The little things that can help small firms compete for talent

Small-to-medium-sized companies don’t have the deep pockets or dedicated infrastructure departments of the large corporates, but they can still attract staff by paying special attention to people and place  

When it comes to managing the workplace experience, small-to-medium-sized firms (SMEs) – defined by the European Union as having 250 or fewer employees and an annual turnover under 50 million euros – don’t have the big budgets or dedicated departments of the large corporates. Nevertheless, in the digital economy, they are competing against the big boys for premium talent.  

So, how can SMEs prioritise their investments effectively in order to create maximum positive impact in the overall workplace experience? How can they achieve things at low or no cost that will make a difference? 

In the second of our series on the SME (Small to Medium Enterprise) workplace, produced in partnership with the Director Group, a real estate consultancy that focuses on growth companies, we are looking at interventions around people and place.    

Close-knit networks  

We spoke to Kay Sandford-Beal, currently a UK consultant at medical start-up Flomark. She has extensive expertise as a director leading both large and small organisations in the arts, culture, heritage and education sectors. This work informed Sandford-Beal’s research into HR practices and wellbeing initiatives within SMEs that she conducted at the University of Kingston Business School.  

Her research suggests that there are a series of small changes that SMEs can make in their approach to their staff that can be very influential in terms of talent retention and creating a positive working environment. 

SMEs are often in a good starting position when it comes to creating a workplace experience that is positive for all staff as they are often made up of small, close-knit networks where socialisation is already a part of day-to-day work.  

Such close networks facilitate several types of interaction that Sandford-Beal’s research highlights as important to staff wellbeing. These include the offering of effective managerial support, the creation of clarity around everyone’s job role, and the ability for senior staff to express gratitude and praise towards their employees for the work they’ve conducted. 

These three factors are crucial to the development of a positive workplace experience and can significantly boost the wellbeing of staff. Kay Sandford-Beal particularly highlights how under-appreciated the importance of praise is in all working environments – when managers make the effort to compliment staff on their work, this contributes to a strong sense of being valued and appreciated in the workplace.  

Overhauling HR policies 

It would cost SMEs very little to overhaul their HR policies and restructure their thinking towards how to communicate with staff in order to promote a sense of value, clarity and support. The tendency for reduced bureaucracy in SMEs can also result in swifter, more agile interventions in response to staff feedback. These factors are far more important to staff than their workplace providing a pool table or bowls of free M&Ms.  

Even SMEs with a bigger budget can get creative when it comes to offering a great workplace experience. Sandford-Beal interviewed a company which had encouraged staff to set up an internal social committee and gave them time during work to organise events such as a pizza night, pub quiz or a company-wide bake-off competition. This helped foster a sense of community and allowed staff to socialise casually in a relaxed setting, aiding the creation of friendships and a feeling of camaraderie. 

‘Setting up an internal social committee helped to foster a sense of community…’ 

The social relationships within an SME are clearly important but it does not have to cost the earth to offer staff the kind of working environment that promotes wellbeing. Sandford-Beal recommends that companies thinking about improving their HR and wellbeing policies should encourage managerial staff to undergo training in mental health awareness and the role of praise and gratitude in the workplace.  

This has the potential to make a significant difference to the overall wellbeing of staff in an SME and is a great first step towards transforming a work culture into one that attracts and retains talent.  

New real-estate models 

‘While effective people policies are clearly essential, place matters too,’ says Simon Ward, Director, Real Estate and Workplace at the Director Group, who has closely studied what smaller firms need. Despite the switch towards flexible working in recent years, including its hybrid and remote variants, the office still plays a pivotal role in the workplace experience.  

Just because SMEs don’t have the budget of larger corporations or their well-resourced real-estate departments does not mean that they should compromise on the quality of their office space, particularly as the post-pandemic environment has increased the prevalence of coworking spaces and space-as-service models of office leasing.  

We spoke to Mat Hunter, who is championing innovation in the SME field as co-CEO of Plus X. Hunter previously worked for IDEO and the Design Council and is no stranger to designing for user experience. The Plus X innovation hubs offer individuals and small businesses space to design products, create podcasts, host events and collaborate alongside each other, providing key support to SMEs looking to grow their business and develop new ideas.   

Mat Hunter describes how major corporations previously held the fort in terms of offering the best office experience. But the rise of co-working spaces creates a new platform for smaller businesses: they are an asset that can lead to high levels of innovation when the spaces are designed correctly with SMEs in mind. 

Encouraging dialogue  

The Plus X innovation hub in Brighton was designed to help people in the building ‘crash into each other’, bringing people together from different fields and encouraging dialogue.  

Designing offices in this way has wellbeing implications as it allows for the casual social interaction that we all missed during the pandemic and helps people who are in similar situations discuss how they’ve overcome challenges in order to learn from each other. However, it can also play an active part in creating new supportive networks and create business ideas.  

Plus X has witnessed small companies joining together one day after meeting in order to collaborate. This level of innovation proves that space can have a huge impact on how we experience our workplace.   

Good office design doesn’t have to be flashy – it just has to be borne out of the right principles, says Hunter, with wellbeing, socialisation and user experience at its heart. Having designed the space to allow for collaboration and quiet, including dog-friendly and dog-free zones, easy access to kitchenettes and amenities, and even yoga classes, these are offices that compete with large corporations without pricing SMEs out of the market.  

Plus X found that the entrepreneurs even reported sleeping better after working in their co-working spaces, highlighting how office design and user wellbeing are intrinsically interlinked.  

‘You can make the workplace experience more enjoyable without blowing the budget…’  

SMEs can consider taking up space in a co-working environment or adopting a space-as-service model, having highly functional and impressive office space when they need it and not shelling out extra money for an empty space when they don’t. Such workplace-on-demand models also avoid lengthy leases, expensive fitouts and complex contracts – most SMEs do not have an in-house legal or property department.   

Even where companies can lease or buy their own office, there are cost-effective ways to improve wellbeing and make the workplace experience more enjoyable without blowing the budget:   incorporating elements of biophilic design such as plants and greenery, having space for casual conversations, incorporating natural light into the space, and allowing dogs into the office can all make a difference. 

In the final article in our series on the SME workplace, we will look at technology to enhance the workplace experience for growth companies. 

This is the second in a series of three articles on the small-to-medium enterprise (SME) workplace, produced in collaboration with the Director Group. Read the first article here .
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