How to Become a Great Place to Work in Tech
Interviews

Sophia Jaffer 
Director of People, Culture & Operations at Collage HR

Since Collage HR has been recognized as a “Best Workplace in Tech” by GPTW Canada we sat down with the Director of People, Culture & Operations, Sophia Jaffer. As our company’s very first hire, she has played an invaluable role in shaping our product and our company culture. To celebrate this important milestone, we explored the foundations of what makes a great place to work at any company. 


Hannah: In your opinion, what makes a great place to work, and why?

Sophia: I think a shared sense of purpose makes a great place to work. You’re able to work all together toward the same common goal. I think that there’s nothing else that really bonds you together as a team more than that. Having a clear sense of purpose, within a team and across the entire company is really helpful. And also, of course, great people make a great place to work.

Hiring smart, talented, dedicated, and diverse team members with different viewpoints – that makes us stronger. Creating an environment where we are encouraged to apply our own ideas and knowledge to problems can be so inspiring both within teams and across the organization. 

Hannah: Interesting! So what roadblocks do you think you’ve experienced in trying to cultivate a great place to work?

Sophia: I’ve learned that it’s important to be clear on culture. Personally, I find “company culture” to be such an abstract concept – we’re not talking about the cliché ping pong tables and free lunches here. It’s the way a company does things, the why behind decisions, the way people are treated, how their ideas are received. Codifying this in some way is very important and being able to speak to it helps understand what it is and also equally important, what it isn’t. 

As individuals, we each have our own value system. Knowing a company’s values helps us understand whether we align with that culture or not. It explains the off feeling you get when things might not feel so great, even when you love everything about a company (or person) if some values are misaligned, that creates internal conflict.

Being explicit about a company’s values, even if only internally, helps candidates or new team members identify with and commit to the team and company. 

I think some of the trial and error comes from cliches in your values. Teamwork, independence and leadership: those terms can be really basic, and the net they cast is so wide, it’s hard to disagree with them. It’s important to actually drill down into what those things mean within your organization. 

For example, at Collage HR, one of our main tenants is freedom and responsibility. 

When I’m speaking with candidates, I talk about what this means to us. The people who thrive at Collage are those who enjoy having the freedom to structure their day and their work in the way that suits them best. There’s a lot of opportunity available for people who take initiative and push to make things better for themselves, their team and their work. 

If you kind of have that drive and ambition the runway for you is endless; there’s truly no end to anything you could do here. 

With that freedom comes a high degree of ownership and responsibility. We’re a lean team with a lot of high performers. No one is looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re doing what you should be. It’s really up to the individual to unlock that potential, and be able to take things to the next level.

In this sense, we may not be the right fit for everyone, and that’s totally OK. I think it’s our duty as an organization both to ourselves as well as anyone we’re hiring to be clear on who we are so we find the right people to join our team and continue our mission.

Hannah: So you think transparency is obviously very important in not just the onboarding, but the interviewing process too?

Sophia: Yeah. That’s a great way of putting it – transparency. I find it a little surprising when candidates don’t ask about company culture. Being curious and valuing company culture is important to us because it’s facilitated our company’s growth through the years. We want to find team members who can value and contribute to our culture with their ideas and their expertise so that we, and they, can continue to grow. Again, I really believe that when team members are aligned with company culture, they are going to be happier and contribute more because they feel connected to the work and the team here. We want people to stay here and grow and thrive. There’s so much opportunity for the right people.

Hannah: In terms of practical takeaways– let’s take for example, a small startup. What ways would you recommend they drill down their company values and culture beyond gestures and cliches? 

Sophia: I think you can do it a couple different ways.

The first I would say is either top down: where the management or leadership team can decide,  “this is what our culture is” and then deliver that to the company.

The second is bottom up. When you have a small team, it’s really advantageous to run a culture exercise. A long time ago, at Collage HR we had a brainstorming exercise as a group to pinpoint what makes Collage “Collage”.  

