// 09.08.2020

introducing jennifer reinhard and hanne gerhards from hej.

Founded by Jennifer Reinhard and Hanne Gerhards, We Say HEJ was started to connect people and bring happiness and productivity to the workplace. Through training programmes, activities, workshops and coaching, they help teams collaborate and create a sense of belonging and openness. Regardless of how they approach each team, however, HEJ (pronounced 'hai') always starts with empathy and finishes with empowerment.

And whilst connection between teams has always been important, amid the pandemic, HEJ’s work has taken on a new importance. As teams adapt to more distanced working, the need for connection has never been stronger, both for individuals and businesses.

We talked to Jennifer and Hanne about how HEJ started, how they stay connected to each other and the ups and downs of the first year as entrepreneurs wanting to make an impact.

How did HEJ start? 

Jennifer Reinhard: When Hanne and I met over a year ago, we were both in touch with different people about doing a variety of workshops; a Business Improvisation workshop, a Nudging workshop and a workshop on team collaboration in education. It was then that we realized they all had a common thread: helping people create a better work environment for themselves and others. That realisation was the spark between us and the spark of HEJ.

We also saw that many people around us were unhappy in their job. Not because of the job, but because there was no space or opportunity to share how they feel with others openly and honestly. We did some research and over 80% of the employees and business managers we spoke to said, whilst they were on top of their game regarding the work itself, they had lost touch with why the team was doing what they were doing, and that they wanted to be able to check-in more often with others.

Hanne Gerhards: Jennifer and I met at the right time. I was completing a Master programme in Digital Management at Hyper Island UK and writing my thesis on workshop design. Whilst looking for ways to set up my own business in workshop facilitation, I spoke to Jennifer. Her ‘the sky is the limit’ and ‘let’s do this’ attitude made me want to work with her.

We both had workplace experiences in which teams did not flourish, managers burned out, and employees did not feel connected to one another. With a like-minded mission to connect people and to bring more happiness and productivity to the workplace, we started building our company. HEJ means hello in Danish and stands for connection. The funny thing is that it was only later that we realized it also combines our names: Hanne eJennifer.

Looking back on the first year of HEJ, what are you happiest with?

Jen: I’m really happy with the work we did with TMO Fashion Business School and Vert Creations. It was a lot of fun. But I also see the challenges we had to overcome – getting last-minute cancellations due to Covid-19 and shifting our services to online – as highlights. I’m proud that we were so quick to adapt and looking back it all seems a natural part of the process.

Han: I'm also really proud of how we dealt with the crisis. Although a lot of people in our surroundings were asking questions and expressing worry, we kept our chins up. We never said ‘what a pity’ or victimized ourselves. Instead, we started on an online coaching course and set up a coaching programme to coach individuals over Zoom. We got creative in reshaping our offering. This is also how we managed to replace a one-off physical workshop for a long-term online collaboration programme.

And what is one thing you would do differently? 

Jen: At the beginning, I found it difficult to ask help from others. I kept things to myself and assumed other people were busy with their own things. But I soon found out that people are very willing to give a helping hand. I wish I had realised that sooner, but it’s a learning process. I believe that helping each other is the only way entrepreneurs can thrive.

Han: When starting the business, I was still writing my thesis and doing other freelance projects. There were times when I was working 7 days a week. I was constantly tired and stressed, and that wasn’t healthy for myself or HEJ. Now, I feel that it’s essential to take good care of myself, especially when things are uncertain.

What does connection mean to you? 

Jen: We live in a fast-paced world where it’s getting more and more difficult to take time and reflect on how things are going. Yet, counter to what many expected, during the height of Covid-19 there was a sense of calm amid the chaos. People were tuning in with themselves and checking in with others on a more personal level. The ‘outer shell’ we have in the modern workplace disappeared. To me, feeling connected to yourself and the world around you means taking a pause and making an effort to decide how you want to show up for others.

Han: Connection for me means feeling connected with myself and an ability to establish meaningful relationships with others. To feel connected with myself, I reflect, practice yoga, and plan ‘me-time’. If I’m not able to do this myself, I ask others to help – last week I did a three-day training with a coach. In my job as a coach and trainer at We Say HEJ, it’s important to take good care of myself, as this enables me to help others most effectively. Although it is our core business to help teams, we also help individuals to (re)connect with their true selves.

