Career Advice, Reviews

How to Build an Award-Winning Culture in a Small Business

Chatting to a coworker

Is it easier to build culture at a small business than a large one? It seems like it should be. After all, there are fewer people and fewer hoops to jump through—don’t you have a lot more control over the workplace when there are fewer cubicles in it?

In reality, there’s no comparison. Much like working for a small or large business is different, not better or worse, building a company culture for a small or large business is a matter of strategy, not difficulty. Both environments need a strong culture to achieve maximum productivity and employee engagement, but each environment needs to approach culture initiatives with an emphasis on different factors.

In the past, we’ve looked at what it takes to build culture in large organizations like Cisco and Walmart. Today, on the heels of announcing the Best Places to Work, we’ll look at four strategies that can help you build a strong small business culture:

Hire and fire like you mean it

Hiring and firing is a vital way to maintain culture in every size environment. However, you have a bit more leeway in offering jobs to people who are a 75% or 80% fit when you run a team of 500. In a small business, however, every employee has an undiluted impact on the small business culture. For better or worse, the team members you bring on board (and the team members you fire) directly affect your culture, so most of your efforts should focus on recruiting the best possible candidates.

[Related: 50 Best Small & Medium Companies to Work For]

For example, when I worked at a 5-person marketing company, our culture hit every stereotype for a trendy startup atmosphere: we laughed all day, hovered around a fully-stocked Keurig, and played pranks on each other like the best of them. But then Nate happened (not his real name). Within one week, this hourly employee’s poor work ethic, nasty attitude, and lack of attention to detail had the rest of us fuming in disbelief and touching up our resumes. It took over a month for Nate to be fired, but it was only after he made several serious mistakes for a big client (that the rest of us had to clean up). By then, the damage was done — we lost respect for our manager and felt like our contributions were completely ignored.

Onboard like the pros

Many small businesses’ MO is informal. While the lack of bureaucracy can be a major perk when it comes to the day-to-day job, it often means that the onboarding process only covers the bare minimum: here’s your computer, here’s your desk, now get cracking.

Whether you run a team of 2 or 25, your onboarding process should be the foundation of your small business culture. It’s an invaluable opportunity to introduce employees not just to your office, but also to your company’s mission, your expectations, and their coworkers. Don’t rely on formal presentations; put time and thought into incorporating fun activities that give new employees a sense of how they can contribute to the culture, not just how they should act at work.

[Related: How To Find Fun Jobs That Pay Well]

Embrace internal transparency

We’ve written before about the pros and cons of transparency, but for small businesses, transparency is most often a pro. With fewer people in the communication chain, it’s easier to share information without adding to organizational drag. And when a small team is working toward the same goal, it’s easier to reap the rewards of being honest about intent, expectations, perceptions, and information.

This is one lesson that a former employer could have benefitted from. As the leadership of the 50-person company competed for a new contract, almost everything about my 8-person team’s jobs was about to change. However, all of the details were kept on a secretive and need-to-know basis, which made my peers feel insecure about their jobs and prompted them to touch up their resumes. Keeping our team more informed would have directly prevented the development of a suspicious, toxic culture that led to a lot of turnover later that year.

[Related: How to Be A Positive Influence on Company Culture]

Prioritize employee recognition

When you work in a smaller company, you have to get the job done with fewer people on your roster. To meet those needs, most people wear a number of hats and perform a multitude of different jobs based on their skill sets. This is the status quo for small businesses, but it can damage your culture if you don’t take time to recognize those extra contributions.

When you ask more of people in the workplace, acknowledge the work they’re doing inside and outside the scope of their job description to avoid having employees feel taken advantage of. This will also go a long way toward increasing the positive feelings employees have toward their workplace and coworkers and contributing to a positive small business culture.

Building a small business culture doesn’t have to be more difficult than building culture for a large one — it just requires a different strategy. Use these tips to support a culture that makes your small team roster as productive and effective as possible.

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