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Happiness Isn’t Free, But It Need Not Break the Bank

By Shannon Byrne
27th January 2017

Creating a strong company culture is an essential part of building a sustainable business, but the costs of perks can add up. The good news is, a strong culture doesn’t always equate to splashy common spaces or top-shelf office happy hours. When it comes to culture, it really is the small, meaningful gestures that count, not the budget you roll out.

If you are looking to build a company culture that your team is excited to be a part of, but have a limited budget, here are six ideas you and your team can try:

Get creative with thoughtful common spaces

Don’t have a “Google budget?” Not to worry. When designing your office’s layout, get creative and scrappy (and maybe even a little silly) with common areas. Can’t afford a nap pod? Make a pillow fort. No space for a ping pong table? Put up a small table up against a wall and call it a table racquetball court. Don’t have space for a gym or climbing wall – well, imagine that! Draw a hopscotch court on your floor and place some jump ropes and dumbbells in a corner and hang up a fun, handmade gym sign.

Your team will appreciate the gesture and the light-hearted nature of the “officevibe.” They’ll also be grateful for your focus on making them comfortable, no matter your budget. When joining a startup or small company, people understand that budgets are tight–and that they are in it for the long haul. When you upgrade in a couple of years, everyone will look back fondly on that pillow fort.

Create friendly team competitions

Team competitions are an age-old technique, we think. They’re a fun way to get your team working together outside of actual work and to promote cross-team engagement. And they can take the form of pretty much anything, which comes in handy when you have a limited budget.

Will Housh at told Entrepreneur they use competitions to motivate and unite team members. They host activities such as chili cook-offs and kickball tournaments in the parking lot. They’ve also done fitness challenges, where the winner is named based on everyone’s personal best. Prizes are modest – like a gift card to a local restaurant.

The key with competitions, which is the same for any activity that contributes to team building or workplace culture, is to ensure they’re inclusive. According to research from Deloitte, “When diversity practices and trust co-exist in an organization, it increases employee engagement.” Pick activities that won’t isolate or exclude any of your team members and keep them optional so that no one feels forced to participate. For the ones who hesitate, ask them what they’d like to see the team do together. In other words, inclusiveness breeds engagement and trust – which lead to a more positive culture.

Take inexpensive field trips and get creative with team building

Getting outside can do wonders to one’s psyche, a fact backed up by several scientific studies. Team field trips don’t have to be crazy expensive. You could try bringing the team to a park for a picnic with games, to a donation-based museum, or to volunteer at a community organization that needs it (maybe an animal shelter!).

In-office activities can be a lot of fun as well, especially if you take the time to find projects your team can do together. Even better if they can enjoy the end-result together as well. Inexpensive activity ideas include sushi rolling, a pizza-making party, building winter-proof bird feeders (for those in cold climates), or making a wall of fame with a makeshift photo booth.

Start an internal and guest speaker series

One of the most effective things you can do to build a great culture is to add value to your team member’s lives and show them that you’re invested in their futures.

Ask your own team members to speak about something they’re passionate about, or a side project they’re working on. Maybe someone is building an app and learned a ton about mobile development. Or, they’re a yoga instructor or nutritionist on the side and can give a talk on health and wellness. Your team will get to know each other better, learn something new, and will feel empowered to share what they’re excited about outside of work in the office.

You can also bring in outside friends, and friends of friends, who are up for talking with your group. This gives the speaker a new audience, and brings in a new perspective to inspire your team. Put out cheap snacks and drinks and you’ve got a party with a purpose.

Host innovation days

Your team is made up of smart, creative people who are full of great ideas and top-notch problem-solving skills. They probably wouldn’t mind having a break from their day-to-day work tasks to try their hand at creating something new.

Introduce a regular day, once a week or maybe just once a month to start, where each team gets to work on something outside of their everyday projects together. For example, your engineering team could build something unrelated to your company in the coding language you use. Or something fun that your team can use but doesn’t directly relate to what you sell.

For example, during their Innovation Wednesdays, Geckoboard’s engineering team built a Slack printer for their remote retrospectives and a lunchbot for making lunch orders more efficient. Innovation days give your team a creative outlet, a break from work, and a new perspective on working together.

Give your people a breather

Sometimes building a great culture is as simple as giving your team members a break. If someone seems like they’re on the verge of burnout, suggest they take some (paid) time off. Ask team members if they’ll step up and split that person’s responsibilities for a week. It’ll do them wonders. Make sure your team knows that this is a policy that applies to everyone.

Communication is key for this one. Make sure everyone understands that by protecting them from burnout, you’re promoting productivity (it's science – sort of) and happier team members. Of course, this leads to a stronger, more positive company culture.

If you’re a smaller company and giving that much time off isn’t feasible, then consider introducing “Work From Home Fridays.” Or, let team members choose their day as long as it works for the company. Showing your team that you trust them with flexible hours will go a long way in building morale and preventing burnout. Just one day without a commute can lift spirits.

Beyond the specific ideas shared here, building an inclusive, trusting culture means listening to your employees. When building your culture, ask them what’s most important to their happiness at work and prioritize your efforts accordingly. The culture you create is up to you and your team, so try some ideas out, experiment boldly, and see what comes next.

Photography by Dominick Mastrangelo

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About The Author
Shannon Byrne
Shannon Byrne is a writer, producer, podcaster, and strategist. She specializes in helping small businesses, startups, and creative entrepreneurs build meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships with their audiences. She’s the founder of A Song A Day and The Process Podcast. Connect with her at
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