Creating Culture in a W.F.H. World: How 3 Small Businesses Did It

The Siete Family Foods website, like most company websites, showcases its founders. But it also highlights almost all of the company’s 98 employees, featuring childhood photos and “two truths and a lie” for each person. The full staff would be listed, but Siete is growing too fast to keep up: It has added more than 30 employees during the pandemic, including three earlier this month.

Visitors have to decide if Veronica Garza, who founded the grain-free packaged foods brand with her brother, Miguel, and mother, Aida, is lying about being the lead singer in a band, running three marathons or vomiting during a national cheerleading competition. (She didn’t run the marathons.)

The company wants its customers to know the team and for the team to know one another as if they were family. Which is fitting, considering that much of the staff before the pandemic was Garza family, including parents, siblings and in-laws.

“We’re a family first, family second, business third company,” Miguel Garza, the chief executive, said.

But it became harder to build that family culture during the pandemic, with people working remotely. Growing companies like Siete have struggled to find ways to make new hires feel they’re a part of the business when they can’t meet in person. Without clues from the office setting and existing systems, how do you learn the company’s culture?

The problem confronts small businesses and giant ones alike, though it can be more acute for small firms that may not have human resources or a clear culture in place. And it’s likely to get more challenging as the Delta variant of the coronavirus puts back-to-office plans on hold and hybrid work structures become permanent. A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research said at least 20 percent of Americans’ workdays would be from home even after the pandemic.

At Siete, the Garzas took a clue from their website and developed a game. New hires get a bingo card listing current employees’ hidden talents and stories, and are asked to set up video calls with those workers until they hit “bingo.”

“It is just fun. It’s even fun for people who are already on the team,” Mr. Garza said. (He likes rom-coms and Frank Sinatra, but he doesn’t go see live music every weekend.)

Before the pandemic, the staff often cooked, ate and worked out together in the Austin, Texas, office, so Mr. Garza is constantly seeking ways to extend that togetherness into employees’ homes. Knowing how important fitness is to the team, Siete bought employees their choice of kettlebells, dumbbells or a TRX system, and Mr. Garza began hosting Zoom workouts.

Good health is also foundational to the company’s origin. When Veronica Garza was diagnosed with autoimmune conditions, she embarked on a grain-free diet to combat them. Her entire family joined her, and they quickly realized there wasn’t a good substitute for the tortillas and other Mexican foods they love.

“Going grain free is really isolating, especially in a culture where food is so important,” Mr. Garza said.

Ms. Garza began experimenting with an almond flour tortilla. When her grandmother declared it as good as the real thing, the two siblings and their mother decided to start Siete. That was seven years ago; today the brand is sold in 16,000 stores, including Whole Foods and Kroger, and anticipates $200 million in sales this year.

That history also means Siete puts a priority on the team’s connection and health over productivity, Mr. Garza said. It regularly surveys the staff to gauge needs and adapt policies. As people were feeling more burnout, Siete began having Zoom-free Fridays, meeting-free Fridays and even some paid Fridays off.

“We might end up being wrong not prioritizing productivity, but I look at sports teams and I think the best ones focus on connection,” Mr. Garza said. “When you know your teammate, it builds trust, and you become a more productive unit as a team instead of an individual.”

Of course, business cultures strong enough to handle remote and hybrid work are as varied as the companies. There is a baseline, though: standardized offer letters, clear payroll and benefits information, and a robust employee handbook, said Tolithia Kornweibel, chief revenue officer for Gusto, a payroll and benefits company that serves small and medium-size businesses.

But those things are not enough, especially in a tight labor market, she said. “You have to really make sure that the experience is warm and very human.”

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Josh Albrechtsen hired Gusto when he realized he couldn’t manage all the paperwork for the hyper-speed growth of Cortex Health, the firm he co-founded in Lehi, Utah. In March 2020, the company had just 15 employees and 400 independent nurse contractors across the country; a year later, it had a staff of 500 in addition to those contractors.

