HR & Management

Culture in practice – can SMEs compete with big businesses?

9 min read

02 August 2018

Special projects journalist

If we’ve learned anything from our recent campaign to find the UK’s top 25 SME Culture Leaders, it’s that the size of the business doesn’t matter – there are always ways to make your employees happier at work.

When we think of “good business culture” it’s easy to conjure up images of Google-style offices, whacky furniture, freebies being handed out at lunch etc. But while those things are nice, that’s definitely not the whole story.

A good company culture can mean simply staff getting along, feeling happy to come in to work every day, feeling comfortable to approach their line managers with mental health issues, and so on. These are much less tangible things – but it’s still a big part of what it means to have a good business culture.

Recently, Real Business and breatheHR teamed up on a campaign to find the UK’s top 25 SME Culture Leaders, and we – and the judges –  were very impressed with the calibre of companies that entered.

These businesses really demonstrated to us that, if anything, small businesses have an advantage when it comes to defining and creating culture.

Here are just some of the ways small businesses can compete with big businesses – as told by some of the Culture Leaders. You can find out more about the selection process and the winners, here.

  1.   Getting your voice heard

Cathy Hayward, managing director  of PR and content agency Magenta Associates, said:

“The agency is an inclusive and diverse organisation. The team includes a broad range of ages, from a part-time teenage office assistant to staff with more than 40 years’ experience.

“Everyone contributes a different perspective and new thinking into the agency, which gives Magenta a strength, variety and depth in its perception of the commercial and creative worlds in which it operates.”

This is a fantastic example of a small business advantage – the smaller the group, the less likely your voice is drowned out by the crowd. Everyone has a voice, and everyone has something unique to add – as long as the people at the top make sure to listen.

  1.   Looking out for one another

Off the back of this first point, smaller teams are also great at looking out for one another – not just the business.

Forum Events was nominated for its director’s dedication to training and development of staff, as well as one-to-one mentoring.

“Staff wellness and mental health is taken very seriously, with all line managers carrying out regular one-to-one meetings with staff to evaluate any problems and issues arising within the workplace and beyond,” said the submission.

“Ultimately, there’s a strong feeling of pulling together – which stretches from the management team all the way down.”

  1.   Writing your own narrative

The three founders of Red Badger, a digital consultancy, have “undertaken an extensive amount of work to define what it means to ‘be a Badger’”.

Their submission reported that they “have worked to empower employees to define the culture from the bottom up, which has then enabled them to build all of the pieces of the company around it.”

A Culture Committee was established by some volunteer employees, and the business has actively worked on created a culture they can be proud of.

Businesses which make culture a priority from day one get to shape the ideals of the company they hope to embody, although that doesn’t mean it’s done and dusted.

“[Culture] is a constant agenda point for the board, but has been built by Badgers old and new.”

  1.   The practicalities of culture

Wendy Read, an employee at HR Revolution, nominated the business because of its “supportive and easy-going culture”.

“It’s all collaborative, stimulating and with the flexibility of being laptop based, making it possible for all the team to choose where they sit each day,” she said.

He business also offers flexi-time, to ensure it is family and lifestyle friendly, and everyone in the business has the ability to work from home.

This more relaxed way of working shows that the business trusts its employees, and is also a good way to enable staff to find a good work-life balance. What’s more, it’s something small businesses are easily equipped to do – perhaps more so than the large businesses that might need boots on the ground.

  1.   Making the most of a growth mindset

Of course, even if small businesses have some advantages over the big players when it comes to culture, that still doesn’t mean they want to stay small forever.

The good news is that small businesses with the right sort of culture instilled can benefit from employees’ growth mindsets.

As Nigel Davies, founder of digital workplace Claromentis, explained: “There are plenty of studies and data to back up the link between culture, engagement and productivity but it’s also just common sense. A nice company to work for, and a caring employer, will get the best out of people, because trust works both ways.

“Happy employees also give the management an easy life, because we spend far less time troubleshooting and recruiting, and more time focussed on growth!”

  1.   Building a reputation

Startup and growth businesses are in a prime position to build their reputations – to make their businesses seen as they want to be seen. They are starting fresh, and don’t have to try and shift perceptions.

“Creating a good culture starts by identifying what you want your business to be and stand for, so everyone’s clear on what’s expected of them,” said Barnaby Lashbrooke, founder of virtual assistant site Time etc.

And of course, culture isn’t experienced by staff alone…

“It can be felt by customers who deal directly with our client happiness team, A good customer experience comes from having a happy, engaged team.”

  1.   Maintaining culture with new recruits

Louise Howland, an employee at IT services business ramsac, nominated the businesses because of its “strong culture” that “Really runs through everything we do”.

When hiring a new recruit, ramsac sends the applicant a copy of its culture book, which contains all the employees’ thoughts on what it is like to be a part of the ramsac family. It also supplements this with a “Working life at ramsac” video.

All new recruits are sent a personal congratulations from the MD and taken out for lunch with their team.

Small businesses can easily put these sorts of practices in place to make the first day easier for new recruits, and instil a sense of culture from day one.

Overall – these SME Culture Leaders demonstrate that you don’t have to have a bottomless budget to be able to invest in your business’ culture.

There are some small things that any business can do, and in fact a smaller team can provide opportunities to foster a more close-knit environment.

Small businesses can keep up with the corporates by focussing on people, not material things.