It can be hard to really figure out what your culture is, but it’s about asking the right questions, “how are we different?”, “why do we do this?” etc. It can also be a helpful exercise to think about it in the framework of “what we are not.” We can say we are not “X, Y, Z” and that might mean that we are “ABC.” If possible, having a team based exercise could be great as both a way to nail down values / culture and also engage the team to feel connected to the mission.

Hannah: How do you maintain a fun and tight knit work environment when employees are remote? Do you have any tips for companies that aren’t in person but they’re still trying to foster that level of camaraderie that would be in person?

Sophia: I find this to be a challenge for sure. What I have noticed is that while transitioning to working remotely, departments or teams have really become tight-knit. We’ve erred on the side of overcommunicating to stay connected and that’s had a positive impact, bringing each team closer together so they can continue to support one another.

Before we switched to remote work each team met probably once a week. Now each team will meet two or three times a week, sometimes more. For example, our development team meets every Monday morning, but also has additional meetings where they work together throughout the week.

Our payroll team has employed a daily scrum every morning to discuss what’s on deck, to ask for help and provide support to each other, and the newest members of the team. From what I’ve heard from our new hires, they feel it’s a really supportive team and it eases the remote onboarding experience.

Another important factor is being consistent with meetings. At Collage, we meet on Mondays for our company-wide standups. It’s a quick 15 minute meeting to hear what’s going on with each team from the past week, what’s happening this week, and how that team is leveling up. Recently, we’ve changed one of those meetings into a monthly retro. This extended meeting gives each team the opportunity to showcase what went well this past month, things that didn’t go well and what they’re going to do about it. Sharing those experiences is immensely helpful. We all have hard days, or losses. It’s how we recuperate from those losses that really matters, and seeing that transparency across the organization is valuable because it validates that this is totally normal.

I think it’s those kinds of shared experiences that connect a team together. Of course we also have our fun lunch and learn on Fridays, which again is a nice time just to come together as a team and hear more about company initiatives, learn about teams or play a game.

As I mentioned earlier, I think contributing to a shared mission is really important to staying connected. Now that we’re remote, being deliberate and intentional about verbally communicating our goals is more important than ever. Letting the team know what’s changed, what’s new, what’s coming down the pipeline etc., all of this transparent communication brings the team together and connects us back to our purpose here. 

Hannah: How do you show a team or team members that they’re valued at the company–especially remotely?  Do you have any tips?

Sophia: We do a team kudos where we’ll invite team members to anonymously submit a kudos that they would give to another team member for anything they want to recognize – a job well done, receiving a helping hand etc. We’ll share those in our Monthly retro Stand up to give a shout out to them for their hard work. 

It’s a great way to make people feel appreciated because it is something that’s done on a public platform within the company.

Slack is also a really valuable communication tool for us both professionally and for fun. Elijah, our CEO, just recently set up the “gong show” channel. The channel is tied to our CRM, so anytime we get a new sale, a “gong” goes off and gives that recognition to the sales team member that has made the sale.

It also shows us how much MRR is coming through as a result of that sale. I think what’s been really amazing in setting this up, is that regardless of whether you’re in sales or not, everybody feels connected to that. We can see that no matter our role in the company, our hard work is paying off. Other people and other companies are validating that what we do is useful and makes their lives easier! We can see that we’re growing as an organization and we’re on the right track towards our mission.

I think it’s especially important for a new person at a company. You want to show them that their work is valued, and that they’ve made the right choice to join us at Collage. 

Hannah: In terms of hiring tips for startups, looking to improve their work culture or make sure that their great work culture scales with them. What do you think they should look for? What should you look for in candidates besides those qualifications in those interviews?  What tips do you have? 

Sophia: Hmm. What tips do I have to help them hire people that maintain and grow their culture? 

I think while interviewing it’s important to be clear on what key components you’re looking for in that new team member, and then design your questions around that. Have a goal in mind so that evaluating your candidates is easy to do. Consider skills, promotability, knowledge and culture. You want to make sure that this candidate is fitting your organization on a number of different levels that match the role and company too.

