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Small Business Month in May and Small Business Saturday — the “shop small” holiday that falls on the last weekend of November — are annual celebrations of small retail businesses. They aren’t all about profit, though. They also help to strengthen community ties and customer relationships.

While non-retail businesses may not have their own day, they also need to build customer loyalty and satisfaction, which means they need enthusiastic, committed employees to support them. Keeping workers engaged is among the top challenges of how to manage employees in small business operations. It certainly isn’t easy in the current environment.

Many small businesses are still bouncing back from the recent pandemic’s disruption, and they find the competition for skilled employees is making it harder to keep positions staffed. Meanwhile, existing workers are under pressure to pick up the slack, which can easily leave them feeling exhausted and underappreciated — and put them on the path to burnout.

If you’re a small business employer, here are some ways to show employees they matter and remind them why working for your small business can be so fulfilling.

1. Offer flexible work schedules

Hybrid and remote work options are no longer a nice-to-have perk; they are an expectation for many workers. Improved engagement and higher productivity are just a few of the benefits. Flexible work schedules can also help you attract and retain top-quality talent, in addition to providing a way to boost employee morale.

If you’ve resisted allowing employees to work from home at least part of the time, it might be time to reconsider. Give some thought to how you can create and manage a remote team, as well as the communication tools and training that employees would need to succeed.

If your business model can’t support a hybrid or remote workforce, consider other arrangements such as flex time, which allows workers to determine their shifts’ start and finish times. Even a small adjustment in hours can make a commute smoother, a school pick-up less rushed — and an employee happier.

2. Benchmark salaries

Competitive pay is critical to employee engagement — and retaining a loyal workforce. Do your research to find out what your competition offers, and make sure you’re paying the market rate or higher. Most likely, your employees have already done their homework.

Robert Half’s latest Salary Guide reports national average starting salaries for hundreds of positions. The guide’s Salary Calculator can localize the figures for your area. Regularly benchmarking your salaries and making adjustments can help employees feel they are being fairly compensated, keeping staff retention and engagement high.

3. Get creative with perks and recognition

Perks are those extra frills that help distinguish you from your competitors in the minds of your employees and show appreciation for their hard work. You don’t have to reach for extravagance when creativity can be just as effective. A monthly subscription to a popular entertainment streaming service, a subsidized gym membership, or an office- or home-delivered lunch on the last Friday of the month are all modest investments that can bring a smile to a worker’s face.

An employee recognition program is another way to help instill pride. Numerous studies confirm that workers who receive recognition are much less likely to be burned out and more likely to be engaged and loyal. Take time to spotlight staff for specific achievements. Whether it singles out the accomplishments of one worker or an entire team, public recognition for a job very well done should be a part of any workplace culture. Even a personal note from the CEO can go a long way toward helping employees feel like they make an impact.


4. Kick-start training and development

If staff training has fallen by the wayside in recent years, your employees may feel stuck in their careers because they’re learning nothing new. That kind of frustration can drive workers to look for opportunities elsewhere. To boost employee morale and keep valued workers on the payroll, talk to individuals about their career goals and discuss strategies to help them advance toward them.

Keep in mind that professional development is a win-win. Here are a few ideas to try:

  • Financial support for learning: For the truly industrious employee, one who’s willing to give up their evenings or weekends to study, reimbursement for college tuition or professional certification fees is a golden ticket. If that’s out of line with your budget, look for more affordable group memberships at LinkedIn Learning or other e-learning training sites. Training can serve a dual purpose when you invite employees to share what they learn with other team members (however, don’t make it a requirement to receive the training).
  • Cross-training: No matter the size of your business, cross-training is a smart practice. Training staff in roles not typically assigned to them allows employees to gain skills and experience. They can also get an inside look at roles they might be eyeing but are uncertain whether they want to pursue. And it gives your organization the backup it might need when someone is out for an extended time.
  • Mentoring: Sometimes, the best resource is just down the hall. Ask your most seasoned employees to share their knowledge with colleagues, either through organized training sessions or continuous mentoring. If you can, give them a bonus or some other reward for the extra investment of their time.

5. Embrace your smallness

Many consumers are passionately loyal to small businesses. They value the personalized service, uniqueness and community roots these companies display. That smallness, that intimacy, should be reinforced as part of your company culture.

Your team members already know how to make a client’s day, whether it’s a prompt and tailored response to a service request or simply remembering the client’s first name when they interact. If a customer is delighted, make sure all of your team members hear about it. Praise people when they accomplish something a bigger firm would struggle to handle. Instill pride in your staff by reminding them why a small business is a great place to work.

If you know how to manage employees in a small business in a way that helps them become more customer-centric, you can see many positive returns for your efforts, including a good business reputation and repeat business.

6. Create a culture of belonging

Many successful small businesses cultivate a “family” feel that keeps employees connected. You can foster a collaborative and welcoming environment that recognizes everyone’s unique point of view to keep employees energized and engaged.

Create opportunities for team members to get to know each other outside of work. Host a pizza party, schedule a Zoom happy hour, or sponsor an employee networking group, after-work club or sports team to help people bond on a personal level. Social activities are especially important for remote workers who may miss out on in-office conversations or activities that can help employees feel like part of the team.

Read about how inclusion and diversity can make your business better.

7. Understand managers’ critical role

Don’t underestimate what you can do to improve engagement and boost employee morale as a manager. By and large, workplace culture is an organic, amorphous order of attitudes, practices and values. It can’t be codified, nor can it be created and imposed by a firm’s leadership. But company policies and your personal behavior can influence and help shape the company’s culture and how employees build on it.

Demonstrate support, inclusivity and empathy through your own actions. Give your employees a sense of empowerment. When workers can make decisions on their own or with minimal direction, they will feel more invested in their roles and responsibilities.

Remember that high percentage of workers mentioned earlier in this article, who said they’re more burned out today than the year before? Don’t let your employees slide into that unsettling stat. Instead, loudly and repeatedly promote a healthy work-life balance. If an individual or team is struggling to meet an important deadline, either bring in contract professionals to help or put aside your own work and pitch in yourself.

A manager’s role is even more important in a hybrid environment than it used to be when everyone was in the office. You will need to check in more often to show your remote team you are there for them and confirm that they are feeling supported and engaged.

Mastering how to manage employees in a small business successfully includes understanding what strategies work best to boost employee morale. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to building morale at small businesses, unfortunately. What works for a small legal practice might not fly at an accounting firm or a boutique marketing agency. But you can make a great deal of headway, quickly, by showing your team your appreciation, respecting their needs and limits, and offering them engaging and meaningful work.

Want more insight into the hiring landscape for small businesses and strategies to overcome staffing challenges? Check out this video featuring research from Robert Half.

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