As Harvard Research suggests, meaningful relationships are a prescription for better emotional, mental, and physical health, and Covid-19 highlighted the negative impacts when people don’t have those relationships. People working from home missed the watercooler moments at work, kids wanted to go back to school to play with their friends and elderly people felt sad because no one could visit. So, connection is important for everyone and being able to create relationships with others is the foundation.

And why is it important for a business?

Jen: There’s an interesting neuroscience study that shows the effect on how your brain perceives an obstacle depending on the presence of others. It shows if you are looking at a hill and judging how steep it is, the mere presence of social support around you transforms your perception. If you look at a hill while standing next to someone you consider to be a friend, the hill looks 10 to 20 percent less steep than if you were facing that hill alone.

Han: And that idea is just as true in the modern workplace. Especially now, when people are scattered across the globe working from home and possibly feeling isolated, it’s more important than ever to facilitate ways to re-establish that feeling of connection and belonging. When we feel like we’re supported by others, we feel more resilient and difficult situations become much easier to navigate.

How do you help people connect?

Han: First of all, every team is different. That’s why we first need to understand the system in which a team operates. Through empathy, we map out a team’s specific needs and design our offer. We then facilitate an engaging training or workshop in which team members get the chance to actively listen to one another and to co-create a work culture that works best for them. After training, we always do a follow-up to empower teams to drive long-lasting change.

Jen: Our approach is aimed at having fun and setting clear rules and guidelines. We also back everything up with academic studies that help us explain what we are getting at during our sessions. This way, teams are more relaxed, fully engaged and they experiment with the tools and activities we give them. After the session, they feel confident to take these with them and start making changes in their daily work.

How do you stay connected to each other? 

Jen: We start our day with a check-in question that is randomly generated by a website called Tscheck.in. We give feedback at the end of every day we work together, even if we are short on time. It is very important to us to get everything out of the air and not let anything ‘sit’.

Han: Apart from the rituals mentioned above, we keep each other inspired by sharing a weekly lesson. As ‘keep on learning’ is one of our core values, we inspire each other weekly with a new insight, theory, or model. We share articles, podcasts, and books on psychology and management and motivate each other to take courses or participate in training programmes. We also celebrate each week on Friday, reflecting on our HEJS and LOWS, of course, accompanied with a glass of wine.

Most people are aware of the relationship between workplace happiness and productivity. Despite this, many companies fall short of creating and sustaining meaningful connections between team members. Why do you think this is?

Jen: I think the mistake is that many companies have been, for too long, measuring success at an individual level. They spend a large amount of money and attention on hiring the best people, holding 1-on-1 quarterly reviews with HR and investing in employee development. The U.S. alone spends about $90 billion a year on learning and development. But companies are missing out on human potential because they fail to measure the potential of teams. Teams that allow for open and honest communication, where each person can speak equally and everyone feels safe sharing their ideas, perform the best.

Han: I think the biggest barrier is the focus on data and results; the ‘task-oriented’ focus. Companies are driven to progress this side of things, but the social aspect, making an effort to connect team members seems to be lacking.

As more teams become remote due to the pandemic, do you feel that HEJ’s mission has been reinforced?

Jen: Yes. We’ve been having some really interesting conversations with our clients over the summer in which they’ve shared interesting stories about how companies are now rethinking their strategy for working together at a distance. It's been fascinating think about how we can play a part in this.

Han: Yes. As Jen said, companies are having to fundamentally rethink how they work. With that shift comes new challenges for teams to connect, and so whilst our mission remains the same, how we help our clients will inevitably change to meet these new circumstances.

What are three things every startup can do to start building positive connections within their business? 

Jen and Han: The main idea is to identify small behaviors that people can change in real-time, day to day. This way, it becomes a natural way of working. Teams we work with now enjoy activities such as:

1. Start the day with a personal check-in. Some useful questions are: ‘What is my focus for today?’, ‘What is on my list?’ or ‘The time is right for..’. Designate roles and put it in the agenda so it becomes a habit.

2. Feedback daily. Encourage your employees to give each other feedback regularly. Open communication helps to clear the air and stimulates a psychologically safe climate.

3. Celebrate HEJS & LOWS. Stimulate your team to reflect on what is going well and what could be improved. So, celebrate not only the HEJs but also the LOWs to keep on learning from each other.

As every team is different, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building a healthy work culture. At We Say HEJ, we help companies design rituals that work best for them, facilitate feedback techniques and bring activities to the workplace to increase happiness and productivity.


If you'd like to find out more about how HEJ can help your team connect and thrive, read about what they offer and some of companies they've helped here.


Next read: introducing marije dippel from right to play.