Small firms with big hearts

Corporate responsibility should be a priority for any company, whatever its size, says Roger Trapp
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The Independent Online

According to the received wisdom, being a responsible employer, caring about the environment and paying attention to community issues are the concerns only of big companies. Their smaller counterparts are all too busy trying to survive to worry about such indulgences.

According to the received wisdom, being a responsible employer, caring about the environment and paying attention to community issues are the concerns only of big companies. Their smaller counterparts are all too busy trying to survive to worry about such indulgences.

While it is certainly true that corporate giants are more likely to have policies on such matters, there is growing evidence that small businesses cannot ignore them either. From the policymakers of the European Union down to national organisations such as the UK's own Business in the Community, efforts are being made to see that corporate responsibility ceases to be a big-business fringe activity.

Earlier this month the Department of Trade and Industry published a report setting out its priorities in its drive to encourage companies to become involved in their local communities. It is, however, widely acknowledged that such initiatives will work only if business owners see a benefit in them, or a disadvantage if they do not take action.

This is the approach that the Royal Borough of Kingston in Surrey has taken in its programme to encourage small businesses to adopt flexible working practices so that employees can achieve the much-talked-about work/life balance. The council points out that stress, as well as problems in recruiting and retaining staff, will pose a threat to the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises unless they act. As a result, it has launched a guide giving owners help and advice on the practical issues associated with flexible working.

The move follows a three-year project run in the borough involving a number of local businesses and partly funded by the European Union. Among those companies taking part was Lords Estate Agents, an independent chain with four offices in Kingston and the surrounding area, whose turnover is just under £3m.

Guy Hodge says that when they started the business in 1991, he and his partner, Simon Lord, deliberately adopted a different philosophy to many other estate agencies. Instead of insisting that employees work long hours, they set out to be flexible.

Accordingly, says Mr Hodge, the company now employs a large number of women - about two-thirds of the total staff. A similar proportion work part-time. Arrangements can be negotiated to meet individ-ual needs.

Mr Hodge does not pretend that this policy always works. In one case, a valued female employee found that the cost of child care for her two children ate up all her salary - even though she was given a pay rise. Equally, he says, "there have been times when you question whether you are running the business for the staff or for a profit." But overall he realises that in an area of low unemployment, close to the centre of London, staff can easily find alternative work. A company such as his needs to try hard to recruit and retain the best people.

"It's worthwhile looking for talent and working the business around it," says Mr Hodge.

A similar approach is being taken at Genesis Capital, a computer and software leasing company started by Matthew Porton and his two co-founders in 1997. Mr Porton and his colleagues work hard to retain good people, recognising that if they leave they will have a much bigger effect than if they were working at a large organisation.

As a result, Genesis, which has an annual turnover of about £5m and employs 12 people, has introduced flexible working for some of its staff. In one case, a salesman who used to commute weekly from the Midlands and who had just become a father for the first time, was given the chance to be based at home and to cover a different geographical area. A female staff member who has just had a baby is negotiating to take on a different role within the company so that her work is not so time-sensitive.

One of the reasons that owner-managers of small businesses are reluctant to go down the flexible-working road is the problem of filling in for people who work fewer hours. In a small company, this burden is frequently borne by the bosses themselves.

Lucy Daniels, a work/life specialist who advised the Kingston project, says this gives rise to time management and related issues. She believes managers should be encouraged to have "people plans" as well as the business plans they are accustomed to producing to cover the financial aspects of their business.

But, of course, for any business, taking an active role in the community involves more than simply adopting a new attitude to human resources. While many start-ups specific-ally seek to behave in a different way to traditional companies, perhaps by making a social or environmental commit- ment, there is also a feeling that the dot-com world is not paying as much attention to these issues as it should.

A survey from Digital Futures, a Government project on the effects of e-business, has pointed to the discrepancy between the environmental and social ideals of the largely young, highly educated people running e-businesses, and their companies' activities.

Seventy-nine per cent did nothing to measure or manage the environmental impact of their business; 66 per cent similarly disregarded social effects; 82 per cent had no policy on transport impacts; and 83 per cent offered no staff training on environmental or social issues.

With the public now questioning all aspects of the way a business behaves, no firm - whatever its size - can afford to ignore such issues.