Why small business owners must stop viewing company culture as ‘fluffy’

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By Jonathan Richards, pictured, CEO and founder, breatheHR

Ask any business leader what their company culture is and the chances that you will be met with ‘umm’ or ‘well…’ are quite high. Culture in the workplace is not easily defined and certainly varies from business to business. However, your company’s culture should define your overall vision, frame your potential and speak for your values and standards. Ultimately, it’s your implicit attitudes and conduct, the ‘water cooler conversation’ all the way through to boardroom behaviour.

You only need to look to the high-profile scandals at Uber and Facebook to see what can happen when you get company culture wrong. Although these are two of the world’s biggest businesses, SME owners should take note and make sure their company culture is integrated into their business strategy as closely as possible. This will ensure that a culture you don’t want to see, doesn’t manifest itself.

Why does it matter?

We understand the implications that this can have on time, resources and commitment – but why is culture so important?

Whichever way you measure your success or growth, a strong organisational culture drives positive results across the spectrum of business metrics. Evidence shows that small businesses are struggling with productivity, with a recent study finding that 40 per cent of workers feel they are more productive than their boss. However, just 14 per cent of SME business owners claim productivity is not an issue.

Our own research found that 53 per cent of employees distrust their senior leaders and managers. A key reason for this is the perception that they don’t “appear to know what they are doing”. This kind of climate can negatively impact employee engagement – and that engagement is key to productivity.   Clearly there is some work to be done here and the focus needs to shift to a holistic view of the workplace, including management, training, transparency and overall employee experience.

When you compare this with findings from the CMI that effective leadership can improve productivity by 23 per cent – it makes good business sense to invest that little bit more into your organisations overall culture strategy.

How can you remedy this?

SMEs have the chance to lead the way to create something different for their employees, and these by no means have to be huge changes. Minimal investments can make a significant difference to productivity and your overarching culture, such as office plants, break-out spaces, email policies or flexible working.

From our research and talking to other businesses, many are using staff engagement surveys to monitor happiness, culture and more. Although this has its limits, there is a lot of value in them — especially if you’re a mid-sized company. However, if you’re a start-up or small business, nothing beats a good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation to get your employees honest thoughts. Explore the best approach for you to measure and understand employee engagement. Be open and collaborative with your objectives.

Ultimately, you have to ask yourself honestly; is your workplace somewhere you would show up to? Somewhere you would bring your whole self to? Somewhere that would inspire you to go beyond the call of duty? Lead by example and you will be on your way to building a productive and positive business culture.