MT Expert: Maintaining that start-up culture

The quirky, dynamic atmosphere at a start-up company is one of the reasons for its success: people love working there. David Spencer-Percival explains how you can maintain it once the company begins to mature.

by David Spencer-Percival
Last Updated: 02 Aug 2012

Anyone who has started a business will have experienced that feeling of excitement in the pit of their stomach as they bounce around ideas and channel their energies into laying the foundations of that future success story. The inspiration that exists in the early days of a business drives growth and encourages positive thinking amongst staff. But once the first few clients are on the books and the team gets stuck into day-to-day activities it becomes all too easy for that sense of innovation fade into the background.

Keeping things exciting and maintaining a start-up culture doesn’t always come naturally. In fact it requires careful thought and planning. That goes beyond flexible working hours, open decision-making and keeping meetings to a minimum.Yes, these are commonly associated with start-ups, but there are two more effective ways of maintaining that informal, small business culture.

The first is aesthetics. When your employees first walk into the office in the morning, what do they see? White walls, square desks and stock imagery, or a quirky, colourful and interesting space?

Office design affects the daily frame of mind of all your employees, so gear yours towards happiness and comfort. You can achieve this through something as basic as wall colour, think anything but grey, or effective storage, keeping clutter out of sight and out of mind. Taking it up a step, install a quirky piece of art to act as a talking point, design themed rooms or lay unusual carpeting – Astroturf perhaps? As long as you stay within the realms of ‘appropriate’ you can really go to town with your office decor and create a space that employees enjoy being in. 

The second is your incentive package. Incentives are a catalyst for innovative and outstanding business ideas. When designing your rewards system, you should take into account that just about everyone loves a bit of healthy competition. You will soon find employees become vastly more productive when they have a target to work towards, or colleagues to compete against. Why not offer a prize for idea of the month or present the best sales person in your team with a luxury holiday once a year? A reward, plus the notoriety of being a ‘winner’, will keep the brainwaves flowing. 

With this in mind, a word of warning: make sure you have a firm benefits plan in mind and be sure not to just give them away. You don’t want winning to be too easy or it will be taken for granted. Consider also what type of prize will motivate your staff, for some it will be money, for others, theatre tickets. In other words tailor the prize to the employees or they simply won’t care to compete.

Of course there is another argument that can be made, a theory commonly known as The Hawthorn Effect. Your staff will simply feel important because they are singled out and you are paying attention to them, and their productivity will increase as a result. It suggests that your incentives could be low key, but the fact that they exist at all will be what matters. With a limited budget, it is an option some managers might want to experiment with.

Whatever your decision, creating a start-up culture might be easy, but maintaining it is not.  You should never underestimate how much positive influence an attractive workplace can have, and you can never work too hard to ensure that the environment is motivating and geared towards incentivising your staff to work and perform at their best. The ability to brag is crucial to staff morale; employees need to be able to, and want to, boast about their job to their friends. 

If you can engage your staff you will reap the benefits associated with a focused and positive workforce and importantly, you will find yourself at an advantage over competitors, able to attract and retain your industry’s top talent with ease.

David Spencer-Percival is the founder and CEO of Spencer Ogden, an energy recruitment company. 

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