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Illustration: Grahm Roumieu

At Mirego headquarters in Quebec City, employees aren’t tied to their desks. They can choose to work in the company’s lounge, settled around a fireplace or to bring in their families and sit with their children, who can choose from boxes of games and toys.

It’s such a cool vibe that a few months ago, Mirego, which designs technological solutions for clients, produced a 200-page publication—a sort of arty company yearbook—filled with employee images, anecdotes and profiles.

It’s all part of president and CEO Albert Dang-Vu’s mission to soften the distinction between work and home. “We want to create a space that people want to go to every morning,” he says. It has worked: Dang-Vu reports an employee retention rate of close to 100% and says almost all new hires come through word of mouth or staff referrals.

“Culture” is a totally overused word in employee engagement circles, but it’s not all nonsense—especially for small businesses that can’t offer sky-high salaries or crazy benefits. If you create the kind of workplace where employees feel they belong, well, they will want to stick around.

“Leaders of small businesses often think they’re too busy running the company to think about culture,” says José Tolovi Neto, managing partner of the Great Place to Work Institute in Canada. “But we know that a positive culture actually drives business and lowers turnover rates, so it’s not optional.”

Of course, a great culture isn’t just about cool perks. Neto recommends starting with clear communications—from articulating values to being transparent about decision-making—to ensure employees feel both respected and comfortable expressing concerns. When hiring, he says, be mindful of attitude and try to avoid “brilliant jerks”: great performers offset by their negative influence.

It’s also about listening. Dang-Vu actively solicits input from his employees on many aspects of the business and even gave them the lead on designing the head office—which, as a result, has high ceilings and a lot of natural light. And a year ago, Mirego launched another employee-spearheaded initiative, called Never Work a Day, a sort of internal social network that allows people to share images of their work.

As long as they show you’re listening, even smaller gestures can contribute to an overall sense of positivity and appreciation. When Anthony Beyrouti, founder of Venue Kings Ticket Brokers, started his business in Vancouver in 2009, his biweekly payroll didn’t line up with the first of the month. Some employees voiced concerns about paying their rent, so Beyrouti adjusted the schedule. “People thought that was pretty cool,” he says. “And if people are happy, they’ll work harder and they won’t leave.”

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