing that we did, where we wanted to find out what everyone’s dreams were. So we got them all to fill out a dream catcher. It was a piece of paper, double sided, with 100 boxes on it, and they got to write   down their dreams,” says Simpson.

“We had a monthly ‘Oscar Award,’ and when the person wins that, one of their dreams comes true. So we had a kayak delivered to the office, I got personal sponsorship at the zoo, and we had someone go into a sushi course,” she continues. “In terms of money there’s obviously people that have put dreams on there that we can’t ever make come true, but for the things we could do we put a limit of $500 on.”

According to Simpson, this has made a tremendous difference around the office, and the loyalty that it creates is something you can’t put a figure on. Given that one of the benefits of this is retaining your employees, it’s something that can be priceless to a business.

“The loyalty it’s created is huge. Just knowing the staff member as a person, and having them realise you appreciate their life outside of work, it’s hard to put a price on that. We know that the loyalty that it creates is amazing, and the stories that they go and tell their family and friends are also.”

It’s important to note that with workplace culture you can’t just come up with one scheme and let that be the solution to all of your problems. Like anything, if you get used to something for to long you will start to take it for granted. The way to avoid this is simple, you just need to come up with something new every six-to-12 months to keep staff involved.

“With the dream catcher, we did that for 12 months and then we let it lay low for a while and thought of something else to do,” confirms Simpson.

RedBalloon has gotten to the point where they have more than 50 staff members, but this is nothing when you consider that to have an employee experience manager, most companies are far larger.

“I’m an absolute luxury for a business of this size, and I never take that for granted. I think that’s one of the things that makes it so successful. I go to lots of human resources summits and there’s companies with 2,000 people and they have two people, and I tell them that I’m one of 50,” she adds.

Size doesn’t matter

This doesn’t mean that workplace culture only applies if you have a headcount you can’t add up on your hands. There are plenty of ways to improve things around the office without buying kayaks.

Simpson recommends learning a little bit about your employees so you know how to reward them. This could be as simple as finding out where their local coffee place is and how they like their caffeinated beverage of choice to be prepared – then you can surprise them with one every now and again.

“It’s important to celebrate successes that happen. If it’s only a very small team and you’ve got that new client, make sure you celebrate it. Take them out to a nice lunch and know what they like – if they don’t like sushi, don’t take them to a sushi place – those kinds of little things,” she explains.

One of the simple but effective initiatives Simpson spearheaded was to learn what every staff member’s favourite fruit was. Then one morning everyone walked in to find a nice cut of their favourite produce on their desk.

Reload Media’s Somervile points out that the benefits go even further, and how you can actually leverage the workplace culture improvements to attract the right staff. He explains how Reload has setup a Facebook page with photos of the sporting teams, the Christmas party, and events they put on, and they now link to that page in all of their job postings.

Start from the top

Melissa Schembri, consultant and author of Find Your Dream Job in 21 Days, found out the effectiveness of workplace culture improvements first hand. Having started her own law firm at 26 years old, it was initially just her and a pile of law books, but she eventually grew the business to around 14 staff before selling it.

Schembri started off the cultural improvements by coming to the realisation that she couldn’t expect staff members to be happy in the workplace if she wasn’t.

“If you and your staff don’t have a positive mindset, how can you grow? If you’re not growing personally, how can a business grow?” she asks. “For me, the more I invest in personal growth for my staff, the bigger my business will grow and that’s exactly what happened.”

The initiative seemed to pay off, according to Schembri, as the business went from making virtually no turnover each year to over a million annually before it was sold.

More than smiles

One of the biggest hurdles that workplace culture has had to overcome over the years is the mindset that there is no clear return on what you are spending. Big businesses will see the sense in giving out free coffee and soft drinks to keep office workers alert and productive, or in footing the bill for staff meals at 8pm – thereby encouraging them to stay at work longer. But small business doesn’t spin on the same wheels, so it can’t be expected to use the same gears.

On a smaller scale, it is all about finding the right people and keeping them there by building up loyalty towards the business. Often this is done with the chequebook and successive pay raises in line with business growth, but it can also be achieved by the creation of a workplace where people like it so much they tell their friends about how great their workplace is.

Image: Thinkstock.

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