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How to build a business that attracts and retains the best people

In the first blog in a new series, Softwire’s Managing Director Zoe Cunningham shares her experiences on building the workplace culture that’s seen us consistently ranked among the best small employers in the UK.

Something we’re immensely proud of at Softwire is how we’re consistently high on The Sunday Times’ list of the best small companies to work for (we were 15th out of 100 in 2017).

This independent recognition is important because of what it signifies: people like working here, which means we’re able to attract and retain the best digital engineers in the business. Having great people means we can do great work, which means we have happy customers who come back to us for more.

What’s the secret to being a great place to work?

But with demand for high-calibre people outstripping supply in our sector, competition for the best is fierce. It’s why other business leaders (both in tech and other areas) often ask me what our secret is. What can they do to stop other firms luring their employees away? Why aren’t their seemingly generous employment and benefit packages translating into higher staff retention rates?


There are lots of practical things organisations can do to make themselves better places to work. But if you distil them down, they almost invariably come back to creating a workplace culture in which people feel motivated to do the best work they’re capable of. This means empowering your people and supporting them, so they’re able to use their abilities to the fullest.

It’s a topic I presented about to the CTO2020 conference, and in fact, there’s so much to say on culture in technology organisations that I’m writing a book on it. This will cover seven key topics: perks, the working environment, trust, democracy, your job, your career and a sense of purpose.

I’ll be writing a blog covering each of these areas, but before you start thinking about those, let’s look at the foundations you’ll need to build them on.

Money is important, but it isn’t the whole story

The notion that people are motivated by money more than anything else has long been dispelled by motivational theorists. This is why it’s not uncommon to hear of people accepting pay cuts when they move jobs: other things are clearly at play.

That said – and this is also backed up by extensive research – the absence of money can demotivate employees, or make other measures you put in place to create a great culture have less or no effect.

Other minimum requirements

Money isn’t the only thing that falls into this category of so-called ‘hygiene factors‘. Paid holiday that exceeds the statutory minimum requirement, fully paid sick leave and flexible working arrangements are now offered so widely in the tech sector that many employees view them as the bare minimum they expect.

As such, all of these things form part of the foundations you require if you’re to build a great workplace culture. On their own, they won’t produce the results you’re looking for. But they’re essential foundations on which you can start to create a culture where people love to work, and consequently do amazing things.

Playing the long game

The other thing to keep in mind is that effecting cultural change in any organisation is a long-term project. If you try to do too much too quickly, you’ll probably get disheartened when you can’t make the difference you want. Aim big, but break what you’re doing down into manageable chunks. This will mean you can achieve small wins along the way, which gradually move you towards your bigger goal.

Having established what some of the key foundations need to be, my next blog will look at perks. How do you create a blend of perks that has the effect you want? What doesn’t work? And what do you need to be careful of?

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