Ripping Down Red Tape: How To Create Policies That Work

Morgan Williams, freelancer

Morgan Williams

November 05, 2021

At Trainual, one of our core values is no red tape. And for a long time, that meant we had no policies at all. That is until things started going wrong. Then, we quickly realized we needed some guidelines as a business. 

But how do you put policies in place that don’t feel like red tape? And how do you actually build policies that empower your teams and make a difference for your organization?

We asked two policy experts those questions at Playbook 2021. And they shared great insight on what’s working for them right now – and how to approach policies in a post-pandemic world:

👉 Want to check out the rest of our speakers from Playbook 2021? Get the free replays – on-demand now!

Policies aren’t as serious as they sound

By its simplest definition, a policy is a set of guidelines or rules that determine a course of action. But when policies become too complex or rigid, we call that red tape. Because the complexity often leads to delay or inaction.

Meghana Reddy, VP of People & Operations at Loom, told us that “a lot of the roads to policy [at Loom] lead to [her].” And after spending years building policies for startups, she’s concluded that “policy sounds like something bigger than it is.” 

In other words, Meghana believes we make policies more serious than necessary. And the truth is a policy is simply clarity on anything unclear to your employees. 

Anything that has ambiguity is where policies really help people.

~ Meghana Reddy, VP of People & Operations at Loom

Meaning, a policy could be something as foundational as a cultural value. AKA how you behave as a business. 

It could state whether or not your remote team is allowed to wear pajamas while working remotely – or move to another state. Or, it could explain when you can and can’t take vacation time, how long you can take off, and how to request it with your manager. 

Whatever it covers, Meghana says good policy starts with empathizing with your team. That way, you can answer their questions before they ask. It also means you’ll need to put yourself in your employee’s shoes. 

Here are two questions Meghana asks while building foundational policies:

  1. What are the questions I’m getting every day? 
  2. What do people on my team not feel clear about? 

Then, Meghana uses those answers to formulate the related policies. That way, she can quickly clarify the most important concepts that affect the most people.

Think of policies as your company’s approach

Meghana Reddy and Michele Bousquet from Playbook 2021

Michele Bousquet, Chief People Officer at Strava, agreed with Meghana and added that “policy is kind of a tough word.” Because for Michele, “it’s more like an approach.” And she often asks herself, “what is our approach to this [question]? What is our answer?” 

Once you’ve decided on your approach (AKA policy), you can share it with your team in many ways. For example, it could be formally structured and included in your employee training. Like your company values, employee benefits, or equal opportunity policy. 

Or, it could be as informal as sending out a Slack message across an entire department. Something like: “a lot of you have been asking about doing X. And we want to clarify that you can do X.” 

Either way works – it just depends on the magnitude of the issue and its persistence. But the most important thing is that you communicate the policy to your team.

🔥 Tip: Not sure where to start? Try Trainual and access our library of 150+ policy and SOP templates!

Your first policies are your values

Michele says the first policies you need at your company (even if it’s just one or two people) are your core company values. “Because [with those values,] we know what we believe in,” she explained. “And when we need to make a decision or a policy, we can first lean on those.” 

Put plainly, having your values first makes building policies in unexpected situations easier. Because they act as an anchor and keep you tethered to what your company stands for. That way, when you have to pivot your business strategy or adapt to a worldwide change, you can align new policies quickly with your brand. 

For Michele, their values helped guide policy during the early pandemic days. And especially when they tried their first global work-from-home test. She told us, “[our] playbook didn’t have the pages I needed because there were no policies for how to work remotely.”

So, she put together a COVID task force with four of their leaders. And the small team relied on their values to build new policies and bring back clarity for the new normal. “We just leaned into our gut and did the right thing,” she shared.

Meghana echoes the importance that values play in creating policy. And she said, “I would expand it a bit and ask, ‘How do you run your business? What is your culture?’” Because the answer to those questions will impact the nature of your policies. And those affect how your organization works. 

For instance, Michele says their values at Strava are anti-racism, authenticity, balance, commitment, camaraderie, and craftsmanship. And because they create every policy from this lens, their company actions stay consistent with their culture.

