If your startup is a game of chess, HR is your queen

When done right, HR can move anywhere on the board (including the executive board) and protect the king (you) by eliminating threats before they pin you in a corner. Sure, technically you can win in chess without the queen, but it’s an uphill battle and not worth fighting. Yet sadly, one of the most common mistakes small businesses make is leaving the queen out of their strategy altogether. Put simply, HR strategy can make or break your business. So if you’re serious about taking your business to the next level, let’s talk about how you can improve your small business HR strategy.

The Opening—focus on culture

In 10 years, millennials will make up 75 percent of the workforce, and you’re going to need a plan that can shape and leverage your culture in ways that will attract top millennial talent and accomplish the seemingly un-accomplishable—which is to actually keep them around.

Did you know that millennials look for culture fit even before career potential when considering new employers? They care about it enough that 64 percent of millennials said they would rather earn $40K at a job they love than $100K in a position they think is boring. Say what you will about millennials, but they ain’t gold diggers.
So how do you compete in the culture war when the competition has private chefs, desks that turn into pinball machines, and a waterpark in the basement? One of the most effective strategies is to cultivate an environment that offers flexibility and opportunities for people to grow. Employees care more about advancement and work/life balance than how much money they make. So start fostering a workplace that makes your employees feel valued and cared for even when you don't have the budget to give each and every one of them a free jetpack on signing.
Even if you’re not to a point where you can afford a dedicated HR team, find another way to make your HR processes a priority now. You can’t do everything yourself forever, and eventually you’ll have others on your team who are responsible for recruiting, onboarding, training, and measuring the performance of your people. Having established HR processes in place will be critical in keeping culture intact when it’s time to scale.
Another crucial part of shaping your culture will be understanding your story and knowing how to tell it. Where did your company come from? Why does it exist? And where is it going? This can help you create authentic company values and ensure those values are understood and faithfully observed throughout the company.
From there, make sure your employees also know how to tell the story—especially those running your HR efforts. They need to tell that story in rhythm with the needs of your company, beating your culture drum all the livelong day. So, as you build out your processes, your story and values help dictate the decisions you make. For example, a company that values the 40 hour work week over late nights at the office might decide to forgo a distracting ping-pong table to promote focus, but offer a vacation stipend to encourage quality R&R.
Then piece by piece, through every program and activity, your well-thought-out culture will become a beautiful symphony—filled with different instruments and movements, all coordinated to make beautiful and inspiring music. If, right now, you’re not hearing the music at your company, it may be time to turn up the HR.

The Middlegame—expand your HR strategy

So how do you turn up the HR? Unfortunately, many small business leaders think of HR as a pawn or at the very most a lame rook that always hides in the corner (no diagonals!). You’ve got to start thinking about HR as a strategic player. You’ve got to realize it’s your queen, and let it get to work.

A great place to start is to make a great hire. Many small business leaders try to save on personnel costs and task the office manager with the basic HR duties: payroll, record keeping, benefits and compliance, and maybe a little recruiting. If you’ve got the budget to hire someone, do it the other way around! Find a talented HR professional who can also handle office management duties.

Thinking of HR merely for operational (or administrative) tasks will hurt you; you don’t hire a CEO because she’s great at signing checks. And you don’t use the queen in chess to only protect the king. Treating HR strategically will help you build and sustain a lasting culture as well as create systems that give you a competitive advantage in the marketplace—such as recruiting efforts that effectively attract talent and retention efforts that effectively retain them.
Let’s use onboarding as an example. Every organization should have the objective to find and keep great talent. And studies have shown that new employees who undergo a well-structured onboarding program are 69 percent more likely to stay with that company as long as three years. Here’s what a strategic onboarding system might look like:
You’ve made it through the recruiting process and your new hire has signed her offer letter. A week before her start day she receives a customized welcome packet via email. The packet walks her through all necessary paperwork and even lets her sign them electronically, so she’s ready to jump right in when she shows up. The packet also helps her fill out a get-to-know-you form that is sent to the rest of the staff via email. Because the form includes questions like “what are some of your hobbies?” and “what is your favorite vacation spot?” her new coworkers make instant connections with her when she comes in.
An automated onboarding checklist helps IT get her computer and desk ready before she starts, and since the welcome packet included a “Mac or PC?” question, she shows up and feels truly welcomed (and prepared to work). She’s impressed with how organized her new employers are, she’s making new friends right from the get-go, and instead of doing boring paperwork she’s learning about her new job, the culture, its nuances, and all the how-tos.
Then, when she leaves work and talks to her friends or family about her first day, she doesn’t say, “Hmmm, I mostly just filled out paperwork and got my desk ready.” No, no, no. Thanks to a thoughtful, strategic HR process she’s going to simply say, “I love it there; I’m so happy they hired me” (or something like that).
Running a business, like chess, is best played when you think ahead. Not just one move or even two moves ahead, but many moves ahead. By preparing every step of these crucial HR processes and matching them to your company culture, you’re setting yourself up for positive results.

