The Smarter Startup

Strategic HR for Startups: Wins to Focus on Right Now


A discussion about the strategic HR and People Operations policies startups should pursue in today’s challenging work environment.

When it comes to HR and People Operations, you’ve probably enacted your first tactical steps around payroll and tax compliance in each state where you have employees. But have you thought about the strategic workforce policies you should be pursuing?

Sara Schrage, Managing Director of Strategic People Operations at Burkland, joined us for a recent episode of Startup Success. Sara shared important People Operations strategies startups should focus on in today’s challenging Covid work environment. This article is a summary of Sara’s advice around strategic HR for startups.

Strategic HR Topics Discussed:

  1. Remote-first workforce strategies
  2. Mid-level management burnout challenges and how to address them
  3. The importance of setting company goals early on

“The biggest thing that I’ve learned as an HR person is the importance of getting buy-in from your leadership before you put a people practice in place.”
— Sara Schrage

Remote-first workforce strategies

Remote work isn’t the differentiating benefit it used to be

Remote work isn’t new, but it’s never been implemented on this kind of global scale. Until now, the option to work remotely has been a benefit offered by select companies to retain top talent. Now that more businesses are willing to hire remote workers, it changes the game for recruitment. Recruiting employees is extremely difficult right now as the playing field has been leveled. Startups need to put together a recruiting strategy that focuses on what they can offer top talent. Creativity around benefits and employee training and advancement opportunities are all integral in a strong remote work recruiting strategy.

Remote-first requires thoughtful culture building

With employees and teams working remotely, startup leadership needs to be especially mindful of building culture and teamwork. Remote-first doesn’t mean remote-only, which is easy to forget. The remote-first mindset is about adapting communication and operational processes to ensure no employee gets left behind or left out, regardless of where they are when work is executed. It ensures technology platforms like Slack are in place for cross-time zone communication, and provides ways for employees to participate in meetings like offering teleconference options for all meetings.

Commitment, trust, and deliberate, intentional communication are all key to remote-first success. Creating a feedback loop that enables your team to signal what’s needed from the working environment will hold you in good stead in your startup. For startups transitioning from working on-premise to remote due to Covid, this change can be challenging. Sara has helped many startup clients make this transition and has written a playbook on the process. The key components are creating a plan that has total buy-in from all leadership, over-communicating with employees, and focusing on a remote-first mindset so all employees have the tools to stay connected and succeed.

Mid-level management burnout: challenges and resolutions

“Companies should make a concentrated effort to empower their managers to help their teams thrive and not just survive.”
— Sara Schrage

Being a mid-level manager in a startup environment is the modern-day equivalent to facing the lions in the Colosseum two thousand years ago. If that’s not enough stress, COVID-19 came along and forced managers to figure out every process from the ground up (in addition to dealing with their personal lives and ongoing day-to-day responsibilities).

Sara believes that it’s worth turning more attention toward these managers rather than away from them. To help mid-level managers navigate the intense stress associated with these roles, she suggests:

  • Ensure managers feel cared for and recognized as people. Genuinely ask managers how they are, and listen intentionally with consideration to their responses.
  • Offer training. Employee management doesn’t comes naturally to many technical people. And don’t default to the expectation that someone great at on-premise people management will excel at the remote version.
  • Bring managers together to socialize with each other and share learnings, observations, respective experience, and advice.
  • Equip your managers with tools to foster a collaborative environment. Clearly communicating expectations means nothing if you don’t support your teams in achieving their goals.
  • Remind managers to take vacations. Unused paid time off (PTO) can cause resentment, fatigue, and burnout over time.

Setting company goals early

“One of the most undervalued — but most useful — things is for companies to get into a regular cadence about setting company goals, team goals, and even individual goals.”
— Sara Schrage

Setting goals early helps orient every employee who joins your startup journey from day one. Hand-in-hand is the discipline to track and monitor progress toward the goals on a regular basis.

Too often, a company has a few hundred employees before goal setting and tracking is taken seriously. Waiting so long to set and track goals can lead to uncertainty, corporate culture clashes, and resistance or misalignment between the business and even its best and brightest people.

If your company goals are clearly defined early, it makes recruiting easier too. This way, you can make sure that you’re putting the right people into the right positions instead of just matching technical skills to typical job specifications. In the startup world, that’s like trying to put a square peg into a round hole.

Contact Sara Schrage for her playbook on transitioning to remote work, training and support resources for mid-level managers, and recruitment strategies for today’s new and challenging work environment.

This discussion with Sara Schrage comes from Burkland’s podcast series, Startup Success.