Eighty-nine percentof entrepreneurs consider culture to be an important or very important contributor to the success of their business, according to a survey of 515 small businesses released by Turnstone, a Steelcase brand.
The survey, Small Business Culture at Work, sought to determine how small and emerging businesses with 100 employees or less view company culture.
Brian Shapland, general manager of Turnstone, said the survey results confirmed many of Turnstone’s hunches about the importance of company culture to small businesses.
“I think just how universal some of these things are would be something that stood out,” Shapland said of the survey results.
The survey asked small business owners, through open-ended questions, to provide their thoughts on what company culture means to them. It also included questions about the role the physical environment and employee well-being play on culture, and how satisfied the owners are with their current culture.
“We found that 90 percent of entrepreneurs found company culture to be an important part of the success of their business, and 80 percent felt like the physical environment equates to culture and is every bit a part of the heart of the culture,” Shapland said.
The business owners don’t think the benefits of company culture are limited to employee attraction and retention either. In addition to those things, they believe having a healthy and clear company culture contributes to new business attraction and profits.
Despite the importance of company culture to success, only a third of the owners surveyed are satisfied with their existing cultures and only a fourth are satisfied with their spaces.
Shapland said companies can do several things to improve their culture, and many of them don’t require a major overhaul. He said one of the most important aspects of creating a healthy company culture is to find ways that allow employees to be themselves while at work.
That can involve creating physical spaces that allow them to work in the same ways they would while at home, encouraging them to decorate their spaces in ways that are representative of who they are, and providing opportunities for informal interactions between employees that help establish relationships and allow them to share more about themselves than their role at work.
“It’s important to offer a range of spaces,” Shapland said. “Allow people to have choices and control over where they work.”
Three types of spaces that offices should include are standing workstations, lounge spaces and private, respite style areas, Shapland said.
Promoting employee well-being and a sense of meaningfulness is another piece of establishing a healthy culture.
“People want to have a sense of belonging in the office,” Shapland said. “They want to have places that allow them to connect with others. Not just in formal settings and traditional settings like a conference room, but really have places and destinations within the office to have more informal interactions with one another.”
He said those informal meeting places create opportunities for employees to get to know each other and build trust.
“Creating destinations and places where it’s OK to sit and talk and socialize and really get to know each other — we find that is so important, particularly with small businesses,” he said. “People want to be comfortable with who they are working with, and having that environment that supports that sense of belonging is really important.”
Employers can also create a sense of meaning and belonging by utilizing open wall spaces to display company and employee achievements, goals and mission statements, client stories, fun facts about employees and other types of information, all of which can convey what the company stands for and give everyone a sense of pride.
One challenge companies often face in developing the company culture they desire comes from a disconnect between having those spaces or policies, and employees actually feeling they can take advantage of what the company is providing.
According to the survey, only “22 percent of small businesses said employees feel supported to follow healthy behaviors throughout the day, including stepping away from their desks for breaks and changing postures or workstations throughout the day.”
Shapland said often the problem is that company leaders aren’t setting an example for employees to follow. Lounge spaces may go unused if newcomers don’t see the boss using them, or a foosball table might begin gathering cobwebs if no one suggests discussing a project over a game.
“In addition to this culture study, we’ve seen over and over in our research over the last several years, it really starts with leadership behavior,” Shapland said. “Whether it’s the ping pong table or foosball table, it can become an artifact or a token that isn’t really used unless everyone is using it and people are sent the signal that it’s OK to use it.”
The desired culture won’t be developed just by setting up a foosball table in the office. Owners and managers need to know why they are providing this item and how they see it contributing to the culture they want and then lead by example.
“There is a small business owner that interviews potential candidates for work at the firm by playing a game of ping pong with them because he wants to send the signal that this is OK, this isn’t just sitting here,” Shapland said. “They also found it was a great way to socially build trust with somebody to see if they could think on their feet and engage and be a part of that culture.”
The increased use of lounge space is an example of how perception influences usage. A decade ago an employee might have been less inclined to sit on a sofa in the office to work because he or she might be nervous about it looking like they weren’t working. With Gen Y and the increase in mobile devices, that has changed.
“Because of the rise of mobile devices and the 24/7 global and mobile nature of work, people are working at home in (certain) postures and they want to work in the office in those postures, too.”
Now seeing someone stretched out on a sofa with a mobile device in the middle of the office doesn’t make anyone think twice about whether or not work is being accomplished. It’s become an accepted way of getting work done.