Onboarding Checklist

First days on the job shouldn’t feel like a day-long awkward introduction. Rather, they should feel like a homecoming. If you want new hires to love their onboarding experience, remember to include the following (all of which can be completed with effective HR tools):
  • First day instructions - Make sure new hires know exactly where to go, when to go there, and what to bring.
  • Paperwork - Get paperwork filled out and signed (e-signatures are amazing!) before the first day.
  • Desk prep - Find out their work preferences (computer, keyboard, mouse, etc.) well in advance of their start date so you can have their desk ready for work.
  • Introductions - Familiarize new hires with their team (and vice versa) before they start so they can quickly make connections.
  • Company & team info - Help new hires become familiar with your company’s values and make sure they know how their work fits into the big picture.
  • Job description -  Make sure new hires know exactly what is expected from them.
  • Training & development plan - Onboarding is a great time to explain how your new hires will be trained and how that training will extend into their professional development.

More Middlegame—HR tools

With the bedrock of culture in place and with an eye towards strategic HR, it’s time to get into some of the nitty-gritty. How does your HR team fill its day? Oftentimes, small businesses and startups don’t think of HR as a strategic partner because they don’t yet act like one; and they don’t act like one because the company leaders don’t give them the resources to be able to; it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. A great groundskeeper can’t be expected to beautify your lawn when all you give them is a pair of old-fashioned hand shears.

There is technology in place today that allows HR to run efficiently through automation. Many of the operational tasks that used to take up so much of HR’s time are now easy to automate thanks to HR software. You can keep all important files in one easy-to-access hub, take time off from anywhere, track employee PTO, access performance reviews that actually help, create and manage job postings, run important reports, etc. (etc., etc., etc.). The list of ways HR software improves your life is long and getting longer. And what’s more, this software now fits the needs (and financial budgets) of small businesses and startups. What used to be a luxury only large companies could afford, is now accessible to companies of every size. 
And remember those millennials we were discussing earlier? Guess how important technology is to them? It’s verrry important to them. Think how much better you’ll look in their eyes if they can easily check their PTO balance and forecast how many days they’ll have left on such-and-such date. Think how much better you’ll look when they can quickly find an org chart, or update their address on their own, or request time off from their sickbed. Now, think about how they’ll feel if this kind of technology isn’t readily available. It’s a scary thought, isn’t it?
Of course, not all tasks can be automated, but you’d be surprised by how many can. And automating is about more than making people’s jobs easier (though it really does that). It’s about getting the most value out of your HR activities. In other words, using HR software is like giving your groundskeeper a riding mower and filling the tank full of high octane fuel. Mow, baby! Mow!

HR Software

HR Software comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and prices. You might find it lumped in with payroll, tacked onto benefits management, or packaged up with your accounting software. No matter where you find it, here are a few must-haves for a small business:
  • Applicant Tracking System (ATS): Hire people faster and reduce recruiting costs, all while building your brand.
  • Time-off tracking: Quit giving people extra days off by accident, and quit forcing your HR staff to listen to endless questions about vacation days.
  • Onboarding: Make the first few weeks great weeks, for new employees and HR.
  • Mobile app: HR software is only useful when your people use it and people reallllly like their phones.
  • Employee self-service: If your employees are able to change residences and move on their own, they should be able to change their address in your company records, too.
  • Reporting: You shouldn’t have to make reports; they should make themselves.
  • Custom workflows: Put bottlenecks into the guillotine once and for all.
  • E-signatures: Save lots of time…and trees.
  • Performance management: Create performance reviews that actually perform well enough to pass a review.

The Endgame

Now for one more analogy to help it all sink in. You know when you’re playing cards and forget you have a trump card? HR is your trump card! But it’s hard to realize this until you start thinking of HR in strategic terms. Operational tasks (such as payroll or benefits) are vital to the well-being of any business, sure. But strategic HR activities will set you apart. They will allow you to take everything HR does and align it with company objectives.

So, if you’ve been paying attention, you’re looking for a queen, with well-manicured lawns, playing cards, and great music. Whoops, we just described The Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. Hmmm… Well, the point is your HR efforts are vitally important to the growth of your company.
Your HR efforts—when performed strategically—allow you from day one to draw the map from here (wherever here is) to the promised land. With the right people, in the right environment, using the right tools, your HR efforts will enable you to conquer any business challenge that comes your way, leaving you with only one word left to say: Checkmate.
This article is provided by BambooHR. BambooHR is the leading provider of tools that power the strategic evolution of HR in small to medium-sized businesses.
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