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5 Rules For Building A Family-Friendly Startup For Grownups

Senior-level hires care more about baby-friendly policies than in-office beer pong. Here’s how one CEO created culture for the long haul.

5 Rules For Building A Family-Friendly Startup For Grownups
[Photo: Shutterstock]

Shan Sinha, the founder and CEO of the video-conferencing startup Highfive, is a father with three children under the age of 5. With Highfive, the aim is both to provide a product and a company that makes it easier for employees, especially parents, to work remotely from home. Sinha already had one child, with another on the way when the company launched in 2014, and he knew that “we wanted to create a grownup company. Selfishly, I wanted to know, ‘How am I going to do a startup but have some ability to spend time with my family?”

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Sinha knew, after his time working for Google and other startups, that “building hardware and software for real-time video is not a walk in the park.” Not only did he want to create a company that was family-friendly for him, he was actively recruiting senior (for Silicon Valley) talent from places like Apple, Google, and Facebook, people “who often had families and mortgages.” Sinha hoped to create a team that was more sustainable than “the typical cliché of the twentysomething-year-old working seven days a week, eating ramen noodles and pizza.” He knew that that wouldn’t be the most attractive company for the type of employees he was trying to lure. “When you come into a work environment and people are playing beer pong, working around the clock, it’s not always the best culture match.”

Shan Sinha

While Sinha says it’s more expensive to hire from the senior side, he feels it’s a better investment in his company. “If we were working around the clock, it might be appropriate when you’re thinking about a three-month window, but over time, it’s not a sustainable way to build a company. For a 10-year project or more, you have to find people committed to the long-term vision.”

Here are the five guidelines Sinha says are key to putting together a “startup for grownups”:

Lead By Example

“It starts with yourself,” says Sinha. “You have to set the right pace with the company.” He tends to not come into the office until after 9 a.m., after school drop off, and then goes home for dinner at around 7 p.m.. “Then I’m offline until 10, and get back online for a few hours and do emails. On weekends I’m very rarely online,” which Sinha does pointedly. “I do that to reinforce the fact that it’s okay to be offline. If my employees see me working all the time, they’ll assume that they shouldn’t be taking time to be at home.”

Highfive also has a “No Meeting Wednesday” policy to enable people working remotely to take care of matters they need to at home. Working from home benefits the company, not just in terms of happier employees, but more productive ones as well. “Often you want to avoid wasting hours in traffic and optimize the amount of time you spend at home.” Sinha says. “Flexible hours are critical.”

Practice Work-Life Integration Instead Of Work-Life Balance

Highfive is family-friendly to an extent—but it’s still a startup. “Sometimes you just have to go through those periods where you’re working six or seven days a week,” Sinha says, and employees are aware that while they enjoy flexible workdays, they will not necessarily be working a traditional nine-to-five schedule. “We are very explicit about that up front,” he says. “There might be periods where the balance does shift more toward work for a while, but we also try to find a way to not let that become the norm. That helps set expectations for what they’re signing up for.” Reinforcing the principle and value of open discussions about work and life helps Highfive employees work the way they want to, believes Sinha. “We assume that people want to be at work, that they want to build something new.”

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One of Sinha’s favorite examples of the culture at Highfive involves one of his engineering managers, who recently had a baby and frequently works from home. The baby makes frequent appearances in the team’s video calls. “He’s been a participant in just about every meeting, sitting there on his dad’s lap,” says Sinha.

Enact Practical Policies To Keep The Team In Touch

While the company doesn’t keep track of what hours employees are supposed to be in the office, some management does still need to happen. “We ask people to be diligent about their calendars,” says Sinha. “My calendar shows to not schedule anything before 9 a.m. because I have to drop my kids off at school. If you’ve got private meetings, you can mark things private. If you have time blocked out, people respect that.” No matter what employees have going on if they’re not in the office, unless the time is blocked off, “we encourage people to be online when they are working from home so they can respond to things urgently.”

Invest In Tools That Help You Communicate

Aside from shared calendars and email, Highfive employees also use tools like Slack to stay up to date on their projects. And, not surprisingly, Highfive’s own product is a key tool. While at Google, Sinha saw how offsite employees utilized video conferencing several times a day in order to stay connected. “Our technology is an enabler of that,” he says. “When working from home, it’s easy to feel disconnected, but Highfive helps people feel connected.” (Incidentally, our interview was conducted over Highfive, where I spoke with Sinha in his Silicon Valley office while I worked in my Chicagoland bedroom because I had a guest working at my kitchen counter.)

Be Flexible

“Start” is the key part of “startup.” Sinha is the first to admit, “I’ll be 100% honest, I don’t think we’ve fully nailed it—but I think we’ve done a bunch of things really well.” For instance, occasionally the 9 a.m. meeting does occur. And the company is still trying to work out its parental leave policy. “We have a luxury that we can do things on a one-off basis,” Sinha says. Several children have been born since Highfive was rolled out, and so far the policy is to “largely just be supportive,” but with a brand-new company, “the types of policies that Facebook can put in, it’s not exactly the same for a startup.”

Meanwhile, the company has used trial and error to discover which tools work best in terms of keeping the team together, switching, for instance, from Yammer to Slack. But tinkering aside, overall, in a field where disposable youth is prized and burnout is common, Sinha believes Highfive has “done a good job of just caring.”

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About the author

Since 2002, Claire Zulkey has run the blog Zulkey.com. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Jezebel, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and the Los Angeles Times.

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