How to build the perfect team

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Staffing is a dark and mysterious art. Anyone can recruit, but nurturing your team, inspiring them and managing them in order to get the best out of them is a rare skill set. 

Bringing staff into your business is about strong, compassionate leadership. It’s also about sympathetic and intelligent people management, and knowing how to build and keep a happy, productive team. There comes a point when every company must decide whether or not to expand. In this feature, we explore exactly what the best ways of staffing, managing and keeping a crack team of professionals involve. 

Expanding your team

Growing your crack squad doesn’t just mean adding more people for more of the same work. It’s important to evolve your capabilities as you expand.  

You’d think it would be easy to recognize when more staff are required for your business. It’s when you have more work than your existing team can handle, right? Not so. Growing a team has only a little to do with capacity and everything to do with capability. 

Success hinges on finding the right people. You don’t simply want more of the same skills; you want to be able to expand the amount of work you can handle, while at the same time developing the type of work you do – and the way to achieve that is through smart management and team building.

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Think variety:
The first few people you hire should offer the skills your current setup lacks; not just more hands. If you and your existing team have the creative design skills nailed, for example, bring in someone to handle things such as new business development and client relationships, leaving you free to work.

Freelance flexibility:
If your need is purely capacity-based and you need more people to do the same work, then consider hiring freelance staff. More hands means freeing up the creative directors in your team, enabling them to focus on bigger ideas. But…

Keep the good ones:
Hang on to those who make themselves indispensable. Freelancers might cost more to get in full-time, but if they bring the necessary skills, complement your team’s existing skillsets and fit with the general vibe, try to get them on a contract. It’s far cheaper than recruiting.

Think ahead:
Staff hiring tends to be an accounting decision, based upon previous years’ financial performance and the next year’s financial forecast. Your decision to hire should be based on these metrics (boring as that sounds) because, ultimately, hiring more staff is an expansion of your business.

Complementary characters:
Always look for a good personality mix among your staff, particularly within departments. You don’t want two strong leaders in the accounts department, or a team of autoworkers who can’t take a decision. Identify what’s missing, then make sure you hire accordingly.

Don't be seduced by a resume:
Talent spotting isn’t as easy as it seems, and a CV ultimately proves little more than blagging ability. Assess character and look out for people who display the three Es: education, energy and a degree of eclecticism. No environment will be stale with a good mix of people.

Aim high:
Always employ people who are better than you and your existing team. Why? Because they will share their skills, bring others up to their own level, benefit the entire company culture and drive your enterprise forward. It seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many employers allow their superiority complex to prevent this happening.

Be open-minded:
Don’t ignore word-of-mouth recommendations or even unsolicited CVs and portfolios. Keep an open mind when recruiting, particularly when it comes to transferable skills. Just because someone has no directly relevant experience it doesn’t mean that they won’t be the perfect candidate for your business.

Watch for egos:
They might be hard to spot in an interview scenario, but be sure to avoid hiring the type of person who will look to dominate your existing team, or throw their toys out of the pram at the drop of a hat. It’s an unworkable relationship.

Interviewing made simple

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Finding candidates and carrying out interviews can be stressful on both sides of the table, but turn it into a rewarding process and your whole company will benefit.

Write a job description:
Describing the role, the key challenges involved, the knowledge and skills required and the employee’s position in the business is hugely important to a successful interview. This will weed out anyone vastly unsuitable, as well as making sure the candidate knows what they’re letting themselves in for.

Ask your contacts:
Word of mouth recommendations are a very important way of bringing in good staff. People often pass on tips about skilled workers, and Twitter or LinkedIn can winkle out applicants, too. It might also be worth attending graduate shows to find emerging talent before anyone else does.

You may already have freelancers working with you. If they’re doing a great job, why not look into making them permanent so they don’t take their knowledge and experience with them when they leave? Freelancers often enjoy the freelance way of working, but they might be flattered that you value them so much you want to keep them around. 

Resume review:
Looking at a portfolio or CV can only teach you about an applicant’s skills in self-promotion, but a discussion about it will provide insight. Getting them to prepare a presentation of their work and talk through their past roles will enable you to gauge their passion for your area of business, and how they could fit into your company. 

