- Big companies are revisiting pre-pandemic policies like requiring employees to work from the office.
- But small-business owners that can offer flexibility have a competitive edge in hiring.
- A founder, an HR exec, and a professor shared how small businesses can innovate in the job market.
- This article is part of Talent Insider, a series containing expert advice to help small business owners tackle a range of hiring challenges.
In June 2021, after more than a year of enduring COVID-19-related challenges as a restaurant owner, Meghan Lee needed a new way to sustain her business.
“I was watching our momentum die,” said Lee, who runs a restaurant called Heirloom in Lewes, Delaware. “Everyone was exhausted, I was exhausted, and I was like, ‘I need to change my model because something’s not working.'”
She parted ways with her executive chef, restructured her staff, and implemented a collaborative kitchen where everyone had the opportunity to be the head chef. Lee said the changes have led to a more cohesive work environment and employees who feel valued.
Meanwhile, behemoth companies like Snap have been revisiting pre-pandemic policies and requiring employees to work from the office again, leading to backlash from some workers.
“We are in a moment where now more than ever we are seeing people very willing to articulate what their expectations are,” Joan McGrail, chief human-resources officer at New Balance, told Insider. “It does have us really ensuring that we are ready to respond and continue to be competitive.”
Angela Lee, a professor at Columbia Business School and faculty director at the school’s entrepreneurship center, said small-business owners like Meghan Lee have an opportunity to build a positive culture, offer creative benefits, and provide the transparency that many workers are prioritizing. She added that those things would give them an edge in hiring or retaining employees.
She suggested that small-business owners can more precisely tailor things like remote-work opportunities and mental-health benefits based on their employees’ needs.
Here’s how Meghan Lee, Angela Lee, and McGrail suggest small-business owners innovate their policies to compete with big companies for talent.
Build a collaborative and transparent environment
Angela Lee said that especially in an uncertain or nerve-wracking economy, “you should not decrease the quality of your hires.” After all, she added, “culture is set at a company by the 10th employee.”
Meghan Lee said that before she made the changes in her restaurant, she made a promise to herself to never hire someone just to fill a space. She said that setting standards from the beginning had helped with employee hiring and retention because everyone works well with those around them.
Angela Lee said that while small-businesses owners can’t always promise stability, they can promise to be transparent with employees about what they’re working through and invite employees to be part of the decision-making.
Be creative with remote-work opportunities
As more workers require flexibility in their jobs, small-business owners can innovate on remote-work policies to compete with companies that may be requiring a return to the office.
“What we’re hearing commonly is a desire for flexibility as a foundational element,” McGrail said.
Angela Lee said entrepreneurs who understand the importance of flexibility can find creative ways to offer that to workers. Employees who don’t need to be in an office will value remote or work-from-anywhere options — but if managers do need people to work from a specific location, they should make the rationale clear, she added.
“The idea of a five-day, 40-hour in-office workweek, that’s very antiquated,” Angela Lee said. “It can’t just be because it’s always been this way — you have to explain why.”
Provide opportunities for employees to care for their well-being
Along with a collaborative org chart, Meghan Lee offers a $300 stipend for flights to incentivize her employees to travel during their monthlong break in January, when the restaurant is closed. She said that while it’s not the single reason employees stay, it helps boost morale and productivity and shows her employees she cares about them.
Angela Lee suggested small-business owners invest in benefits like mental-health packages or stipends. “Give them a $2,000 mental-health budget and say you can use it for executive coaching or yoga,” she said. “Your money has so much more impact when you do things like that.”
She also suggested owners tailor benefits, bonuses, and gifts to their employees. “That’s much easier to do when you have a 20-person organization than when you have a 20,000-person organization,” she said.