December 15th, 2015

The CEO of Hinge thinks of employees as 'customers' of company culture. Here's how he's using this strategy to uncover and address burnout during the pandemic.

Justin McLeod HeadshotCourtesy of Justin McLeod

Summary List Placement

For Hinge founder and CEO Justin McLeod, the coronavirus pandemic has brought with it a set of unique challenges and stressors. 

Like many companies across the US, Hinge transitioned its employees to working from home in March. Since then, its employees reported feeling more stressed and burned out. 

Across the US, workers are reporting feeling more stressed, burned out, and anxious. Some 64% of respondents in a July survey from MetLife reported feeling symptoms on burnout, and 41% reported feeling at least five symptoms of depression, Business Insider's Marguerite Ward reported

"It's been a stressful time for people," McLeod told Business Insider. "We've had to adjust a lot of our processes, and at the same time take care of the mental health of our employees. We're giving them a lot of flexibility and space as we adapt to this new model." 

Business Insider spoke with McLeod about the steps he's taken to create a more productive and resilient company culture during the pandemic. 

Gather data to understand the needs of workers

The first step toward fostering a positive company culture is gathering data on the specific needs of workers. 

"We think about our employees as customers of our culture," McLeod said. "It's very similar to the way that we would do product development – we'll do research, identify needs, prototype, beta test, and then we'll roll it out." 

McLeod said that the company has conducted several employee engagement surveys. Using the data, they're able to distill the biggest concerns that need to be addressed, and develop an action plan. 

Employee engagement surveys are a good way to tell how satisfied your workers are, and it's a strategy employed by many companies. Employee engagement software company Emplify, for example, used employee engagement metrics to determine that shifting to a four-day work week would be beneficial for their team. 

But data can't tell you everything. You also need to regularly communicate with your employees when you have face time. McLeod begins his meetings with a brief employee check-in.

"You have to be really deliberate and thoughtful about the way that you keep tabs on how people are doing, because you don't get as many of those ambient signals that you would hanging out in the office," McLeod said. 

Take steps to address mental health

The engagement surveys helped Hinge realize that workers were burning out. So the company introduced initiatives like "Unplug Fridays," which allowed Hinge employees to work four days a week every other Friday in the summer. 

They recently replaced "Unplug Fridays" with "Friday Close-Out," three hours at the end of the day where employees are encouraged to wrap up their work for the week. They also implemented "No Meeting Tuesdays" to prevent employees from feeling constantly stuck in virtual meetings. 

In May, Hinge gave employees two extra days off so that they could take more time for themselves.

They also created incentives. For example, if the company sent fewer than 100 messages on each day of the weekend, Hinge would make a charitable donation to the NYC COVID-19 Response and Impact Fund. If they could stick to under 100 messages over the work week, Hinge would double its donation. So far, the company has donated $10,000 to the COVID-19 response fund. 

Be thoughtful about onboarding

It's difficult to integrate new employees into the workplace when they haven't set foot in the physical office space. 

McLeod said that Hinge's hiring ethos for job candidates has remained roughly the same, but the main challenge has been onboarding. McLeod said the company is planning on expanding its team by 60% and is being thoughtful about the process.

"The onboarding process is what we've had to be really thoughtful about: How do you onboard people when they never get to step foot in the office?" 

McLeod said that the company is pairing up new hires with mentors so that they can get to know other workers at the company. 

Pairing new employees with more seasoned team members is a useful strategy for making new workers feel welcome. Yulia Eskin, who led a team of more than 20 in a prior role as a technical team lead at a healthcare tech company in Silicon Valley, used a similar strategy. She pairs new people with more experienced workers on projects.

"Especially early on, either I would pair with them on a task or I would pair them up with some of the more seasoned engineers on the team. This way they get to develop relationships with everyone," she previously told Business Insider.

Encourage independent thinking 

McLeod modeled much of Hinge's corporate culture off of "Creativity Inc.," the founding story of Pixar. The book encourages leaders to establish flat communication hierarchies and make employees feel safe taking risks. 

But even though McLeod's leadership strategy takes cues from a range of inspirations, he said that he tries to engage workers in "first principles thinking." Famously touted by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the business strategy involves getting to the root of a problem and solving it from scratch, rather than simply adopting the practices of other companies.

In other words, Hinge employees are encouraged to address issues after their own careful consideration of the problem at hand, and not by copy-and-pasting a strategy that's worked for another company. 

"That's led to very creative, quick solutions to problems and bold experimentation, which is generally how we work," he said. "Both in terms of how we build our products, and in terms of how we build our internal culture." 

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