Work exercise:
A work exercise can be a valuable part of any interview but many candidates balk at the idea, seeing it as working for free or worrying about the legal implications if they are under exclusive contract. However, getting a candidate to narrate their process gives a strong idea of their working methods.

Let them ask questions:
Asking the right questions is helpful, but deliberately leaving out important points so the interviewee can bring them up can be effective, and will help establish whether you’re both on the same wavelength. Be prepared to jump in rather than allow important points to go unaddressed, though. Nervous candidates can easily clam up in interview situations.

Keep it legit when employing

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It might be tempting to place cash in hand or avoid the rigmarole of filling in employment paperwork, but it’s a bad idea.


Register as an employer:
In the UK you need to tell the HMRC and set up a PAYE scheme; in the US you’ll need an employment identification number (EIN) from the US Internal Revenue Service.

Pay the right taxes:
You’re responsible for taking out your employees’ taxes with each salary payment and ensuring the government gets its share. Do not neglect your tax and reporting duties.

Get insurance:
As soon as you become an employer, you need employers’ liability insurance – or workers’ compensation insurance in the US. Make sure you know your country’s specific legal requirements.


Employ someone illegally:
You’ll face a crushing fine if you fail to carry out employment checks to ensure new staff are legally entitled to work in the country your business is based in. Keep copies of passports or proof of citizenship on file.

Fool yourself:
What constitutes an employee isn’t as straightforward as you might think. There are criteria such as level of control and how they’re paid – check the HMRC’s employment status checker.

Forget health and safety:
Make sure you carry out a full risk assessment and fill out the relevant legal paperwork. In the UK, for instance, that’s form OSR1.

Keep your team happy and healthy


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There are many aspects to consider when structuring a business. Ensure your team gets what it deserves by considering the key areas of staff wellbeing. 

If you’ve decided to recruit new staff, you’ll need to be up to scratch with employment law. Sickness, maternity leave, redundancy and more – you need to have policies in place to deal with typical situations that could arise before they do. Your team members have rights, but it’s also about seeing the bigger  picture – happy employees are more productive. So what do you need to consider? Here are some issues to start with…

Sick Leave:
Illness is a fact of life, so set out a comprehensive absence policy and make sure your team has access to it. You need to monitor all sick leave – not just long-term. Make sure you know who is absent, when and why. This helps if you need to address frequent absentees and can also flag up any problems in your business; you have a duty of care to ensure workload is acceptable and the environment is healthy.

As with sick leave, you need clear policies in place to deal with any grievances that may arise and could result in a disciplinary procedure. Make sure your staff are aware of what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of performance and behavior. If an employee comes to you with a grievance, an informal discussion is often the best way to resolve the situation – make notes, in case the matter escalates. 

With good performance management, disciplinary action should usually be avoidable. The government provides good advice at, as does the Labour Relations Agency. It’s tough, but sometimes you might need to make a member of staff redundant. If this is the case, there are strict guidelines to follow

For example, you need to show there is a legitimate reason for redundancy (it’s not legitimate to get rid of people just because they aren’t performing well). Make sure that you document everything and communicate the process thoroughly at all stages – there’s nothing worse than employees being kept in the dark about the future of their employment.

Flexible working:
Your employees have the right to request flexible working – and you can choose whether or not to accept their request. It may be necessary for your employees to start or finish work later, for example. You have a legal duty to accept flexible working requests from any member of staff who you’ve employed for at least 26 weeks – not just those with children. 

However, how you deal with this is really dependent on your company, the requirements of your output, and your management style. In America, more than a quarter of employees work to flexible schedules.

Equal opportunities:
Write an equal opportunities policy, and make sure that you are completely up on the definition of bullying and harassment. You need to make sure that your job adverts and recruitment processes don’t discriminate.

Maternity leave:
This a complex area, so make sure you’re aware of your legal obligations – services such as ACAS can help. In the UK, you must offer statutory or enhanced maternity pay and all pregnant employees are entitled to maternity leave. 

Specialist help:
Specific legal requirements vary depending on the country in which your company is based, so it’s a good idea to consult a lawyer or HR specialist for help in drawing up your policies. You’ll have to pay for this, but investing in the wellbeing of your employees – and making sure you’re covered for all eventualities – is money well spent.

