human resources

Start-up grandmas rise and fall

Junge Männer arbeiten an neuen computer-Programm
Where did the good times go? Source: Getty

They are hired to spoil the young employees of hip new companies, as though they were real grandmothers. That works great. Up to a point.

Carmen Richter loves showing up for work on this Thursday. At last she has a job she enjoys and feels respected for. She stirs a feta-cheese sauce, cracks eggs into a pan and washes lettuce. The smell of freshly-baked bread lingers as the morning sun shines through the window; an iPad plays Marvin Gaye: “Honey, honey, yeah.”

Ms. Richter hands a plate of hot sausages to her colleague Anne-Marie Lisson. Together they carry dishes and trays into a large, bright office where tall plants stand between broad, white desks. Their colleagues, wearing t-shirts and hoodies, are gathered around two old leather sofas. Most of them speak English, but Ms. Richter and Ms. Lisson speak German with a Berlin dialect – in their early fifties, they are the oldest people present.

The two women are officially “start-up grandmas” at Door2door, an internet company that is developing an innovative mobility platform for public transportation companies. “We look after the physical well-being of the employees,” Ms. Richter said. “The young people want to eat something healthy,” Ms. Lisson added.

What sounds like a PR gag has become a common job description in the start-up scene. According to the German Start-up Monitor, one in ten German start-ups has a start-up grandma, also known as a feel-good grandma or feel-good manager. The portal Gründerszene.de is enthusiastic about these women, whose “main task is to ensure employees are happy and keep them motivated.” They are praised for creating a team spirit, reducing stress and sick leave and keeping talent at the company.

A Berlin start-up’s recent help-wanted ad featured similar wording: Whoever is hired as a feel-good manager will shop for birthday gifts, feed guests and prepare the welcome package for the “onboarding of new employees.” In brief: “You make sure that the others feel good, and you’re happy when customers and team are also happy.”

This sort of strategy apparently pays off for companies. Or at least Christian Scholz thinks so. Mr. Scholz has been teaching personnel management at Saarbrücken University since 1986 and has watched business fads come and go. “When I heard about feel-good employees, I was skeptical at first,” Mr. Scholz said. But then he crossed paths with several during his visits to fledgling companies. They prepared breakfast, took new colleagues under their wings and helped resolve disputes. “This enhances employees’ motivation and doesn’t cost much,” Mr. Scholz said.

Ms. Richter and Ms. Lisson are at Door2door twice a week for six hours shifts. They both earn €450 per month with this mini-job. The women originally studied together to be hair stylists, but wound up working a variety of jobs, mostly in the food-service industry. Even if only one of them – Ms. Richter – is an actual a grandmother, they like their job as start-up grandmas. It allows them to work in a relaxed and independent manner.

“I am very happy that I can rebuild my trust in a work [relationship] here. For years I was simply used and thrown out,” Ms. Richter said.

Ms. Lisson: “Talk about the bakery.”

Ms. Richter: “I was supposed to constantly sell [food] that was no longer good. When I complained to the boss, he said: ‘He’d never met someone as stupid as me in his entire life.’”

Ms. Lisson: “Talk about the retirement home!”

Ms. Richter: “I worked in the cafeteria; there was not even time to go to the toilet. If I didn’t maintain the pace, the boss warned me to think about where my paycheck was coming from. Then came the pink slip.”

Cheng Yang, 28, grabs a plate of baked beans. The 28-year-old is one of approximately 70 workers at Door2door. And whereas the grandmas often changed jobs unwillingly, Mr. Yang deliberately switches jobs frequently.

The grandmas fought to be recognized out of many applicants; Mr. Yang always had the luxury of choosing his employer. He belongs to a class of workers in the Berlin labor market that are “riding the very front wave of digitization,” said Door2door founder Tom Kirschbaum. These employees are well-paid and desperately needed. The grandmas, on the other hand, belong to a class of workers that is being left behind by digitization: cheap to hire, easy to replace.