Answer questions and have empathy

Once you’ve built policy around your core values, the next step is using policy to answer tactical questions. Such as how much PTO you should offer, and what about 401k. 

To do that, Michele says they send out quarterly engagement surveys (we love Culture Amp at Trainual). Then, the Stava leadership team relies on open and anonymous feedback to find swelling themes and immediate needs. 

Next, they address what feedback should be taken care of first. And usually, it’s the themes that people mention the most or what impacts the business the most. Then, they use the feedback to create new guidelines or expand on a current policy. And in the process, if they just hear a question that sparks a great idea, they might execute on that as well. 

As for Meghana, she reminds her people ops team (and herself) that they’re employees, too. Meaning, they have empathy for what their people are experiencing because they’re also going through it. And they can use those experiences to address questions proactively. 

“If I’m feeling [a certain] way, chances are someone else is feeling that way,” she explained, “[Having empathy] for employees is as easy as asking, ‘What are the kinds of things that I want to ask, but maybe I wouldn’t ask in a public forum?'” 

By thinking of her own experiences, Meghana can react quicker to issues before they get out of hand. And she can proactively support the rest of the team by listening to her own needs. Because policy is for everyone – including the business leaders.

Create fairness by setting expectations

According to Michele, the entry point for policy is fairness. “[The argument for policy] is that it makes sure each of our teammates is experiencing the same opportunities, privileges, and benefits,” she explained. 

For example, your employee benefits policy makes sure everyone gets the same access to work perks. Your remote-work or blended-work policies explain what work environments are available to what employees. And your diversity, equity, and inclusion policies protect everyone from harm. 

According to Meghana, “good policies set clear expectations for everyone. And that’s fundamentally fair.” However, she also believes that 98% of people are reasonable. And when you try to make policies for the 2% who are not, that’s when it becomes red tape. 

For instance, you might write up a remote-work policy that addresses the small percentage who want to stay home or go back to the office full force. But instead, you end up inconveniencing the majority of people who wanted some sort of option in between. 

Meghana says creating policy is kind of like a bell curve. And when you write up policies that address the 2% (or the edges of the bell curve), you’re more likely to leave behind red tape. “But when you make [policy] for the 98%, you can be quite reasonable, flexible, and live in the gray.” 

Meaning, you don’t have to be so cut and dry in policies. Flexibility leads to the last (and arguably most important) point…

Rollback policies as needed 

Both experts believe that the best policies are flexible ones. Because when they serve a spectrum of needs, they empower employees to make decisions for themselves.

The best [policies] give people a choice to support and care for themselves in the best way for them.

~ Michele Bousquet, Chief People Officer at Strava

According to Michele, “Flexible solutions are best. Blended solutions are second best. And binary [solutions] are worst.” And she uses the recent question to go back to the office as a great example. 

“Many people feel like they never need to go to the office again. But you’ve also got people on the other side who miss the office,” Michele explained. “And while it’s easier to just leave [our offices] closed, we pushed ourselves to get some people back [into them].” 

Put plainly, Michele and her team didn’t take the black-and-white way out. Instead, they asked themselves, “What’s the most we can do?” And in the end, having a flexible solution allowed Strava to support most people’s needs. 

Meghana agreed that when you lean into flexibility, you end up doing more things for more folks. “Be okay with more grey – rather than clean solutions,” she shared. And if (and when) you notice a policy isn’t going well, she said you have to be willing to roll things back.

“When the wind is blowing some way, you don’t want to be the one holding it back,” Meghana explained. In fact, she says she doesn’t shy away from rolling back because sometimes you just don’t know if a policy is going to work or not. 

Meaning, you have to put the policy out there to really get feedback on it. And if (or when) the policy doesn’t work, be quick to retract it. Then, listen to what your employees share and apply what you learn.

Michele also says that you just have to go for it. AKA don’t wait to build the policies in your business playbook. In her words, “[lay to win and put out the policy, take the feedback, and then iterate. [Because] there’ll be another version of that policy shipping soon.”

At the end of the day, building policy is about supporting your team. It’s about understanding the importance of providing resources and not waiting any longer to do it. That way, your team knows how to do their job today and that they’re supported in the long run. 

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