Staff retention

A woman being punished or fired from work by a male colleague

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Any employee who is any good will be offered opportunities and reasons to leave and work for someone else. But there are ways to reduce the risk of losing key people

Offer better salaries:
Financial reward is the number one reason for staff members becoming disillusioned and looking for other opportunities. If you’re not paying the market rate, you won’t be able to keep good employees, so review your salary bands at regular intervals throughout the year with your finance team.

Treat people fairly:
Be transparent with your salary banding as well. That means paying similar salaries to those undertaking similar roles. If you have two account managers, for example, with varying income levels, chances are you’ll lose one very quickly. Be honest and open about how you pay your staff.

Invest in your team:
Show commitment to staff through training and development. That means conducting appraisals and salary reviews, and encouraging people to progress professionally. Offer at least one paid-for training opportunity a year. Remember that if you invest in the skill sets of your staff, it’s your business that benefits in the short term.

Communication channels:
Hold open forum discussions with your staff at regular intervals, and keep them abreast of business news. Make all your employees feel involved with the managerial aspects of the company and offer a place for them to air their concerns with senior management, either publicly or anonymously.

Creative outlets:
Foster free time for your staff to take on creative challenges and become a sponsor. These could be local events, self-initiated projects, or work for community or charity projects. Encourage your team members to conduct their own projects and give them adequate time to work on them.

Don't forget fun and games:
Make sure your company is talked about as a fun and rewarding place to work. Take your staff for away days, Christmas excursions and summer holidays. Invite in guest speakers and interesting guests to inspire them. Make competing businesses envy your reputation for having a fun, creative and competitive culture.

Should you hire an intern?

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Internships are a great way to foster new and exciting talent. But don’t be fooled – bringing an intern into your business isn’t straightforward.


Understand internships:
They should always be paid and must involve on-the-job training in some capacity. Cheap labor it is not.

Know the law:
In the UK, interns with set hours or a schedule of work will likely be classed as workers. You’ll face a hefty fine if you don’t make the right contributions. 

Agree responsibilities:
Treat your intern as part of your core team – discuss working hours and objectives – and a good intern will act the part. 

Think long term:
An internship should be seen as a trial to a full-time position, so treat it as such.


Think it's just work experience:
Work experience tends to be a shorter engagement and generally involves a wider range of tasks.

Assume it's unpaid:
Unless you’re very specific, interns are likely to be classed as workers and entitled to minimum wage.

Be unavailable:
Interns want experience and nurturing – don’t expect them to hit the ground running. Ensure someone is available and suitable to mentor them. 

Think cheap labor:
An internship is a charitable, benevolent position aimed at helping a young worker gain experience.

Master being a manager

Headshot of Adrian Shaughnessy, graphic designer, writer, educator and publisher

(Image credit: Adrian Shaughnessy)

It’s a role that shouldn’t be underestimated. We talk to designer and writer Adrian Shaughnessy, Co-founder of progressive publishing venture Unit Editions.

Don’t think of project management as an irksome in-house overhead. Think of it as a key factor in the way you look after your clients and produce top-quality output. Viewed like this, project management becomes a way of boosting your income – so it pays to employ someone in this role. 

A project manager needs production and project management skills, sophisticated and sympathetic communication skills, and ruthless efficiency backed up by 360-degree vision. Their remit includes the following: scheduling; budgeting; profitability reporting; invoicing; IT; booking freelancers; managing timesheets and, most important, keeping accurate records. 

However, no project manager is worth employing if he or she can’t combine an internal co-ordination role with an ability to deal with outsiders – clients, suppliers and freelancers all need to be treated with tact and professionalism. If a project manager has poor communication skills, your clients will speak to one of the other workers instead, reducing the value of a dedicated manager. 

It’s also imperative project managers know how to cost a job, supply a quote, negotiate a fee, alert clients to extra charges, prepare invoices, monitor costs, alert you to problems and work with suppliers. Once when my studio was working on a large print project and the task was near completion, our client mentioned they hadn’t yet organised distribution. 

Our project manager said: ‘Would you like me to get you a quote for this?’ A few days later, our client asked us to undertake the UK distribution and sent us a purchase order for £87,000. Now that’s what I call good management.