Culture club: two businesses share their success stories

‘Workplace culture’ is a term you might associate with large enterprises like Google and Twitter, where employees receive all manner of perks. Forget free fruit and casual Fridays: unlimited vacations, on-site gyms and catered meals now set the benchmark in the world of big business.

Thankfully for small businesses, benefits are only part of a workplace’s culture. Yes, culture means making work a pleasant place for your team but, more broadly, it represents the values and beliefs that make your business unique. And for prospective employees, it’s as carefully considered as salary package and promotional possibilities.

Recruiting a cohesive team: Lotus People

Recruitment agency founder Sinead Connolly has seen firsthand how culture can make or break a workplace. “I’ve worked in places where the culture hasn’t been great,” she explains. “In some cases, it was because communication came from the top down. In others, it was because people acted for themselves.”

When launching her business in Sydney two years ago with co-founder Laura Hopes, Connolly knew they needed to offer something better. “In setting up Lotus People, I wanted to make sure we created an environment that encouraged collaboration and cohesive working,” she says.

The effort has paid off, with Lotus People named the Best Small Agency to Work For in the 2017 Recruitment International Awards.

Small business Lotus Agency has won awards for its inclusive and friendly workplace culture

Lotus People has received awards for its inclusive and friendly culture.

The business case for looking after employees

Connolly describes Lotus’s culture as relaxed, down-to-earth, flexible and fun. Though she admits perks do play a part, they’re one of a number of strategies used to demonstrate the business’s values. “We offer flexible hours and finish early on a Friday,” she says. “We also have a dress-down environment. Rather than showing up in a suit every day, we might sit around in our yoga pants until lunchtime. We're professional, of course, but I want to create a culture where everyone can just be themselves.”

Add in free breakfasts, weekly yoga classes and quarterly incentives – including overseas trips, spa days and harbour cruises – and you’d be forgiven for thinking Lotus was all about employee benefits. Yet Connolly explains that community giving is equally prized among the team. “Consultants choose a charity they want to support each quarter and we donate money to them,” she says. “We also give employees extra leave days to put towards charity endeavours.”

Creating a happy workplace in this manner delivers numerous advantages. According to a study by economists at the University of Warwick, happy workers are more productive. They're also likely to be more creative, better at solving problems and more effective collaborators. In short, happy team members can increase profits.

They're also terrific ambassadors for the business, Connolly adds. They remain in their jobs for long periods; attract like-minded talent; and leave a good impression with clients. “What we do internally seems to project externally,” she says. “On the candidate side, we get a lot of direct referrals. And on the client side, we often have our name passed around because of how normal, genuine and down-to-earth we are as a team.”

Creating efficiencies with collaboration

Another crucial component of Lotus’s culture is how team members work together. This begins with the hiring process, where cultural fit is a major consideration. “As a recruiter, there are certain questions you can ask, but there’s also that inherent feeling you get in an interview,” says Connolly. “With all of the team we have on board now, we clicked in our first meetings. We knew that the chemistry was there and that we were all on the same page.”

Maintaining cohesiveness comes down to regular catch-ups, where everyone is encouraged to contribute suggestions for the running of the business. “What I find is that people come to me and tell me how they think we could be more efficient,” says Connolly. “It’s not me telling people how to do something, it's more that they want to do it because they see the value in it. That comes from open communication and people working together, rather than individually.”

Driving teamwork and growth: Splend

It’s one thing to instill culture in the workplace; maintaining it as your business expands is another matter altogether.

This is a challenge Uber car rental startup Splend understands all too well. It began with two full-time employees in 2015. Today, it has a team of 40 and is Australia’s leading provider of rental vehicles to the rideshare industry.

Splend embodies a ‘work hard, play hard’ culture – but that doesn’t mean employees spend their days at the break room’s ping pong table, explains Head of Talent, Ben Hamer. “Culture is not just about fun,” he says. “You need to strike a balance between having fun and doing work that’s meaningful and contributes to the overall good of the business.”

Small business Splend hosts a number of events to bring its team members together

In the spirit of openness and sharing, Splend hosts a variety of events to bring members together.

Inspiring hard work

One key element of Splend’s culture is the emphasis placed on outcomes, rather than outputs. “We celebrate our achievements,” says Hamer. “I could be sitting here in Sydney reading about a member in Melbourne who had been unemployed for three years before we provided him a rental car on a flexible contract that helped him become independent again. It's a great way to motivate the team.”

Splend also promotes a culture of innovation and agility, where everyone has their value and shares in the success of the business. Employees are exposed to personal and career development opportunities, a social conscience and various perks – all of which led Splend to triumph in the SMB division of JobAdvisor’s 2016 Coolest Companies competition.

But cultural strategy is about much more than awards. Splend's happy workers are not only more productive and willing to contribute to the business; they also work hard for the thousands of member drivers who they support. "When our employees do the right thing by our member drivers, our drivers will do the right thing by their customers," says Hamer. "Every person that interacts with a customer sets the tone for our business. Cultural fit flows down the chain."

Maintaining culture as you grow

When running at full steam – as Splend has since inception – Hamer admits cultural considerations can fall by the wayside. “But by building a solid baseline of what you want your culture to be, it is easier to bring it back when you find you have slightly diverted,” he says.

Splend regularly assesses – and tweaks – its culture strategy to ensure it remains intact as the business grows. “We have encouraged consistent feedback from our employees and conduct six-monthly engagement surveys,” says Hamer. “We also have a Splend Ideas platform, where an employee from any area of the business can suggest improvements. We try to empower our employees and provide a culture that's about them being able to make decisions and choose what's best for their workplace.”

To inspire participation and transparency, all new employees attend an induction at Splend headquarters, where they meet the executive team. “We try to show them that we want to hear from everyone,” says Hamer, who explains that this open-door policy ensures a steady stream of innovative suggestions for the business.

This philosophy has remained an integral part of Splend’s culture from the outset. “Everyone has a voice in a small business,” says Hamer, who believes this shouldn’t change when team numbers surge. “Building your business in the right way from the beginning will ensure you keep all the benefits of a small business, while adding in the positives of a national or global reach.”

Five tips for building workplace culture

1. Develop a strategy. Put plans in place and commit time and energy to every initiative.

2. Evaluate and revise your plan. As the business grows or changes, ask yourself what needs to be done to ensure you stay true to your values and objectives.

3. Hire for cultural fit. Recruit people with the same mindset and outlook of how a business should be run.

4. Look after your team. People want to feel involved in the business, so ensure there’s a platform for them to share ideas.

5. Live and breathe your culture. If you say you’re going to do something, make sure you do it.