5 ways to build a small business culture that elevates employee happiness

Friday, March 11, 2022

As a small business owner, you know culture is at the heart of what makes a business special. That, and the people who work there.

But what are employees looking for in their workplace culture now that we're nearly two years into a global pandemic?

It’s no secret that good employees make your business better. But if the personnel crisis has found its way to your doors, then you know that finding and attracting the right team isn’t as easy as it seems.

Courtney Mankin, president of The Social Order, an Oklahoma restaurant group with a dining collective of 10 locations, sat down with Heartland leaders to discuss her answer to the challenge of finding and retaining talent.

Whether you’re a retail shop or a restaurant, this small business’ journey to building a company culture that fosters happy employees who want to be — and stay — a part of your business could help.

In this blog, we’ll look at five key takeaways from our conversation:

  1. Emphasize work-life balance
  2. Help employees succeed with thorough training
  3. Maintain open communication with team members
  4. Take care of the people who take care of your guests
  5. Reverse the idea that every employee is replaceable
A group of business owners having a meeting at a restaurant

How to build a happier work environment

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1. Emphasize work-life balance

Like The Social Order, you might’ve found higher pay isn’t motivating employees the way it used to. Maybe in the past you were able to convince an employee to stay onboard by offering a raise, but now you’re finding those days are gone.

It might be time to reprioritize your employee perks beyond pay.

The Social Order discovered something else their employees care about: time off. Following the global health crisis, a renewed focus on mental health and well-being has skyrocketed — and it’s here to stay.

When it comes to what employees want out of a job, their bottom line has changed: Work-life balance now nears the top of the list.

But for many, wishes aren’t matching reality. A larger number of organizations are reporting an increase in employees who are burned out and feel their work-life balance has decreased in the past few years. That’s why businesses offering flexible schedules, healthy work hours and a robust time-off policy are ranking among the top places to work.

When your team knows they’re part of a culture where hard work will be balanced with much-needed time to rest and recuperate, you’re more likely to minimize burnout, inspire more productive employees and boost retention.

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2. Help employees succeed with thorough training

As the saying goes, knowledge is power. Employees who are equipped with proper training are more likely to enjoy what they do — and excel at it.

On the other hand, when new team members flounder, get frustrated and leave because their training slipped through the cracks, it means a higher cycle of staff turnover for your small business. Not to mention the headache of having to recruit, screen and onboard new employees instead of focusing on fostering the talent you have.

The Social Order has found a way to combat this with one simple practice: Putting a bigger emphasis on training staff.

By creating a culture of learning, providing a thoughtful onboarding process and encouraging knowledge sharing, new hires are more likely to feel fulfilled in their work and take the initiative to perform better in their role. But it doesn’t just apply to new employees. Continuing ongoing training and upskilling education for tenured team members can have a similarly positive effect in increasing employee retention.

If your training isn’t where you want it to be, consider spending some time strengthening your program or investing in payroll technology that will help. It could be an opportunity to turn well-trained, happy employees into brand ambassadors for your business.

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3. Maintain open communication with team members

Everyone likes to hear praise. It’s a good thing a key part of The Social Order’s culture is to communicate employees’ value directly to them.

Two employees happily fist-bumping each other

Employee praise can be as small as thanking a worker for doing a good job that day. Or as big as saying you see them on the fast track to a management position.

If you want employees to envision a future for themselves at your business, sharing praise has power. A talented employee who knows they are valued and appreciated is more likely to be happy where they’re at instead of looking for greener pastures.

Take a page out of The Social Order's menu and bolster employee engagement by building a culture of promoting from within. Create a career plan for employees you see potential in — and tell them about it. Have regular check-ins or one-on-ones to let your employees know about 1) management positions you see them growing into and 2) actionable steps to get there.

People want to feel invested in. Giving employees goals — and a realistic path to achieve them — could be the extra incentive they need to stick around.

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4. Take care of the people who take care of your guests

You’re running a business, so you’ve no doubt heard the age-old saying, “The customer always comes first.” Well, The Social Order has a spin on that approach: Take care of the people who take care of your guests.

When you put employees first and they feel taken care of, you’ll see that naturally reflected in how they in turn take care of your customers. Building a culture where employees know their boss is in their corner can foster loyalty, happiness and higher employee satisfaction.

Perhaps more importantly, it can help create a work environment where team members feel safe and trust their employers to look out for them. In an age where employee well-being is everything, that value can't be overstated.

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5. Reverse the idea that every employee is replaceable

This scenario might sound familiar: A talented employee working for you part time while going to college is doing great work. But you haven’t bothered trying to grow them. You've resigned yourself to accept this is just a pitstop while they’re on their way to something else. Oh well, you'll replace them when the time comes.

Tired of that same old story? You’re not the only one. The Social Order is reversing the narrative.

They’ve found culture can play a big role in turning working for a small business from a stopover into a career. How? It starts with fighting for your people and letting them know staying is an option.

Even when an employee says they have other career plans or personal goals (dental school, corporate ladder to climb, family legacy to uphold, you name it), it might be worth it to throw your hat in the ring and let them know a long-term career at your business is a real possibility. You won’t always win this fight. But then again, you might not always lose.

Don’t be too quick to sell yourself short. Positive workplace culture. People who are passionate about what they do. Leadership that cares about employees' wellness, happiness and quality of life. These things could make for a more attractive alternative to the 9-5 grind and mountains of student debt than you realize.

Consider not letting talent go without fighting for them first. Who knows? You might even create lifetime employees who will grow with your business.

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Solutions to help you build

You might be thinking, “This all sounds great, but who has the time?”

Creating and maintaining a culture of happy and healthy employees doesn’t happen with the wave of a magic wand. But we don’t have to tell you it takes hard work.

For any culture to thrive, it requires people, and especially leaders, to take care of it. That’s difficult to do when you're bogged down with the technical software side of managing employees.

We know how busy you are. And we have good news. There are tech solutions that can help.

When it comes to payroll and HR, there’s no shortage of options to choose from. Learn more about the solutions that have worked for The Social Order since 2003 and have grown with their business every step of the way: Heartland Payroll and Heartland Hire.

The right technology can simplify and automate complicated, time-consuming back-office tasks (time tracking, tax filing and payroll management anyone?). Getting those hours back will allow you to focus on the big things like developing your unique, positive work culture and fostering happy employees.

If you’re not sure where to start, check out this guide for things to consider when shopping for payroll and HR solutions.


Heartland is the point of sale, payments and payroll solution of choice for entrepreneurs that need human-centered technology to sell more, keep customers coming back and spend less time in the back office. Nearly 1,000,000 businesses trust us to guide them through market changes and technology challenges, so they can stay competitive and focus on building remarkable businesses instead of managing the daily grind. Learn more at heartland.us