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At Aware, Humans and Empathy Come First in Product, People and Purpose

At Aware, Humans and Empathy Come First in Product, People and Purpose

The Great Resignation, the Great Reshuffle, the Great Reflection . . . whatever you call it, one thing is clear: what’s happening at the workplace matters. And employers are taking notice. 

Columbus-based startup Aware understands this to its core. It’s not only a part of its mission to be a top place to work, but it's also embedded in the DNA of its software.

Aware’s tech solutions use AI to help companies mitigate risk and compliance issues with the data that is passed through collaboration sites like Slack and Microsoft Teams. In highly regulated industries (think finance, for example) data privacy is imperative for businesses, and Aware helps protect everyone involved. 


A second part of Aware’s business is using AI to leverage insights from the data that comes from these collaboration platforms. Leaders are looking to understand employee sentiment, especially during these turbulent times, and for large companies — the Microsofts of the world — an employee survey isn’t cutting it. Aware provides leaders with tangible insights into a company’s human behavioral data so that companies can understand and immediately drive action for better business outcomes.

And immediacy is an important aspect to this tool. Gone are the days where employees wait six months for HR to make changes. People don’t wait for better. They leave to go find it someplace else. 

Founded in 2017, Aware has been rapidly growing in Columbus, having raised over $88 million in funding. The company has outgrown its current headquarters and is opening a new, bigger office in the city’s Brewery District, hiring across the board to help take the organization to the next level. 



People Analytics in the COVID and Post-COVID Era

The pandemic and rise of remote work has only increased the urgent need for a company like Aware. 

Since 2019, there’s been a 44% increase in collaboration tool usage. That means there’s an increased risk in compliance issues. Take JPMorgan for example. The company was fined $200 million for allowing employees to conduct business on WhatsApp. It raised questions about security and regulation. These are the risks — and costs — Aware helps mitigate.

Additionally, as people continue to work from home and engage with each other on these tools — as opposed to hallway chats and eating lunch together — these tools are gold mines for human insight. And as people continue to rethink what they do, where they work, and who they work for (thoughts that the pandemic only accelerated) these human insights are all the more important.

“Employee listening and people analytics are two of the fastest growing industries within HR,” said Erin Souza, Aware’s Chief People Officer.

erin souzaAs companies navigate remote work, hybrid models or returning to the office, employee listening is a key tool in understanding the right choice. 

“Many companies are shifting to hybrid models, so now the question is: how well is this working?” Erin said.

This is all a part of Aware’s human-centered software. 

“People are humans first before they’re an employee,” Erin said. “The pandemic helped us normalize this, as we saw kids in Zoom backgrounds and the need for flexibility and empathy.”

Erin said it’s about supporting the human at the individual level, and employees are demanding this from employers. Aware is helping them meet those demands. 


Building and Being a Workplace of the Future 

Taking a human-centered approach doesn’t only apply to Aware’s software; it’s also integral to the company’s culture. 

“Collaboration is key to the future of the workforce,” Erin said. “We ourselves try to walk the walk when it comes to internal collaboration. Empathy drives our product, and our own way of operating at Aware.”

Erin said that even before Aware raised money, the founders came together and created an outline for what they wanted the culture to be. They wanted to build a company that they wanted to work at.

This spoke volumes for Erin because, when she came on board in early 2022, she didn’t have to convince them that a flexible, empathetic workplace was the future. They knew that from day one.

It was this foundation and the people at Aware that made Erin want to join the team. 

“I had my own ‘great reflection’ sitting at home behind a Zoom screen by myself for three years,” Erin said. “I had to be honest with myself about what I needed, and that was to be around people.”

As someone always interested in human behavior insights and developing listening strategies, when Erin learned more about Aware’s product, she geeked out. That, plus the people, made it a no-brainer.

So how does Aware take a human-centered approach to its people and culture?


Flexibility and options

“At Aware, we really are flexible,” Erin said. There’s less administration and no micromanaging people’s time. “We prioritize what you have to take care of as a human, whether that’s your health, finance, or family. It’s about supporting the whole person.”

Flexibility is also seen in the company’s own remote policy. There’s plenty of room for remote employees who prefer that work/lifestyle. For those who want to be in an office, there’s an amazing building for you (and your dog!) to come to every day. And if you want to mix it up, the company has a hybrid option, too. 

This is possible because trust is the #1 component to the company’s culture. Part of their hiring process is evaluating that level of judgment and trust because it’s so critical to their culture — and makes flexibility so easy. You trust people to manage their time, get things done, and not abuse the Bourbon room. Yes, there really is a Bourbon room at the office.

“It’s not about guidelines and rules. We really just trust everyone to do what’s best for the company,” Erin said. 


aware team


Fast growth & high impact

Part of investing in employees and their whole person means investing in their growth. At Aware, leadership always helps employees continue to grow and make an impact on the business. 

As the honeymoon phase ends (which it does at every company), it’s important that managers know what the next step for an individual is so that when they reach that point, there’s a plan already mapped out. 

“We want to help everyone get into that sweet spot of their development where they’re really jiving, having a good flow, learning fast, and know how to get things done,” Erin said. 

In order to do that, it’s about clarity of expectations, identifying opportunities for growth, making sure people understand what it takes to get to the next level, and even defining what growth and impact mean to an individual. 

Everyone at Aware has the ability to impact the business, no matter your position or experience.


Listening and feedback

Just as its software helps companies better listen to their employees, Aware is listening to its own team for collaboration and feedback. 

From open Slack channels to live questions during All Hands meetings, there’s always a forum to ask questions, be heard, and listen to others. Erin has been doing this since she first started at the company by having individual conversations with every single person at Aware. 

“Our product is all about listening to employee voices, and that carries over into our culture every day,” Erin said.


Fun and authenticity

Aware also has some of those super fun startup perks: dog-friendly office, free food, an onsite keg, the Bourbon Room, people playing music . . . it’s a very lively environment. 

aware office dogs

Of course those perks are fun, but what’s more important are the people-first benefits, like mental health support and family for example. Even better? The people. With an open culture, Aware has fostered a community where everyone is approachable and kind. The CEO sits out on the floor with everyone instead of being far away in an office. And people enjoy running into each other and catching up. 

“Everyone checks their ego at the door, and it’s a breath of fresh air to work with people who are so humble and nice,” Erin said. “People care about you as a person, and it really matters to us that we can be ourselves here.”

While remote employees don’t get to have those in-person conversations over snacks, there are many other ways the team connects. There’s always virtual communication going on, whether that’s in the Donut app in Slack or using Gather.Town for a virtual office that’s set up like Aware’s HQ. Plus, the entire team gets together in-person twice a year.

Building this kind of environment where people are genuine and work authentically has helped Aware grow into one of the top startups in the Midwest, working with some of the biggest companies in the world: Microsoft, Zoom, Meta, Slack. As they continue to grow, so does Aware. 

“It’s an exciting place to be from a product standpoint,” Erin said. 

But even more, it’s a great place to be from a people and purpose standpoint.

“Our product enables companies to be a better version of themselves and create a better employee experience,” Erin said. “To me that’s about authenticity and allowing people to be themselves at work. The experience of our people really matters here.”

If you’re looking to be a part of a fast-growing company that always puts people first, learn more about Aware and apply to their open roles.