In terms of culture, are you looking for somebody who is an independent thinker? Are you looking for somebody who is out of the box or ambitious? Define what are the things you’re looking for and then build your questions around those components. Encourage questions about culture by describing what it’s like to work at your company. It’s great to hear candidates be curious about the company culture and what it means to be part of your organization.

“Is that something you feel that you could contribute to?” or “How could you contribute to the culture?”  Kind of digging into those things, because a cultural fit is important for all of our candidates.

Hannah: We were placed on the “Best Workplaces in Tech” List. What do you think makes us specifically stand out? What advice would you give to companies that are looking to accomplish the same thing? 

Sophia: You had mentioned earlier, people feeling important, right– feeling seen and heard. I think that that’s really important, especially remotely: maintaining that culture of feedback. 

A culture of feedback, on where individuals are. Constant feedback on how they’re doing. And cultivating an environment where they feel encouraged to reach out, and ask for ways that they can do better. Some people learn in different ways, so being cognizant of how important that is, the feedback and structure of your team.

I think it’s vital to foster channels of communication, especially in the beginning, for new team members. Whether it’s through chat on slack, via zoom or in person. Another important way to foster that kind of belonging and culture is to connect with team members of different departments.

Hannah: Do you have any tips on how to structure a successful and fun team retreat? 

Sophia: It was the first time that we have done something like that and I’m still gathering my feedback, but I know the “hackathon” was really well-received! We took one member from each team, and put them into groups of five. In our case, we were asked to build an add-on to our Collage platform that could enhance culture at other companies who use our software.

The best part about the groups is that they were composed of people who would never normally work together. Despite that, everyone’s got skin in the game because we know what Collage is. We know what culture is, and now we can all kind of talk about that. It’s not technical, it’s not specific to one particular team, it’s really all about what each person can bring to this with their expertise.

So I think having at least one event where you can have different members of different teams come together, that was a great idea. Of course having a couple of shared meals if possible would be great too. 

If you have a virtual team sending out virtual gift cards from Uber eats to individuals who are remote so that they can at least have time to connect over a meal virtually too,

We also had a couple of hybrid events. One that was really fun was a paint night! Though we weren’t all in the same room, we were all connected through what we were doing together. 

We all came out of it with the same product. They all looked different, but of course we had a similar end result, and most importantly we did it together. I thought that that was really unique to connect on something that’s not work related.

The ability to get together and do something different was really amazing. It’s nice to bond over an activity, because if you’re just thrown into a room and told to talk, it’s quite intimidating. It’s hard to maintain that small talk!

Hannah: In your opinion, how does productivity and camaraderie affect the bigger picture? And why is it important that people cultivate a great place to work from the client side?

Sophia: For productivity and camaraderie, our work internally impacts our clients. There are five indexes that we are measured on in the great place to work on algorithms that capture that.

One of the indexes is camaraderie. If we all get along together, a client can see who you are as a team.

Being able to pass a client off seamlessly, or gather information from another team shows our client that our company is a cohesive organization. It gives them the confidence that their information is intact. There’s a lot of support between teams, and that’s valuable. 

Trust is another one of the things that great place work measures us on.

If we’re trusting of each other, that every other person at the company here is here to do their best, it provides higher dedication to the purpose. I can say I’m working really hard on this today, and I know Hannah’s working really hard on this today, and that makes me feel really good. 

We’re both working on things with the same level of intention. Trust is built that way, especially, being remote. 

It really comes down to that common goal: that we’re all clear on what our common goal is. Even though there may be different goals within each team, we all have a shared overarching mission we are contributing to all together.

Sophia’s Tips and Take Aways
-Pinpoint company values in a collaborative culture exercise.

-Foster a sense of camaraderie between teams and encourage consistent communication.

-Provide strong feedback and support to all team members to encourage individual growth within each role.

-Offer full transparency to any candidates interested in your company to ensure each hire is the right fit.

-Create opportunities for cross department communication in virtual work environments to assist team bonding.