Long before the pandemic democratized the ability for tech workers to ply their skills from wherever, Squirrels LLC was busy creating a “West Coast tech culture” for its team in North Canton, Ohio. Not only did talented engineers take notice, the foundation Squirrels built for an employee-centric culture nabbed them a coveted Fortune Magazine ranking as a best place to work.
In fact, re-imaging is what this 40-person business does best. The company launched in 2008 as Napkin Studio—one of the first iPhone app developers. Four year later, its founders pivoted the business, found an untapped market for screen-mirroring, wireless presentation and collaboration apps —”technology to go nuts for”—and changed the company name to Squirrels LLC. Today its products are used by millions of schools, households and businesses worldwide.
In 2018, Squirrels founders hired Erica Betz to help them formalize and extend their employee-centric culture where all ideas are not only welcome but encouraged and nurtured. In keeping with the company’s ethos to always be learning, Erica sought out a SHRM certification to ensure a best practice HR foundation.
“I spent a lot of time looking at the people programs at companies we admire,” says Erica. “I realized they were able to do this with the support of an HRIS (Human Resource Information System).”
In 2020, aligned to a business priority to complete more processes with less stress, Erica recognized it was time for automation in their workforce processes to enable her to deliver more to the business.
“We wanted technology with a holistic approach to payroll, benefits and HR. I can’t tell you the large number of solutions we looked at in this process, but, as a tech company we couldn’t use a tool that wasn’t innovative, well built or lacked an easy user experience. Zenefits was the only one at the forefront of people operations, tech and user interface.”
My biggest ah-ha: my skill set is growing without the process tying me down
People Operations Lead
Designing an innovative employee experience
From the beginning, the founders of Squirrels sought to create a business and work environment that powered creativity and freedom of expression. What they didn’t want to do was build a culture that was so worried about doing the right thing that they ended up doing the wrong thing. Like Silicon Valley, they wanted to offer an environment okay with getting it wrong sometimes and learning from it.
From Erica’s perspective, they’ve delivered. In fact, she noted that even during the really awful experience of the pandemic in 2020, she never got the “Sunday scaries” or anticipatory anxiety of the work week to come. She got excited for what was next: and there was a lot.
“We all look at 2020 as a year for analyzing, learning and adjusting. Everything that came to the forefront of discussion—from the pandemic to mental health to diversity and inclusion—made us take a fresh look to ensure we’re doing enough for our team.
“For example, we switched to a new mindset about employee wellbeing. I personally was not okay; and it was a terrible time for a lot of our people. We started with pulse checks to see how people were, then we set up Slack channels for collaboration. We also created support groups for our people and their family members to navigate job searches, mental health and other types of support. We went—quickly—from thinking of wellbeing as ‘should we do a step goal challenge?’ to actively checking in to learn how people are doing emotionally, physically and professionally, and determining how we could help.
“Also, we took a deeper look at diversity and inclusion. Done well, it is a lot of actual work and emotional labor that requires deep thinking. We’ve started this work with a new internship program, leveraging access to nearby Kent State University, to open up exposure to a broader set of talented individuals with different backgrounds.
“Having Zenefits as our people operations tech foundation freed up more time and gave us many supplemental tools to support all of this.”
Powering People-First Growth
The Zenefits foundation will make 2021 a year of growth at Squirrels. The bootstrapped company grew its staff by 15% during the pandemic,but when Erica talks about growth, she has a much bigger view in mind for the company and its people.
“In 2021, our goal is to create meaningful and reliable processes and impact in our talent practices from hiring and development to diversity. Success will mean ending the year with a well-planned career map: growth path and professional and personal goals for each of our team members. We want our people to see we’re investing in their future and that they have a future here. It’s going to take all of 2021 to address and mitigate the fear from 2020. Zenefits is the tech backbone for all of this.”
Some of Squirrels’ people operations initiatives include:
- Aligned goals and performance. Squirrels is using Zenefits compensation and performance tools to look at meaningful, actionable and measurable cascading company, team and individual goals.“It’s hard sometimes for people to regularly advocate for themselves. We’ve always had a bi-annual performance process where we look at professional and personal development goals, but that also meant that goals and progress, captured in Google or Microsoft forms, didn’t get reviewed often or maybe not until the next six-month period. Using the Goals tool in Zenefits has given our people the option to create their own time horizons for goals and milestones aligned to the company. This makes conversations easier.“A lot of employees, especially on the tech side, are more reserved and less likely to flag their goals. If it’s accessible and easy, they see it as doable and achievable. As Zenefits gathers and charts trends and feedback, it’s key that our leadership has a bird’s eye view. Having these tools democratizes performance visibility.”
- Actionable Insight. The company uses Zenefits Engagement Surveys, which can be launched, summarized and reported directly in the platform. “It’s important for us to regularly pulse, listen, measure and pinpoint any shortcomings anonymously to continue to advance our culture.”
- Streamlined onboarding. Squirrels continued to hire during the pandemic, but was able to radically streamline prior manual processes, reducing the back and forth of hiring and onboarding management. Erica estimates that she spent 90 minutes on just the paperwork management for each new hire before Zenefits, and now it takes her about 10 minutes. The efficiency also reflected well on the company’s brand to its new staff.
- All in One Access. Squirrels sees a big advantage in having all of its people operations in one place under Zenefits—including integrations to partner apps like JazzHR, Slack, Microsoft Office 365 and Quickbooks. Now HR changes, time off, benefits changes, and time and attendance updates are added to payroll automatically for seamless administration, and HR and productivity apps are easy to access for employees. “ Unlike legacy HRIS platforms we were using which don’t do this, Zenefits updates its products all the time, and it shows. As a tech company, we don’t want to run on outdated, hard-to-use and underperforming technology.”
- Wellbeing and a Wealth of Ideas. In 2020 the company started more focused conversations about wellbeing. With just four months on Zenefits, Erica is planning to dig into the Wellbeing app next to support that emerging dialogue. She’s also leaned into Zenefits online customer community, ClubZen, to exchange ideas with other people operations leaders across a variety of topics for designing a more powerful employee experience.
“One of the best things about Zenefits is the introductions to partners, other customers and continual context about people operations that deliver value beyond the products. My biggest ah-ha: my skill set is growing without the process tying me down.”
“Now we have the tools and ecosystem of partners and community to make our employee-centric vision a reality. We’re excited to grow with Zenefits as we hit our stride on what’s next.”