As small business owners trying to balance purpose and profit, it’s exciting to see large companies employ cool initiatives that change the way business is done. But, realistically, we don’t often have the bandwidth or budget to implement similar programs in our small businesses. It can be discouraging to think of the endless possibilities in making your business more ethical when you feel restricted by limited resources and your staff is already stretched thin.
These simple shifts helped my small business — LimeRed, a user experience and design firm based in Chicago — make real strides in advancing our culture to be more compassionate and inclusive. They cost little to nothing and, along with creating happier, more engaged teams, they allowed us to be more innovative and profitable.
1. Start with yourself
As entrepreneurs, we spend most of our time building our businesses, and the little time we have left is often dedicated to our families and friends. With all of this our plates, it can be difficult to prioritize self care and introspection. But if you’re not at your best, it will be difficult to manage any and all other tasks.
Two major wake-up calls recently forced me to take a look at myself. The first was a trip to the Conscious Company Leaders Forum in California in 2017, which turned into a transformational experience. I deliberately unplugged from work, left my expectations at the door, and chose to be present. Since then, I’ve been practicing meditation and focusing on dismantling and rebuilding relationships in my life that were not beneficial.
Then, a medical issue triggered by stress sent me into a tailspin for about four days. I couldn’t write or design — I could barely concentrate. My brain and body went on strike, forcing me to slow down. Reluctantly, I stopped and took some time to rest and get better, but it was just as much work to put on the brakes as it was to go to task.
When we’re not physically and mentally well, our companies suffer. Our mindset directly impacts and sets the company’s workplace culture. By demonstrating that self care is important, I am setting the tone for my employees. I sent my marketing director home last week, citing how a few days of rest allowed me to come back refreshed and reenergized. Knowing that I prioritize my self care showed her how important it is that she also prioritize herself and her wellbeing.
2. Create space for families
Being a mom myself, I want to make sure to develop a culture that allows for true work–life balance. Simply creating a cozy, child-friendly space in the office is a good way to show your commitment to working parents. A space with things for kids to do — books, toys, coloring, projects for older kids — shows visitors and staff that you see people for who they are.
The people who come into your office aren’t just there to work; they are there to live meaningful lives. This includes accommodating families and children. Our staff brings their kids to work all the time, and I’ll often hire sitters to watch them during meetings. It’s not expensive, and it shows compassion.
I run my business so I can provide for my staff and my family. Creating a space where kids are happy and welcomed just makes sense.
3. Codify your values — together
Lots of companies have their values written down, but where do they come from? Do they come from the person or people in charge? When my company made a major pivot in 2016, we started by reflecting on our own brand and values.
We handed out pieces of paper and asked each person to reflect on the moment he or she decided to join our team: What was your first impression? What stood out and why? What’s the most surprising or meaningful aspect of our culture now that you’ve been here for a while?
People wrote stories, drew pictures, and constructed new things out of the paper. We then took time to share with each other, listening and looking for patterns. A few common themes emerged, and we drafted seven values based on what we heard. Those have held up for two years and are now the basis for everything we do.
4. Be intentional about fun activities
Our team regularly has lunch together, goes out for ice cream, or gathers for cocktails. It’s always a good time, but sometimes group outings can turn into learning opportunities, too. This year, one of my staff members suggested we all read a book together and talk about how to serve clients, and each other, better. We all agreed to read the book and go out to lunch on a specific day to casually discuss.
The day before our team outing, we discovered that a few people hadn’t read the book. I saw this as a learning opportunity — and a time to revisit our values. I gathered the team, and we talked about how not keeping commitments to each other is a violation of trust and degrades our culture. We talked about a solution, and we all agreed to give the team a bit more time to finish the book and rescheduled the discussion.
It would have been easy to have the lunch anyway. After all, it was a casual chat. But sticking to our intention is important to conscious businesses, and applying that across the board creates a work culture that prioritizes values.
5. Show your team how the business works
Our team meets at least twice a year to look at the past, present, and future. It keeps everyone on the same master plan, but at times it’s difficult for people to apply the company’s vision to their daily work. To address this, when I give feedback or make a decision, I always try to back it up by measured performance.
As a certified B Corporation, we have so many measures of performance, and the decisions we make affect our B Corp impact score and our bottom line. Relating job performance to these metrics takes time, but it doesn’t cost anything. Showing your staff how their day-to-day makes an impact on the overall health of the company increases engagement and brings everyone together around a common cause.
In conclusion: Make it your own
A culture of collaboration and ethical practice can take many forms. For small businesses, it will look a lot different than it does at big corporations with seemingly endless funds.
Regardless of your company’s size, building a winning company culture starts with taking a hard look at yourself, your values, and your priorities. It also calls for a little creativity and making the most of available resources.
The effect of small changes can have a big impact for your employees and your company. Sometimes all it takes is a shift in mindset.