Starting a company is more than simply establishing a product. It involves hiring and building a team, supporting the team to ensure they work well together and have a strong culture, and creating processes for smooth operations.
Jennifer Ernst, CEO of Tivic Health, a bioelectronic device company focused on managing disease through noninvasive bioelectronic medicine, has mastered that process. Despite the company being founded in 2016, it went public just five years later.
While Tivic Health started off in a remote capacity with just a small team of five, the team is working to evolve given its increased scale and hiring. Jennifer discusses the tips, tricks, and growing pains of building a culture remotely.
Creating culture in a dispersed remote workplace
The future of work is remote. But that means more unique hurdles when it comes to hiring and building a team.
“Even though we have been largely remote from the beginning, the greatest issue facing us has to do with our onboarding,” Jennifer says. “We’re hiring over Zoom. We’re never meeting people in person, so deciding on what our practices and policies are going to be as we’re growing our culture and as we’re adding new people is challenging.”
It’s part of the nuances of starting a company remotely. Since “face-to-face” time is more intentional with Zoom meetings and video chats, conversations with team members need to be more direct when tuning a culture. Leadership needs to explicitly communicate about decisions and action items and plans.
“Those critical, little nuanced things can do so much to tune a remote culture,” Jennifer says. “Our goal is to create a context where it’s safe to be able to say, ‘I didn’t think that was quite how I want us operating going forward. Or I really liked the way you handled that situation,’ without it being unusual to do that.”
Another way this takes shape is after employees are onboard. With Tivic Health in a growth mode, Jennifer is trying to create bonding moments for team members while also recognizing the great balance of working from home. Jennifer seeks to bridge the two by having team building activities take a different shape.
“One day, I had our team members log in all on mobile and just show us a little bit of their space – tilt up, tilt down, look sideways. Show us what’s outside that door we always see in your video,” Jennifer says. “It was amazing how much extra context and connectivity that gave everybody, putting them in a three dimensional space. There’s something about having shared proximity through this window that I think is going to continue to emerge in the future of work.”
Empowering productivity and collaboration with the right technology tools
We know by now that people are more productive at home without distraction, but how do you balance that with in-person collaboration?
“We have historically always had an anchor point, at least where a couple of us got together regularly in-person. Now, while the individual employee productivity is higher, the cross coordination costs have increased when we all meet together.”
Whether it’s working across time zones and scheduling meetings, or finding those face-to-face connections, Jennifer is leaning into technology to help bridge those divides. Yet for some pivotal and celebratory moments, it’s still challenging to bring that energy.
“I realized when we did our IPO, we got together on Zoom. We had a bunch of bells and we rang them together. But as soon as you closed the computer, you were done, it was over. Having that kind of continuity and figuring out how to manage celebration remains a challenge.”
Finding ways to maintain employee engagement beyond work is important – many teams leverage a tool like Airspeed to stay connected. Tivic Health is also looking at different SMS and live feed solutions to create that persistent presence in a digital workspace.
Jennifer does recognize that there is a bit of a generational split across which tools people gravitate to for their personal communication. Understanding that has helped her determine which tools fit the best or feel the most natural in work situations.
Jennifer has also been taking inspiration from WeWork, finding that the physical look of them, no matter location, can be quite similar.
“I’ve found it to be a really interesting social construct that regardless of whether I was connecting to someone in any city around the country, there’s enough physical similarity to feel like we were somehow in a shared workspace,” Jennifer says. “I do think there’s an opportunity to emulate it. It’s something we’ve been thinking about here as we basically have recently leased a blank slate, more or less, to be able to find those anchors that no matter where you are in the company, we can create something that is present with you that connects you to others.”
Communication as the foundation for remote culture
Companies with connected employees see 20-25% increased levels of productivity, and 97% of workers think that communication impacts everyday tasks. It’s clear that connection and communication are related, and are the foundation for a strong and productive company culture. So how do you begin?
Jennifer has been trying to start the process of bonding team members as soon as they join – besides having them just connect to their direct manager. To her, those bonds are important to making sure people feel like they are valued and a part of the team.
“The first company I built had headquarters in Norway and I was in the US. And we found that the time we traveled together–not even just when I was in Norway or they were in the United States–were the most important times for creating that synthesis between the spaces.”
“That’s something I’ve been thinking about more as we build out our company, is how to create that social connectivity. It’s really not just about: Oh, I like this person, or we have a good working relationship. It’s more about: Do you know enough about the person to understand where they’re coming from, or what their thought processes are about a topic, so that when you’re having dialogues later on not in person, you can actually reach through the screen and be in the space with them, as if you were having that direct contact?”
Establishing those relationships, continuing to build them while working from home, and harnessing strong communication and connection is part of what makes Tivic Health successful. For Jennifer Ernst as the CEO, she continues to hone those processes to make them as effective as possible and build the strongest remote culture.