Small Business Offers Big Insights On Best Workplace Practice

By Amelia Chan, CHRP

While the vast majority of British Columbians are employed by small businesses, there has always been an inverse relationship regarding the amount of media coverage they receive. As a result, rarely do we hear of their triumphs or regard them in the light of valuable lessons for HR professionals within organizations of any size.

In fact, with approximately 385,000 small businesses accounted for in 2012, small business represents 98 per cent of all businesses in the province. Similarly, estimated 1,032,700 people employed by small business in BC accounted for 55 per cent of private-sector employment. Moreover, small business does big business and accounted for 26 per cent of the province’s gross domestic product in 2012.

Best Workplace Finalists Inspire
Without a doubt, small business matters in large amounts—as always, it’s good people that make it all happen.

This February I had the opportunity to explore five of the best small businesses in  BC—and reflect upon what made their workplaces such positive places to be.  Even though Small Business BC had obviously narrowed the field, helping them select the winner of the 2014 Best Workplace Award was no easy task.

So, while i-Worx of North Vancouver ultimately took the title, the people practices at play within Homeroom Small Business Solutions, CNN Bikes, The Oracle, and Cucumber Marketing similarly inspired this article.

Each of the five finalists represent both the lifeblood of BC as small business operators; they also provide an open and illuminating window into innovative and effective people practices. The very essence of these employers’ success stories speaks to the heart of human resources—even though the majority lack any formal HR function.

The Humility to Succeed
What drives these small business champions is very similar to big business champions—a desire to succeed.  What distinguishes the champions of small business, as represented by the Small Business BC “Best Workplace” finalists, is the humility with which they triumph—and the ability to have their wisdoms taken to heart by any HR professional.

This understated humility and lack of overriding ego is a hallmark in such operations. Traditional organizational politics don’t have the same sway within these smaller entities.  Such modesty isn’t just charming, it’s necessary because within their business models, every human is counted upon as an integral resource.

While each finalist was required to speak to their companies virtues, what spoke most loudly was the simple fact that they had been brought forward as nominees by their proud employees in the first place.

Here are some good takeaways that small business can certainly teach or remind their bigger counterparts.

Creative innovation
When you don’t have large budgets, creativity can help you go really far.  The best thing about applying creativity in the workplace is that it naturally leads to innovation.1  While other organizations may be treating innovation itself as a separate issue to address, the necessity of doing more with less through teamwork becomes a built-in secret weapon for small businesses.  i-Worx in North Vancouver, has regular monthly townhall style meetings over dinner with plenty of opportunity to share a “Blue Sky” initiative to think completely outside the box.

Why Before The What
Making each effort count in small business requires a firm commitment to asking “why?” before embarking on the “what”. Tailored problem solving that fits and puts the “why?” up front is key. CCN Bikes in North Vancouver makes a practice of being proactive and tailors its work spaces to meet individual’s wellness, and, ultimately, productivity needs.  At Homeroom Small Business Solutions in Vancouver, they worked together to create a company vision board and vision statement which incorporated their individual goals.  This level of pro-activity and buy-in is a very grassroots approach and enmeshed in their corporate culture right from the beginning.

Dare to Care with Natural Leadership
Small business thrives on the basis of intuitive, charismatic leadership guided by strong business instincts.  “Just making things work” often boils down to developing unconventional business models aligned to the finer details of employees’ lives and client needs.  Over time, savvy instincts may evolve into successful formulas, but the core leadership approach remains guided by a heightened degree of emotional intelligence and flexibility. Kelly Oswald of The Oracle in Whistler, has built a business niche within a challenging industry despite tough economic times, an unpredictable tourism based location, transient staff and a fire/setback.

Empathy and Compassion
Quite often, small business owners are previously frustrated former employees who take it upon themselves to improve their own situation and this gives them far better insight into their own employees’ shoes. It’s like a rewind and do-over for past scenarios, a phoenix rising from the training ground of past employment regrets and failures.  These builders have a type of compassion which drives the desire to want better for others who follow them into the unknown.  Cucumber Marketing Inc. in Vancouver, has taken their passion about local business into volunteering their professional expertise by giving free workshops.  In fact, all the Small Business finalists actively give their time and expertise to worthy charities and causes as part of their organization culture.

Small Issues Make a Big Difference
Although we had to pick one winner, all the participants have already won.   Each business owner was passionate and demonstrated great ideas for their company wellness initiatives.  How lucky these employees are to be a part of a great workplace environment.  We have seen this demonstrated passionately through heartfelt testimonials and personal stories. The fact that these businesses put mental and physical health as a priority in their planning and resources already sets them apart — small or large organizations not withstanding.  The reward and intrinsic accolades transform into engaged employees who give back as much as they get from these activities.

Successful small business owners are natural problem solvers with no lack of flexibility or grit.  The businesses they create and run are fuelled by a clear purpose which often begins as a pet project and evolves via creativity, ingenuity and demand. As a result, the workplaces they create in the process can serve as inspiring illustrations for organizations of all sizes.

As founder and principal consultant of Higher Options Consulting Services (, Amelia Chan, CHRP, RCIC provides a wide range of HR and immigration services to small to mid-sized businesses.

(PeopleTalk Spring 2014)


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