Does Business Size Affect Employee Happiness and Culture?


There's no doubting happy employees are more productive. But does business size affect employee happiness and culture? 

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If there’s one important thing separating the modern age workforce from the workforce of, say, the industrial age, it’s that the importance of an organisation’s employee happiness is recognised and actively pursued.

This isn’t necessarily because we live in a more caring and connected age so much as it is because happiness is profitable. A University of Warwick paper makes the claim that happiness can contribute to a 12 percent increase in employee productivity.

While the merits of positive work culture and happy employees are rarely debated, what people do like to rap about is exactly how you create that culture and capture those positive vibes. Some even hearken to “startup culture” as the pinnacle of employee happiness and creativity, a condition that inevitably dissipates over time and after the company grows. So what is that element that seems to evaporate, and is it really simply dependent on the size of your organisation?

Does Size Matter?

According to Steve Tobak, writing for, no, size does not matter. “Conventional wisdom says that startups and closely held companies should be far more nimble, less bureaucratic, and less political than large corporations.,” he says. “But that's more myth than reality. In the real world, small businesses are just as likely to be poorly run and dysfunctional as big enterprises. Perhaps more so.”

This is because a company’s culture will oftentimes shape itself in the likeness of its leaders, for better or worse. Tobak calls on Facebook and Zuckerberg’s “move fast and break things” mantra, Amazon and Bezos’ “lean, mean, and brutally competitive” nature, and Apple and Steve Jobs’ minimalist, yet effective policies and processes as examples of startup culture that survived the company’s growth. Now, what’s important to realize is that not all of these employees are all happy in the same way, and that somebody who works at Facebook, for example, is not necessarily going to be as happy working at Apple. Happiness is not one-size-fits-all.

Recommended reading: Leadership, Strategy, and Culture: The Holy Trinity of Modern Business

Providing the Nudge

When it comes to healthy company culture, especially startup culture, there always seems to be a buzz fills the air. Nothing is stale. Barbara Corcoran, most well-known as one of the “Sharks” on ABC’s reality TV show, Shark Tank, writes about how fun is integral to building and fostering a happy and creative company. Fun at work makes good business sense because happy people work harder, and a lot more work gets done,” she says. “People are more productive and build better teams when they enjoy their jobs and each other’s company.

There’s no doubting Corcoran’s business acumen, but let’s take her ideas on fun one logical step further. Fun requires people to engage and willingly invest their time and attention to something. This is contrasted by unengaged employee who shows up to work, but doesn’t bring their attention with them. In the latter case, even though you have a body on the floor, this employee’s output isn’t nearly what it would be if they were actively engaged and invested in what they are doing.

A Culture of Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

Business author Daniel Pink thinks he has the formula that will motivate employees and make them their happiest. In his book Drive, he posits that businesses who give their employees room to develop autonomy, mastery, and purpose will ultimately see a happy, motivated workforce, no matter how big or small the organization.

Autonomy is usually linked to startup culture already, where many employees are allowed to work however they want. Some work whenever they want, and with the rise of remote working options even work wherever they want. Unfortunately, autonomy isn’t enough. As detailed by one of AppNovation’s developers in a blog post on the company’s website, The Zen of Working in Comfy Slippers, you still have to find a motivating spark to get work done from home. In fact, one might argue that the temptations of working from home to the unmotivated could prove disastrous, even if the employee is “happier”.

Mastery is what any practitioner seeks, especially when they are passionate about their work. Of course, it’s hard to say that anybody is passionate about weekly reports or spreadsheets. Nevertheless, knowing that you are a.) a valued member of a team who brings their own strengths and advantages to the table, and b.) continually provided with the tools and coaching to go from being decent to good to eventually great at what you do is empowering. Nobody wants to be bad at what they do, even if they aren’t completely passionate about it.

When it comes to finding purpose, employees want to know that their time and effort--the third of their lives that they dedicate to working in a week--is worth more than a paycheck, no matter how high or low that paycheck is.

University of Alabama has a great set of questions any employee should ask themselves when searching for purpose in the business world:

  • What is the end product my company produces?
  • Does it improve people’s lives in any way?
  • Is the world a better, safer or healthier place because of my company?
  • Does my organization provide a service that makes a difference?
  • Are you selling a technology that makes life easier or more convenient?
  • Does my company share its profits with employees?
  • Do the communities where my company operates benefit from these profits?
  • Is my organization involved in sustainability efforts?
  • Are we recycling, conserving energy, or reducing waste?
  • Does my company’s leadership care about the things that matter to me?
  • Do I feel that I can trust your organization’s ethical compass?
  • Am I earning a good living that allows me to lend financial support to others?

That last one, purpose, is what’s really at the heart of good company culture. From Harvard Business Review to Business News Daily, you’ll find that purpose/passion is mentioned all the time in articles concerning company culture, big or small. It’s what allows an employee to live in the moment, to enjoy the process instead of the outcome, spending their time engulfed in the task at hand instead of focused on the paycheck to come.

So when it comes to company culture, it doesn’t matter if you’re a 10-person startup, or 1,000-strong enterprise - employee happiness is absolutely scalable, and it’s up to management to provide its very abstract catalytic components.

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