How this software company fosters an employee-centric culture of connectedness

Product hackathon

Elbstack is a German software engineering and design company that offers innovative software development and design services with a collective expertise that spans a wide breadth of technologies, including React, Node.js, Symfony, Elasticsearch, Terraform, AWS, Ethereum, and Tensorflow.

More than just a software engineering and design company, Elbstack is a company with a truly forward-thinking and employee-centric company culture that encourages its employees to regularly work on their own personal side projects, determine their own salary-level, and decide how much time they wish to spend on their own personal/professional development and vacation.

Additionally, Elbstack employees also have the option of working from where they want, whether that’s at Elbstack’s home office in Hamburg, Germany or remotely on the other side of Europe.

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Furthermore, Elbstack has become a true incubator, with both an individual and collective emphasis on developing new projects, product ideas, and service lines that solve real problems.

Examples of recent products and projects that have been completed or are soon to be completed at Elbstack include, a women-focused, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) fitness application called WeBurn, a new intermittent fasting (IF) health application, a new Internet of Things (IoT) product with a focus on low energy and network independence for business customers, and even a new privacy-focused Cryptocurrency!

Distributed Team & Office-Based Structure

To balance the trio of employee happiness, client requests, and logistical feasibility, Elbstack’s structure exists squarely between being a non-remote, office-based company and a distributed company with remote-based employees.

For remote-based and Hamburg-based employees alike, the central office advantageously serves as a hub where Elbstack employees can meet, socialize, and prepare on-site project work for clients who are in and around Hamburg.

Some employees work from the office 3-5 days a week, while others work from home more often, such as Elbstack’s Digital Product Designer, Lennart Brandt, who lives and works remotely in Oldenburg, Germany, and takes a 150 km round trip commute to Hamburg from Oldenburg every couple of weeks to connect with fellow employees or to work with clients directly.

Despite having created a tight-knit, employee-centric company culture that is ahead of the curve in many respects, Elbstack still faces the same challenges that other tech start-ups with distributed and remote-based teams face, such as challenges with very regular cohesive team-building and collaborative in-person project work.

First Retreats & Experimentations

Tending to the need for more cohesive team-building, while avoiding the everyday hustle and bustle of client work and personal projects, Elbstack decided it was time to organize annual team retreats. Elbstack’s first two annual retreats in 2016 and 2017 were held on the beautiful island of Koh Samui in Thailand.

For two weeks Elbstack set out with the goal of collectively working, learning, connecting, and developing a more cohesive company culture and strategy, while also getting a chance to explore and experience Koh Samui.

Far from a relaxing two-week vacation, the team quickly learned that the effort of organizing, planning, and executing the retreat made it stressful and distracting. Additionally, despite being 9,000+ kilometres from Germany, client work remained a consistent fixture during each retreat in Thailand. Developing company culture and strategy, on the other hand, took more of a backseat.

While the retreats each year were regarded as successes overall, there were some clear lessons and takeaways used to improve future team retreats. Sentiments were echoed by Elbstack employees such as Lennart Brandt, “It’s important to not just focus on work during the retreats, but regardless, the team events and retreats turned out to be a huge motivation for everyone as it’s something special everyone looks forward to.”

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Team building as an integral part of the retreat

Elbstack decided that to get the most out of their next annual retreat with as little distraction as possible, they needed to change the internal processes behind the development and execution of the retreat, from start to finish. With plans to go to Lisbon, Portugal for 2018’s annual retreat, Elbstack worked with Surf Office to help organize, develop, and manage the fine details and logistics of the two-week retreat.

The two-week retreat kicked off on June 8th in the heart of Lisbon. The primary objective for Elbstack in 2018 was to dedicate a considerable amount of time toward collectively working on new product ideas and holistic company culture and strategy, as well as to spend quality time together as a team. Elbstack did just that.

“The retreat was a huge success!” said Lennart Brandt, “We had two beautiful weeks exploring the fantastic city of Lisbon. With no disruptions, we could truly dedicate our time toward developing our products and our company without getting distracted by client work or managing the logistics of the company retreat itself. Not only was the working environment on this retreat better than our previous retreats, but a less stressful situation also allowed us to have a lot of fun together as well.”

There were many enjoyable activities during the two-week retreat as well, as the team was able to take surfing lessons, book a sunset sailing tour, and enjoy an interesting city tour with a fantastic local Portuguese tour company, We Hate Tourism Tours. The team also enjoyed the best Lisbon had to offer in terms of gastronomy and its world-class dining scene.

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