December 23, 2009: Entrepreneur.com
by Jennifer Brown
Even in tough economic times, small businesses need to find new ideas, develop original products, and engineer fresh market approaches. These are the pillars of good business, and each is made from a mixture of creativity and expertise. While it may seem counterintuitive, it's entirely possible to implement strategies that drive not only employee engagement, but also innovation and, ultimately, sales--all without enormous investment in systems or people.
What can your company do to remain fresh, vibrant and alive--all without breaking the bank? Here are five ways:
1. De-emphasize office space
The traditional office space, where cubicles, the hum of overhead lights, and group politics preside, is not usually the most conducive environment for harnessing the most creative ideas. Giving employees the opportunity to perform some or all of their work outside the office can break this routine and cultivate an innovative workforce.
Often simply changing the physical working location to the café or tea house on the corner can produce a stream of new and valuable ideas. And many of these "third places" provide complimentary wireless internet access, have space for convening, and sell enough coffee to keep everyone alert. Writers and musicians know about the creative effects of a cafe's stimulating and relaxing atmosphere--why not CEOs?
2. Virtualize your workforce
In addition to being ineffective at times, the office space may be an unnecessary expense. The cost of maintaining an office space is usually the single largest line item when it comes to business overhead. Many small businesses have eliminated the expense by ceasing to rent office space and setting up virtually. Transforming your business into a virtual operation creates the new opportunity to hire and retain talented people from outside of your geographic area and frees up funds to be invested elsewhere.
Keep in mind, though, that while there are many benefits to virtualizing a company, the reduction in face time also necessitates a change in management style. Much greater focus is needed on project expectations and deadlines, as well as clear and consistent communication.
3. Leverage collaboration applications
At the beginning and end of the day, your business is about people--the clients you serve and the staff that you employ. Connecting these people in the right way is essential to creating and running a great company, and collaboration applications are excellent tools with which to accomplish this goal.
Collaboration applications create new avenues of communication that effectively improve team cohesion and break down the invisible barriers within a company. Intelligent implementation can turn a stagnant, sluggish company into one composed of engaged employees, who contribute more of their "discretionary time" toward the success of the company.
One excellent collaboration application is GoogleDocs, which creates an online conference table where ideas can be put forward, discussed and implemented. Every document created within the application is saved, so it can be opened and edited wherever there is an internet connection. Novice computer users will find GoogleDocs easy to learn and intuitive to operate. Likewise, instant messaging programs such as Skype or MSN Messenger enable fast communication through chat groups formed around departments or projects.
CPS Creative, a website design company, is a great model for its implementation of collaboration software. The company, which is almost entirely virtual, requires all employees to use the same instant messaging program and be online at designated times. All of the employees assigned to a specific project join the same chat group. Also, at the beginning and end of each work day, all employees check in with their colleagues in order to let them know they have arrived and left.
4. Invest in the skills of current employees
On a regular basis, companies face a host of small but necessary tasks that must be accomplished, like creating a Flash graphic for the website, writing a marketing brochure, or drafting a press release. Yet smaller companies cannot afford a dedicated IT department, marketing staff or public affairs coordinator, despite the fact that many of these tasks, like maintaining a functioning and well-designed website, are essential to attracting new business and transitioning from a struggling start-up to a vibrant and growing company.
Hiring new employees with the necessary skills is not the only solution; invest in the skill development of your current workforce. Your staff most likely either has the requisite capabilities to accomplish these projects or can quickly acquire them. The additional skills will undoubtedly be very marketable, which satisfies your employees while providing for the needs of the company.
One resource to help accomplish this is the website Lynda.com [http://www.lynda.com/], which provides online training in professional-grade applications like Adobe Dreamweaver and Illustrator--the required tools to build quality websites and produce stunning marketing materials.
5. Build cross-functional teams
Finally, one of the greatest methods for producing innovation in a company is to solicit contributions from the entire workforce. Taking your employees, who are the most knowledgeable experts on the company, and gathering them around a conference table will help your company develop innovative solutions with little investment.
CPS Creative once encouraged a non-technical member of their staff to try his hand at Flash design, something that he had never done before. After seeing his immediate aptitude for it, the company merged the product developed by the original Flash expert with the staff member's design, creating a better product in the end.
Regardless of the condition of the economy, companies should always looking toward expansion. Growing while revenue is stagnant is a difficult, but not impossible, task. Consider these five ideas: shifting the workplace away from the office, virtualizing the workforce, using collaboration applications, investing in new skills acquisition, and tapping into the talents of existing employees. All of these strategies are inexpensive and cultivate the essential ingredients of successful small (and someday large) businesses everywhere--workforce engagement, innovation and, ultimately, sales.