How Eva-Maria Merjel of Thorgate is providing software and design solutions globally.
First of all, how are you and your team doing in these COVID-19 times?
Eva-Maria Merjel: It has pretty much become a norm at the moment, and we recognize that the world has changed forever. However, the initial transition last year to lockdowns, remote working and constant social distancing was definitely hard. We were all learning to stay home with family a lot more and balancing work life in the same mix. All that probably made us stronger altogether, both individually and collectively.
Tell us about you, your career, how did you join Thorgate?
Eva-Maria Merjel: I joined Thorgate in 2018. I am a psychology major with 8+ years of experience in HR, Sales and People Management. When I joined Thorgate, the value I brought to the company was my capability of managing, documenting and improving the work culture at Thorgate – being responsible for the overall happiness and productivity of a tech team.
I joined Thorgate because we have a brilliant team, different nationalities, a diverse skill set, but altogether am so passionate and focused on delivering top-notch digital products. It is a breath of fresh air to work with a collaborative, hungry and trustworthy team like that.
How does Thorgate innovate?
Eva-Maria Merjel: We are a group of IT companies that envision changing the world with technology. Therefore, our entire operation is based on innovation. We build powerful products to digitally transform traditional industries. We invest in passionate teams that are inspired to build innovative digital products. We provide a platform for innovators, developers, and business owners through our annual PyCon conference and Code Club events.
Some of our projects that have accelerated innovation in the relevant industries include an organ transplant communication app, software to control all-live factory processes, a document management system for forest unions and a cryptocurrency trading bot.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Eva-Maria Merjel: We weren’t very badly affected by the pandemic in terms of our overall business finances. This is because of the structure of our company. We have put together the best of corporations and startups to create a group that provides stability to each company within the group. We acknowledge that some of the industries we work in were badly hit, such as logistics, manufacturing and forestry. However, in contrast, our healthtech, e-commerce and fintech projects accelerated during the pandemic.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Eva-Maria Merjel: Luckily, we didn’t have to let go of anyone or take such drastic measures. The challenges we faced in terms of human resources were to be able to maintain good company culture, keep communication within the company going well while working remotely and most importantly, keep up the efficiency or productivity of the team.
Pushing teams to work remotely can negatively affect efficiency levels in most organizations unless handled carefully. At Thorgate, efficiency, smart working and productivity have seen some positive changes since we made our entire team remote. Creating the right daily rituals to keep up work productivity and having optimal communication has been essential in the current situation.
We did face some hiccups in the start where team happiness levels dipped, and stress levels were on the rise. We understood that external stress from the global situation can negatively affect any person’s work performance. Therefore, it was very important for us to give the team a sense of stability, as well as a reassurance that we can see through the crisis as a company.
We were able to ensure great results for the team and the clients, thanks to the culture of transparency and the digital tools we are equipped with. However, the key lesson we learnt obviously was that remote working or hybrid working requires an extra effort to better communicate and improve employee engagement levels. We also realize this more than ever before that equating company growth to an increase in employee headcount is a vanity metric. Therefore, we highly advocate that growth metrics should be about tech adoption than the mere number of people.
How did your culture management evolve in this time? Do you use any specific tools to be effective?
Eva-Maria Merjel: The first pivot we made in terms of culture management is announcing that we are permanently moving to a hybrid work environment. This means that we let our people choose how they’d like to work. Some of us work from the office, others work from home (which could be anywhere in the world), and many of us do a little bit of both.
So we made it an integral part of our culture that ‘We believe work is what we do, not where we do it’. We also opened hiring from anywhere in the world without the need for relocation.
However, this also meant that we had to cancel many of our company events, like Christmas dinner or company birthday, etc., to a virtual format. All our meetings were virtual by default, and slack replaced face-to-face communication.
The upside of this is the amount of flexibility and comfort everyone in the company has now. However, the challenge is obviously to constantly make sure that little things are being done for the sake of better communication, such as turning on your camera for a virtual social event, organizing online stand-up meetings once a day, having a virtual chillroom, and making online events as engaging as live ones etc.
We use some of our battle-tested digital tools for online collaboration like Slack, GSuite, Zoom, Jira, Tempo and Pipedrive. Though, what is more, important for us are the rituals we inculcate in our work routine. At Thorgate, we have a PPP (Progress, Plans and Problems) report at the end of every day, and we use clanbeat to post our daily wins and even challenges. We have transitioned our daily stand-up meetings to short video calls, all agile ideas and methodologies are carried out online now, including planning sprints, groomings, and retros.
Your final thoughts?
Eva-Maria Merjel: Our people are the real assets for Thorgate, and this is why we are so focused on our work culture. We put together a comprehensive culture book to document all the aspects of our work life like work-free learning days, knowledge-sharing events and grilling the CEO.
As a Chief Culture Officer or as a part of the management team, my role is to enable growth in the company. We hire smart people, so they can tell us what to do, and we trust our team. So I actually don’t change anything in the company myself; instead, I listen to the people we manage and help them solve problems.
I find this to be universal advice for tech startups building teams that can help them flourish.