Mr. Yang is originally from Taiwan and has worked for several start-ups. He is a software developer at Door2door, and because of his training as a transportation engineer, his skill-set matches the start-up perfectly, Mr. Yang explained. The company is developing software to help public transportation companies optimize short-distance travel. With the help of Door2door, he easily acquired a blue card, the residence and work permit issued to highly-qualified workers, whose gross income is at least €39,624 annually.

Fluctuation is typical for start-ups: Young workers are not tied down, change jobs easily and are constantly looking for new challenges.

Mr. Yang likes his job’s flexible working hours, and appreciates the start-up grandmas, with whom he once cooked. Employees here are well taken-care of, Mr. Yang says: “That’s an important benefit for me.” Personnel researcher Christian Scholz considers Door2door to be close to the ideal start-up. It takes great effort to make employees feel comfortable on the job, without letting work and recreation mix too much, the professor explained. According to Mr. Scholz, this is what Generation Z, those individuals born after 1990, expects.

Up until now, the story about the start-up grandmas seems almost too good to be true – a real “win-win.” Yet there is controversy in this story as well. Just ask Ilse Greve. The 71-year-old worked as a start-up grandma at Door2door for three years and considered the company to be “almost like family.” But in the end she was extremely let down.

Ms. Greve cooked a meal for this meeting. She prepared risotto with lemon sweet balm sauce with cheese, grapes and olives. She also brought in a diary where she meticulously recorded what she experienced at Door2door. “3.12.2013: business lunch, paprika soup” is a typical entry. Then she wrote: “Suddenly everyone stands up and applauds loudly. I can’t believe it: standing ovations for me.”

At that time, she wrote a little note that is now glued into the diary: “Thanks to you all that I am now a member of your company.”

“That was my life,” she said, pausing before continuing: “Yes, I liked it very much like that.”

Then she pulls out two albums in which she glued photographs, written notes and even hand-drawn sketches. The albums serve as an unofficial record, which chronicles the three years Ms. Greve worked for the start-up. Inside are photos of sauerkraut with steamed apples. An employee named Stan dipping his spoon into a pot. Cherry cream cake and Yoné, another Door2door employee lying in the sun on the roof terrace. A boat trip on Müggelsee Lake: Ms. Greve in the arms of the company’s founder, Tom Kirschbaum, bottles of beer, young women leaping into the lake at sunset. Smiling faces. Ms. Greve knows every employee by name and remembers when each one joined the start-up, and when they left. “It was too bad,” she said, “People sometimes disappeared from one day to the next, and often no one knew why.” Back then, she didn’t suspect that this could happen to her.

Fluctuation is typical for start-ups: Young workers are not tied down, change jobs easily and are constantly looking for new challenges. In an attempt to keep employees around for longer, startups came up with new idea: “employee events.” Door2door, for example, takes a trip to see the snowy Alps.

Ms. Greve is happy to show pictures from the “Winter WonderLand” event. They feature her co-workers in an Alpine cabin with notebooks on their laps, and a huge crucifix hanging on the wall. Then: Fondue, karaoke. “Everyone in ecstasy,” she had written. As Ms. Greve recalls the trip she begins using “we,” when describing the team. The start-up and the start-up grandma are again merging in her memories – despite their unpleasant departure. When Ms. Greve speaks about the separation, her voice falters. She, the start-up grandma, also vanished at some point. Fired. And replaced.

But why does someone who loves her work and is admired for it, have to go? Ms. Greve shared that the Winter WonderLand trip was meant to be purely recreational – even though she and another part-time worker ended up working almost the entire time. When she asked, “Where is our free time?” an argument followed. A few weeks later, the office managers requested she no longer come to work. She took her photos off the wall, left and never returned. It was “undignified,” Ms. Greve said. “Even today, I don’t understand.”

The start-up’s explanation: Door2door grew from 20 to 70 employees extremely quickly; that proved to be too much for Ms. Greve. Her job performance was no longer sufficient so, “as in any other company,” a decision was made. After long hesitation and with “a heavy heart,” the startup showed her the door.

In the meantime, Ms. Greve decided she does not want to return to Door2door. But she could imagine working as a start-up grandma for another company. But first she would at least like to bid farewell to all the colleagues who were once like family to her.

 

This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: redaktion@zeit.de

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