Building a business where people want to work

It's not always easy for small businesses to attract top talent. Here are five ways small business owners can offer a unique value proposition to employees.

At a glance

Here's a snapshot of the advice from our interviewees:

  • Foster a fantastic culture for employees to keep them engaged.
  • "As long as my staff work their hours, it doesn't really matter what hours they're doing," says business owner Shaan Nicol. "We're pretty flexible around supporting them and their needs."
  • Retailer Jordan Cullen provides financial flexibility plus professional assistance for staff who are struggling.
  • Working for a small, rather than large, business can also mean employees benefit from greater responsibility and access to senior management.

Attracting and retaining good staff has never been more challenging for businesses. In 2023, people look to their jobs for a sense of identity and fulfilment. They demand flexibility and, with costs rising, decent remuneration.

It can be hard for small businesses to compete against large corporations. They can’t always offer the structured career paths and the same promotion opportunities, and they usually run on smaller budgets, which can mean lower salaries and fewer benefits.

“Small organisations need to get very creative about what they can offer,” says Kathryn MacMillan, who founded recruitment and HR advisory company CIRCLE Recruitment & HR 20 years ago.

Sometimes a fancy workplace with free barista coffee and nutritious snacks on tap doesn’t quite cut it. Here are tips from three business owners who have tried to create a workplace where people really want to work – to the benefit of employees and also their bottom line.

1. Foster team spirit

Kathryn, who manages 16 employees at her Sydney office and overseas, believes small businesses can offer employees a fun and engaging culture that’s easy to diffuse throughout the company.

“We organise events, which don’t have to cost a lot of money,” she explains. “We have a very long corridor in our office so we have a boules break. We have a fancy hat week and we’re organising a book week .”
She says CIRCLE maps out its events on a calendar and also promotes them on social media.

“We get the most likes and comments on posts of the team dressing up for Easter or Halloween or doing other crazy things. People love it and it’s promoting our culture. People then want to work with us and for us.”

Jordan Cullen, founder of Cullen Jewellery, agrees that workplace culture plays a key role for small businesses.

Every time the company receives a five-star review, staff get to choose how they celebrate.

“We’ve had team lunches and dinners, we organise activities such as ceramic painting and glazing workshops, and we’ve funded the participation of our employees in the Melbourne Marathon,” he says. “One of our proudest initiatives is the sponsorship of a child in a developing country under the successful employee’s name.”

2. Be inclusive and flexible

For Shaan Nicol, group activities are not so simple. The Brisbane-based owner of website design business Chillybin manages a remote team of 10 remote workers across Australia, Singapore, China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines.

But he says there are other ways to invest in team culture.

“We have a lot of meetings and stand-ups around specific projects,” he says. “We have jokey Slack channels where everyone can have a bit of fun and soon, we’re looking to fly people around and have a get-together in person.”

Shaan believes respect and flexibility is the key to keeping good staff. Chillybin marks the public holidays and cultures of the different countries where employees live, and allows flexibility around staff needs.

“As long as my staff work their hours, it doesn’t really matter when they work. And if someone’s finished a project and there’s no additional work on, we’re happy for them to take an extra day to do whatever they want. If people want to work on their own projects, we give time for that too.”

3. Discover what motivates your team

For Jordan, employee wellbeing is a priority.

“A feedback-driven environment, where employees can share their insights or concerns, is vital,” he says. “We also make sure to recognise individual achievements.”

Shaan organises regular one-on-ones to work out what makes his employees tick and how he can reward them for meeting their targets.

“Some people need a bit more money so we’ll do a monetary reward,” he explains. “Some will want more time off with family, so we’ll reward them that way. We’re very adaptable to what each team member wants.”

4. Offer a package, not just a salary

When considering salaries, it may be helpful for small business owners to talk about a total rewards package, suggests Kathryn.

It’s not just about pay. Having good benefits, a bonus or an incentive plan can be very helpful. And this can also help to drive performance.”

Cullen offers employees financial flexibility through an earned wage access system, which allows employees to draw up to $250 per week in advance of their upcoming paycheck for shifts already completed.

“This is particularly handy for sudden and unexpected expenses,” says Jordan.

Meanwhile its Employee Assistance Program provides employees and immediate family members with professional counselling.

The program is confidential and private, so while Cullen can gauge the overall usage, it never knows which employees have booked sessions.

5. Have confidence you can compete

Kathryn says small businesses offer tangible benefits over large corporations.

“There aren’t so many management levels, so you have more direct access to senior management and greater responsibility in your role, and you get to wear a number of hats. All this contributes to learning and development.”

Cullen Jewellery’s social media manager Juliette Carrieri agrees.

“At a small business, I really get to see the direct impact of what I do. It’s like being part of a tight-knit family where everyone’s input matters.

“In big companies, you can feel a bit lost, but here, I feel very fulfilled seeing our progress. Plus, because I work directly with a close team, I can be as creative as I want, pivoting quickly and experimenting with new ideas.”
Jordan adds that large organisations can’t compete when it comes to the personal connection.

“The familial, intimate environment in small businesses often outshines the grand perks of large corporations.”

Recognition for Prospa’s workplace

Prospa is proud to have built a workplace where people want to work.

We’ve been named as one of Australia’s Best Workplaces in 2023, as part of the Great Place To Work national recognition program.

This recognition reflects Prospa’s ongoing commitment to build a workplace where values drive action, and where everyone can be bold, open and real.

Hiring new talent? Talk with a Prospa specialist about how a Prospa Business Line of Credit could help cover ongoing salary costs.

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