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Creating a strong ‘office’ culture for remote workers

How the dispersed team at Student Loan Hero prioritizes communication and connection

Image Credit: Josh Cochran
Andy Josuweit is the Austin, TX-based CEO you’re more likely to catch in a coffee shop than a corner office. The founder of Student Loan Hero, a solution for managing and repaying student loans, works remotely. And so do the 70 employees of his six-year-old company.

To keep everyone on the same page, Josuweit advises, “You really have to overemphasize the importance of communication. You need to figure out how you can create a safe environment to communicate and how you can allow for constructive confrontation and have healthy debates.”

Josuweit graduated from college in 2009 during the recession and was unable to find work. Instead of heading down the classic cubicle-bound 9-to-5 career path, he found himself off to an internship in Africa, then Asia, to chase his entrepreneurial pursuits on a budget, followed by South America for an accelerator. “[Remote work] is all I know,” says Josuweit.

To keep everyone on the same page, Josuweit advises, “You really have to overemphasize the importance of communication. You need to figure out how you can create a safe environment to communicate and how you can allow for constructive confrontation and have healthy debates.”

He feels like this needs to be a priority because remote work diminishes access to nonverbal communication and provides limited opportunities to build rapport and trust with colleagues. “You don’t have the opportunities to sit down to lunch together or go out for happy hour with people.”

While Student Loan Hero does do two annual retreats to get their employees face-to-face, they’ve found an easy daily workaround for body language by using emojis and gifs “to share how we’re feeling on a deeper level.”

Jacy Cruz, who joined the company four months ago as their Customer Experience Manager, says sometimes she feels like she doesn’t use enough emojis. Cruz, who’d lobbied hard at her last company for more flexibility around working from home, did have some concern about going fully remote, “Because I’m shy and I thought that it was going to be even more difficult for people to get to know me.”

Fortunately, Student Loan Hero has several initiatives in place to foster connectedness. They have two all-company meetings each week. The Monday meeting is more business focused, but the Friday afternoon meeting is more laidback and functions as a “happy hour.” Colleagues can chat about their wins from the week and their plans for the weekend, just like they would on a Friday afternoon in the office.

Cruz also has her first Slack Donut bot chat coming up. The bot will do the work of pairing her with someone at random within her company for a 15 to 20-minute chat. Cruz likes this setup because she’s “not naturally inclined to reach out to people” she’s not working with directly.

But her favorite community building effort is the “Learning Rewards” program. The company has a pre-approved list of books they recommend employees read. Employees are encouraged to block out at least one hour on their calendar during the workweek to read and are rewarded with $15 for each hour they spend reading. “I love it because they recognize it’s a small amount of money for them to pay for their employees to do two things: One is to immediately begin applying whatever they’re learning to their jobs, but the second thing, that I think is actually more important, is to develop this habit, this thirst for learning.” Cruz continues, “And so many people are burnt out at work, what’s their incentive to go out and learn things unless it’s about trying to find a new job and get paid more.”

And what Student Loan Hero is doing is working. Shaun Moten, the HR Coordinator at Student Loan Hero who helps develop and manage employee culture, says, “Up until December of last year, we had a non-existent turnover rate. Then present day, we’ve had three employees to leave the company, so it’s still ridiculously low to have been around since 2012.”

Moten assists new hires in establishing a daily routine and conducts “stay interviews” to unearth and address any employee grievances early. For her, Student Loan Hero is “HR heaven.”

Josuweit, the CEO, predicts a more remote workforce will become the norm. “We’re going to see this demand in the workplace to create more work-life balance, or work-life integration. And I think remote work is somewhat inevitable. I think it’s kind of like fighting gravity.” But that doesn’t mean the future of work is without issue, says Josuweit. “It comes with its own unique challenges.” But for him and the entire team at Student Loan Hero, the extra effort is worth the reward.

 

Minda Honey hasn’t worked in a cubicle in a decade and consequently never worries her favorite stapler is going to go missing.

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