Before the pandemic, Cortex contracted with hospitals and other clients to provide skilled nurses who made follow-up care calls to recently released patients. So it was in a perfect niche to scale up nationally to meet the need for nurses to offer contact tracing, follow-up care and vaccine information.

“We were hiring so quickly, we couldn’t even say hello,” Mr. Albrechtsen said. “We went from ‘offer made’ to ‘working’ within a day or two for most of the nurses. We just plopped people into shifts.”

He tried to manage the hiring using DocuSign, but quickly realized he wasn’t an expert in compliance and cross-state hiring. He needed someone who could bring on team members smoothly, manage benefits and answer payroll questions.

Hiring Gusto freed Mr. Albrechtsen to focus on the Cortex culture, which he defines as kindness; clear, consistent communication; and an “efficiency mind-set.” He quickly decentralized authority, hiring a full-time employee to oversee the nurses. That person quickly identified other leaders and empowered them to make decisions.

“She proved to be this rock star,” Mr. Albrechtsen said. “We realized that we have a future executive.”

Teams use the messaging platform Slack to communicate swiftly, and Cortex staffs its channels around the clock so a manager is always available to answer nurses’ urgent questions. The company developed survey systems and community management tools to find out what teams need in real time.

The urgency of those early months has worn off and hiring has slowed, but Cortex’s full-time staff isn’t shrinking. Employees are focusing on selling the software and recruiting platform to health care companies that need the tools and services Cortex created during the pandemic. Another big change: They are abandoning the office; Cortex is now 100 percent virtual.

“Covid completely changed our mind-set,” Mr. Albrechtsen said. “Our staff was quite a bit more productive from home.”

Productivity has become a polarizing issue. Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, famously called remote work a “pure negative.” The online review service recently surveyed 1,500 small-business owners, and nearly half said employee productivity had dropped during the pandemic.

The labor of certain industries, such as retail and hospitality, has to be in person; in others, like manufacturing, remote work can be accomplished with some creative problem-solving. The key, said Adam Bry, chief executive and a co-founder of the drone-maker Skydio, is building a culture of high-level empowerment and accountability.

Skydio set up a system in which a hardware engineer would pick up parts at the office, assemble them, and then drive to someone else and leave the product there. Software engineers would connect to it over the internet — like remote screen sharing in an office — to work on the code.

“We were doing really crazy things,” Mr. Bry said. “We discovered that a lot of employees have home lab setups and are working on this stuff on the side as a hobby.”

He gave employees a lot of autonomy to try new ideas and saw his role as ensuring they had everything they needed to perform well. And he was rewarded: During the pandemic, Skydio more than doubled its staff, to nearly 300 employees, and reached a $1 billion valuation after raising $170 million in funding led by the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Still, Mr. Bry wanted to find ways to keep the team connected. In the early days of the pandemic, that meant trying to have some fun. He rented out a drive-in theater near their Redwood City, Calif., office and showed the 2013 sci-fi movie “Gravity.”

“We love things that fly, so we watched an aviation movie,” Mr. Bry said.

More recently, he wants team-building and events that align with the company’s values. For example, the drone industry skews male, so Mr. Bry hosted a “women’s fly day” and invited the women of Skydio — whether they were in sales or engineering — to spend a day flying drones on a beach. Then the company offered additional training to any participant interested in becoming a registered drone pilot. Two-thirds of the attendees took him up on it.

More staff members are starting to come back to the office, but Mr. Bry has decided that Skydio will always offer a hybrid work environment. Many meetings will remain digital so people can attend regardless of where they are sitting.

​​ “A lot of us have felt the advantage of quiet, focused time, which can be hard to get in an office environment,” Mr. Bry said.

Skydio is also formalizing aspects of its orientation process. In the past, Mr. Bry relied on random office encounters to meet new employees; now he is scheduling time with them.

“These are all things we probably needed to do anyway, considering our stage and size,” he said.

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