Martin Edenhofer of Zammad: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Do a video call! You’re absolutely right: most of the emotion can be seen on the face. Set up a call, really block some time in your calendar, and talk them through it in a calm manner. Share your screen to show examples of how things can be improved, and mostly, give your employee the feeling that this conversation matters to you.

Weare living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Edenhofer.

Martin Edenhofer is the Founder and CEO of Zammad GmbH, the company behind the popular open-source ticketing system. The Zammad software is quickly becoming a go-to alternative to existing big players, which is also due to Martin’s vast experience. Prior to Zammad, he developed software for Lufthansa before starting his first major project: the OTRS helpdesk system. With Zammad, he took a more modern approach to this idea and set up a completely remote company.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’ve always had a passion for technology. When I was still a trainee I started giving classes in Linux, and soon after I developed software for Lufthansa. But I kept wondering how software could contribute to making the world a better place.

In 2001 I started coding the OTRS software, which has become a really well-established issue tracking system. It even won first place in the Open Source Best Practices Award in 2004! And I just knew that good software can really make a difference, especially if it is made available for everyone to use freely!

At some point I felt it was time to start a new project, and Zammad was born. It’s also an open-source helpdesk software, but more modern and efficient.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

That’s a hard one, there were so many! Every use case of our software is interesting and makes for an exciting story.

I guess two moments really stood out: when my previous software (OTRS) was deployed to handle the numerous requests from victims and survivors the massive tsunami disaster of 2005 — moments like these show you that what you do has a purpose! And when I found out that NASA was using the OTRS software.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Passion is the key! I’ve always believed in this, and it has affected my life very positively because, unlike many other people, I actually get up in the morning and look forward to the work day ahead. I don’t even mind Mondays!

Also, if you approach a new project half-heartedly, it will show in the results. You will never shine as brightly if you don’t believe in what you’re doing. So if you do something, do it with passion!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I would like to thank two people.

The first is Carsten Groß, I got to know him during his time at SUSE. I owe 80% of my IT knowledge to Carsten. He is great and a human encyclopaedia.

Secondly, I would like to thank Jürgen Halstenberg. He denied me an unpaid one-year vacation during my time at Lufthansa. If I had received it, I would still be an employee today and not an entrepreneur. But since I had to actually quit my job to follow through with my idea, I had no way back. In bad times, there was only the way forward. Since then, I know that it takes 100% dedication to open up to new things.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

Of course communication is easier when you’re working in the same space. You can see people’s faces and read their emotions more clearly. You can also just walk up to them and ask a question without delay. And there is a very different atmosphere in the room if many people sit in it together — a kind of buzz you lack at home.

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

Oh, where to get started?

  • “Can’t find the documents in the Cloud.”
  • “Can’t reach a colleague and don’t know why.”
  • “Don’t know who’s in charge.”
  • “Don’t know who that person is — I never met them!” (Okay, probably not something you should be heard saying when you’re the CEO!)
  • “Didn’t know this was urgent!”
  • “Can’t access the system” etc.

So as you can see, it all comes down to communication. You need to check in regularly, ensure everyone stays in the loop and implement clear processes, otherwise you might end up running around like headless chickens.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Write it down. When you’re not in the same space, your team will have to take on more responsibility than they might otherwise, and they will have to learn faster. It’s important to make information accessible to everyone.
    In our case, we maintain an extensive knowledge base to help everyone find answers quickly. One new colleague wasn’t used to working with it and kept chasing up the team for help. Everyone was happy to provide it, but in the long run it would have saved her a lot of time to look up the answers straight away. So make the knowledge accessible, and teach your team to go get it!
  2. Trust your team. You won’t be there to look over everyone’s shoulders. (And really, even in an office you shouldn’t do that…) Trust your team — they know what they’re doing and if they don’t, they will come to you and ask. Hire people you know are better at their job than you’d be!
  3. Be accurate. Working remotely means you need to communicate clearly. Keep that calendar up to date, set the correct status in your chat tool, keep all the files in your cloud up to date, define very clearly which tools to use, and put every piece of information in the knowledge base. It’s not as exhausting as it sounds — you get used to it.
  4. Find the right tool for the job. If you’re not in the same office space you won’t have a whiteboard to share infos and you can’t slide a sticky note over to your coworker. Instead, everything happens online. There’s an endless list of tools to ensure smooth communication and we use plenty of them. Since Zammad is Open Source, we also often pick free software for our tools, such as: Mattermost for chats, Jitsi for video calls, Nextcloud to share files and maintain our calendars and Kanban boards, and — of course — Zammad to create internal tickets and maintain our extensive knowledge base. But we’re always open for new options that might make our processes even smoother — and you should be, too.
  5. Don’t neglect the fun. Most offices these days have cosy kitchens and pingpong tables. Obviously, we don’t. But we still have our daily chitchat as part of our morning kick-off. In non-pandemic times we organise meetups in our headoffice or offsites for the whole team. And during Christmas, we have a remote Secret Santa and send surprise parcels around the world! This brings the team closer and helps to meet the person behind the avatar.

Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?

Well, we’ve always worked remotely, so we had a good setup to begin with and didn’t see much impact from the pandemic. Our Support team have company phones that they use to answer calls from customers, but for all other chats we just use video calls. We never really see issues with the equipment — the biggest problem is slow Wi-Fi!

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

We use video calls for all our meetings. Last year we introduced a “Camera on” policy that makes it much more personal as you can see the other person and their surroundings. This way we can compliment each other on, say, a new sweater, a great haircut, or a pretty wall color.

Kanban boards (and project management tools in general) are fantastic to plan projects, roadmaps, and sprints. Tools like WebEx and Miro help with planning remote workshops. And if you’re looking for the fun part you’ll even find online tools for games and trivia nights. (It’s not our cup of tea, but might be yours.)

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

Honestly, I’m already amazed by all the things communication tools achieve these days. There’s still one thing missing, though: a system that allows you to share cake with your colleagues — like in an office lunch room!

So can you please create something that conjures up cake out of thin air? This way you can tell you someone “You look tired, here’s a brownie.” 😉

My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?

Like I said, Zammad has always been a remote company, so we’re not the best example for pandemic-related challenges. But when I look at other companies I can definitely see some struggles. Some even had to start by looking for proper tools, others realized it was probably time to buy their employees laptops…

We’re based in Germany, which is theoretically a very advanced country. But it’s always suprising to see how much happens on paper. You still get asked (frequently!) to “fax something over”. So yes, the pandemic is a bit of an eye-opener and a strong reminder to digitalize processes and find smart(er) online solutions.

The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?

I am very enthusiastic about augmented reality. It will revolutionize our behavior and make many things like shopping or furnishing a new apartment much easier.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

It’s fantastic to see so much progress in terms of digitalization! Everyone is talking about it these days. I worry that after the pandemic, things will go back to the way they used to be, and all our ambitions are forgotten. So please don’t go back to being old-school!

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

We’ve only ever interacted with our customers online. It’s really an exception that we set up a meeting face-to-face. Any what can I say? It works like a charm! This type of communication allows for faster reactions, which our customers really appreciate. And you can always set up a webinar if you need to explain something step-by-step.

If anything, the pandemic has improved our remote work for us, as many companies are starting to consider video calls and remote workshops a viable alternative.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

Do a video call! You’re absolutely right: most of the emotion can be seen on the face. Set up a call, really block some time in your calendar, and talk them through it in a calm manner. Share your screen to show examples of how things can be improved, and mostly, give your employee the feeling that this conversation matters to you.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

As mentioned before, we aim to replace those office moments virtually: we have a little chat every morning (most colleagues are enjoying their first coffee of the day with it) and every evening. When someone moves houses, we do a little virtual tour of their new home. If it’s someone’s birthday, we send them a present and cheer on the video call. We’re a bit nerdy, so sporty challenges and online quizzes aren’t for us, but many teams really enjoy that, too!

But can I also point out that, yes, you need to put a little extra effort into your communication if you’re working remotely, but it really pays off! As a result, we get to have an international team with employees from different countries, and our staff have the option to work wherever they want — be it at their family’s house or by the sea. When I talk to my team, I usually get the feedback that they wouldn’t want to miss this freedom anymore. (But they do miss our pre-Covid meetups…)

Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

That’s a very good question. I can surprise you: I already started my movement 18 years ago! 🙂

Open Source means sharing your knowledge with others, getting more knowledge back, and helping other people at no extra cost. If we continue to keep this philosophy alive, I’m happy.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can keep up with all our news through the Zammad Newsletter, or on our website. Regarding myself, there’s my own website that you are welcome to check out, or you can connect with me on LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

About The Interviewer: David Liu is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, an award-winning unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication. Liu is known for his visionary leadership, organic growth strategies, and future-forward technology. Liu is highly committed to achieving a greater purpose with technology. Liu’s business insights are regularly featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Tech Crunch, and more.


Make and Receive Calls To/From
Hong Kong No Matter Where You Are