Why remote culture is built on belonging at this tech company

On paper, Stephanie Smith’s career journey may not look like that of the typical HR leader–but it’s one that has long been tracking directly toward leading an HR function.

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The vice president of people and culture at cloud production platform Tagboard initially had her sights set on the nonprofit world. After college, she spent several years working for the Boys & Girls Clubs, including two years directing a club, which she says provided her first taste of managing team and employee development. While completing a master’s degree in organizational leadership and communications and living in Key West, Fla., she turned to the events industry and soon was running events for four hotels.

“I naturally found myself in conversations about how we could make processes more efficient or create programs to ensure the client experience was empathetic and transformational,” Smith says, noting her passion for uniting clients and a team around an experience solidified her drive to work in people operations.

She joined Tagboard in 2016, initially as an operations manager and later overseeing team health and organizational development and, a few months before the pandemic started, was named director of people and culture before assuming her current post this spring. Smith recently shared her vision for the role–and the organization.

HRE: Before Tagboard went fully remote last summer, what kind of advanced strategic work was done, particularly in the area of culture? And did strategy have to shift as you’ve gone along?

Stephanie Smith

Smith: Tagboard is a leading interactive storytelling and production platform used daily by more than 500 broadcast, entertainment and sports partners. During the pandemic, our team was incredibly busy in a time where many other businesses were slowing down, as our partners needed more help than ever with remote production.

Unlike many organizations, the majority of our team was already working remote. So, before the pandemic started, we had already done some foundational things to build connection across our remote team and define our values. That upfront work really helped set us up for success and how we’ve evolved over the past year.

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We are all human beings and our collective goal as a team is to create a space of belonging–2020 was a year where we had to stretch further and find new ways to meet that objective. This not only meant finding new ways to collaborate as a team but also striking the right balance in terms of engagement versus deep work–giving our team the space they needed to process the world at large and maintain wellness.

HRE: As the new vice president of people and culture, what does a day in your job look like?

Smith: My days never look the same! Let me set the scene. We are a remote-first company, so I work from various locations throughout the week to mix it up! Sometimes it’s outside on my patio, occasionally at the kitchen table, rarely at my actual desk, and now that things have opened up, my favorite local coffee shops! I thrive with my headphones in, a good Spotify playlist on and people around me.

My weekly schedule varies, but typically includes our weekly exec meeting, multiple “Do you have a minute?” Zoom calls, manager one-to-ones to talk through team and employee growth, plus recruiting and informational calls regarding open positions. One of the most important aspects of my job is listening–to fully absorb and understand team dynamics and needs–and support the growth of our business.

Other key areas of focus for me include making progress on our DEI initiative, planning for new hires, supporting employee development and culture initiatives, as well as preparing for our monthly all-hands, which we call T.A.G. (Totally Awesome Gathering). And then there’s the HR administrative aspects of my job–from managing employee benefits to running our 15five check-ins, reports and process audits.

HRE: What was your day one priority when you took on the new role?

Smith: As vice president of people and culture, I am focusing on three priority areas in the first 90-120 days:

  1. Values-based decision-making at the executive level. Our team has always fiercely believed in our values. That really is our sweet spot as a company, but over the past year we’ve looked at how we can align around our values in an even more powerful way to make them a true pillar of our business strategy. This means looking for ways to weave our values into our employer branding, talent acquisition, how we work with partners and our approach as a team across areas as we continue to grow.
  1. Increase our talent diversity. When I started in 2016, I was one of only a handful of leaders on our team who identified as female. Tagboard didn’t have as much diversity, and we were committed to changing that. Today more than half of our team and leadership identify as females, with diversity across our leadership and core team continuing to grow. We’ve made a number of conscious choices as a company to improve talent diversity–from how we approach recruiting and hiring to remove unconscious bias to posting our open roles to a breadth of job boards with a focus on recruiting diverse talent. We’ve also redefined our internal approach and processes to be more inclusive to support our values, including 100% paid maternity, paternity, fostering and adoptive leave. Last, but not least, we implemented employee engagement software that encourages our team to communicate deeply around motivation, communication and feedback preferences, growth and development, and identification of stressors.
  1. Increase employer branding. Tagboard has worked really hard to cultivate the culture we have. I want the world to see who we are and what it has taken to get here, while also helping other companies develop positive and inclusive cultures. Early this year, Tagboard went through the application process to become certified as a Great Place to Work and I feel so incredibly proud to say that we have been successful in that certification! 96% of employees at Tagboard say it is a great place to work, compared to 59% of employees at a typical U.S.-based company.
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HRE: How do you define HR success?

Smith: To me, HR success is when the company’s goals, HR’s goals and the goals of your team are one and the same. Ultimately, your culture and employee experience need to be co-created by everyone across your team. You can only do that effectively when you are consciously and openly embracing diversity and new ideas.

Read more Insights from a CHRO here.

Another core tenet of HR success for me is empathy. HR is not about “human resources,” but human experience in a company setting. At Tagboard, People Operations success is defined by how well we support the growth of the business, but more importantly, how our values and culture live and breathe across our team. We want every team member to feel a strong sense of belonging and ownership around our mission and vision. We also want them to feel empowered to learn, grow and thrive in their role.

HRE: What are a few of the “soft” skills that have served you best as a people leader?

Smith: There are a few that come to mind:

  • Empathy: Our values, policies and engagement plans have been designed with empathy, co-created based on direct feedback from our team. I fundamentally believe in the notion that we are people-first, and if we have to be away from our families and friends to make a living, we should be cared for as our whole selves while doing it.
  • Adaptability: People change, perspective changes, opinions change–heck, our industry evolves too. The ability to relinquish ego from my work has allowed me to be fully present in each experience.
  • Time management and code switching: Working in a remote environment, you often get pinged in Slack or get numerous emails, which can take you away from any deep work you are trying to do. The ability to juggle multiple tasks, manage my time effectively and switch contexts without missing a beat is a skill I’ve worked hard to develop over the past few years.

HRE: Outside of work, what are you passionate about?

Smith: I am a mama of two boys under the age of 3. Life is full of playing Avengers, listening to Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and making sure we are raising kind, empathetic, accepting humans. Outside of being a mom, I am a forever learner, avid book reader and musical theater enthusiast. I also enjoy a good dark espresso, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and a charcuterie board with my husband.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].