Zehner is a full-service digital agency defined by its intersections. Known for their expertise designing and developing digital products and ecommerce experiences for enterprising clients like Fiji Water, Sun Bum, Soylent, and Outerknown, the L.A.-based company has a unique approach. Zehner doesn’t have a distinct product team and a commerce team—rather, they share people and resources. “Everybody approaches the work from a product perspective and from a commerce perspective,” says CTO Noah Gedrich.
Zehner’s senior leadership embodies this kind of multidisciplinary thinking. COO Michael Kucera has a background in finance, while CTO Noah Gedrich is a violinist-turned-developer. (Gedrich spoke with us from his at-home practice room, with an eclectic collection of instruments in the background).
In fact, music is a good metaphor for what Zehner does: They blend the creative and the mathematical, the artistic and the precise. “Ultimately our mission is designed to build digital experiences that connect people and brands in meaningful ways,” says Kucera. And the brands they work with provide a continuous source of inspiration and motivation. “There’s always something new and exciting,” says Gedrich. “There’s always another problem to be solved. The question is, how are we going to make our clients’ lives even better and improve their businesses?”
Zehner’s enthusiasm has remained constant—but the Covid-19 pandemic has brought on big changes. Along with organizations around the world, they’ve transitioned from an in-person office to a remote-first structure. That’s created new challenges. “In the past, I would walk the office and see my dev team and my project management team,” says Gedrich. “I could see what they’re working on and get a sense of where the stress levels are. I can’t do that anymore.”
That’s where Harvest comes in.
Time tracking gives critical insight into the team's workload
As a digital agency, time tracking plays a key role in Zehner’s business. In fact, when CEO Matthew Zehner founded the agency more than a decade ago, Harvest was one of the first systems he implemented. Today, they rely on the time tracking tool to bill projects, help employees manage their bandwidth, and gain understanding into their process.
“At the end of the day, it’s a mechanism we have to ultimately provide insight and information about how we can help people manage their time,” Kucera continues. “It’s not a punishment, it’s not a clock-in, clock-out mechanism, but more so that we understand where the effort is going.” It’s about seeing the big picture—not enforcing arbitrary rules about how much time employees should be spending on certain tasks.
In the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, the perspective time tracking provides has become even more critical, especially as the lines between work and home blur. “We really focus on work-life balance in remote work,” says Kucera. “It’s easy when you’re in the office. If people are staying until seven o’clock at night, you know. But if they’re working remotely, it’s hard to understand if they’re overloaded.”
Harvest helps fill that gap by making people’s workloads visible. “Time tracking reveals if somebody is overburdened and that becomes an immediate conversation,” says Kucera. Zehner’s managers are able to use Harvest to proactively manage employees’ stress levels while the issues are small, helping to support their well-being and safeguard against negative mental health.
Time tracking reveals if somebody is overburdened and that becomes an immediate conversation.
Managing bandwidth and supporting growth
Harvest doesn’t just help individual employees manage their workload while working from home—it also helps Zehner make decisions about how the business as a whole is spending their time and when they need to think about hiring more staff. “As a growth-centric organization, you need a good mechanism in place to manage the existing business and know how you’re gonna scale,” says Kucera. These mechanisms are even more important in a remote landscape, where many of the in-person indicators (like stressed and overworked employees) are obscured.
That’s why they find Harvest’s companion tool, Forecast, so valuable. Forecast enables teams to plan their time into the future and project how busy they’re going to be. “The Forecast rollout was really huge for us because that started enabling us to not only look at actuals, but look at future capacity planning,” says Kucera. “That helped us think about hiring and how our portfolio might be changing and gave us visibility into how our team mix might need to change based on the future.”
[Harvest and Forecast] helped us think about hiring and how our portfolio might be changing and gave us visibility into how our team mix might need to change based on the future.
But planning for the future is just as much about understanding where you’ve come from and the trends in your business over time. That’s why the team uses Harvest and Forecast side by side. “It works in two ways: There’s using Forecast to predict what we’re going to need, but also looking backwards,” says Gedrich. “We can go back into Harvest and see the hours that have been logged against a type of work and see if it’s too much for one person or if multiple part-time contractors roll up to a full-time employee. Then, we can make the decision to create a full-time position instead of something we’re staffing piecemeal.”
Now anytime they’re faced with a staffing decision, the Zehner team relies on the combined capabilities of Harvest and Forecast to make the call.
Happier team, happier clients
While time tracking has a lot of internal benefits for the Zehner team, especially as they’ve transitioned to remote, the people who might benefit the most are their clients. That might not come as a surprise—after all, one of their core company values is high-integrity relationships. In the digital space, they’ve gained a reputation for being highly dependable. “Number one, we deliver,” says Gedrich. “The thing we hear back from our clients all the time is that we never let them down.”
Time tracking plays a key role in enabling them to complete projects on time and on budget—and, as a result, delight their customers. “We track every active project that we have and as well as internal initiatives,” says Kucera. “So we look at projects from hours budgeted versus hours used, and use that as an indicator of project health. Using Harvest and Forecast, we can see if a project is in danger of going off track and it gives us the ability to course correct those things way before they actually become problems.”
Being able to proactively identify—and resolve—problems while they’re small helps Zehner maintain good client relationships. “We can have those conversations in real time instead of after the fact, in a retrospective,” says Kucera. “Our client relationships are in a better place because they’re not getting surprised.”
Using Harvest and Forecast, we can see if a project is in danger of going off track and it gives us the ability to course correct those things way before they actually become problems.
Thriving amid disruption
Despite the changes brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, Zehner is thriving. And in no small part, that’s thanks to Harvest. “It was a seamless transition to working from home,” says Kucera. “Harvest is definitely one of the key software tools in our tool chest that has enabled the company to work remote.”
Using Harvest and Forecast, Zehner is able to support their now remote team by proactively reducing stress and making good staffing decisions. Perhaps even more significantly, the tools support their external work with clients by keeping projects on schedule and minimizing unforeseen disruptions.
In these uncertain times, one thing’s for sure: Zehner will continue to rely on Harvest and Forecast to plan and execute their strategy. “The combination of Forecast and Harvest gives us the tool set that enables us to not only have great data about today, but think about and plan for tomorrow,” says Kucera.