HR & Culture / Interviews

Balancing the Grind with Thomas Forstner, Head of People & Talent at Juro

Thomas Forstner is the Head of People & Talent at Juro, an all-in-one contract automation platform that enables legal teams to agree and manage contracts in one unified workspace.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I’ve spent almost all of my career in HR-focused roles, having worked in Germany, Japan, France and the UK in such roles.

Despite having studied psychology, I was never really interested in the clinical side of things. I was more fascinated by what makes companies tick, and how we can improve the experience people have at work for the 8+ hours that they spend there.

I first went on an internship in Japan, where I worked for a large corporation. I really enjoyed the experience but was curious to see what it was like on the flip side. That’s when I began looking for opps in start-ups instead, hoping (like many) that to have a more direct impact on and greater remit over the decisions that matter. 

I’ve spent roughly five years working for start-ups now, mostly for B2B SaaS companies between Series A-C stages of funding. One of my first roles was as an in-house recruiter, which I wasn’t very good at in the beginning. But in each of the roles that followed, I wanted to create a workplace that is so good at making people successful that other places want to copy it.

Today I’m the Head of People and Talent at Juro, which has recently been named London’s best start-up to work for in 2022 according to Tempo. Juro is a contract automation platform with a team of over 50 people, all of whom are on a mission to make contracts more human. At Juro, I’m building a human-centric, scalable People & Talent function from the ground up. We were just awarded #1 UK startup to work for in 2022 so I guess it’s going well.

2) What does a day in your life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

My priorities vary, so there’s no ‘typical’ workday for me really. I tend to split my workload into three buckets each day: strategy, execution, and relationships. 

Strategic work involves planning and preparing for big projects and goals. That could mean a half-day of deep work on our new benefits strategy, reflecting on OKRs or designing a compensation philosophy that’s in line with our goals and values. This type of work takes up a large chunk of my day and I’m most efficient until ca. 11am. So I usually schedule this as focus time with minimal distractions.

Afternoons are execution time. I’m still very hands-on so I’m often involved in interviews, writing job specs, analysing our latest engagement survey results and sourcing candidates, or firefighting where something needs fixing. 

Relationship work means anything from monthly manager check-ins to catching up with new joiners to networking. Might seem like padding to my job but these conversations tend to inform what we decide to execute next, and it often breeds new projects to work on, so it’s somewhat of a cycle. 

I know what’s good for my mental health and try to maintain that as part of my workday. The first hour of my morning I spend without tech, I try to have a healthy breakfast, have a short meditation session or take a walk – particularly when I’m working from home. But that’s on a good day (I’m not a superhuman) — I’m pretty bad at keeping up habits.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

Short answer, yes. Lots of companies misconstrue flexible working to simply “being able to work from home”. But flexibility can refer to all sorts of things. And it needs a default form which to flexify from.

At Juro, our default is working from the office three days a week (managers decide with their teams which days) or working full-remote — you choose — and then offering flexibility to deviate from that for those that need it. Family, health and holidays all trump the office. We operate a policy of trust and deliver (one of our core values) whereby you determine first how you work best, and I certainly benefit from that. 

However, with that said, I’m very lucky that I don’t need the same level of flexibility that others need. I don’t have children to look after and I don’t have a chronic condition — two things that might necessitate greater flexibility. 

I don’t think I’m the target group for flexible working, but whilst It’s not a must-have, I think what people want is no different than what they always wanted — choice of flexibility (whether you make use of it or not). Plain and simple, it’s just nice to have the choice to deliver my best work on my own terms. 

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

I never liked that term. It insinuates that your work and your life are two separate realms and that there should be a perfect split between them. Work makes up a huge amount of people’s lives; most folks work 8 hours a day for 5 days a week. That’s a lot of time. 

For me, work-life balance isn’t about separating the two. It’s about me flourishing inside and outside of work.

I don’t think work needs to “fulfill” you. Work should enable you to work on something you enjoy, and grow your skills. If the company ceases to appeal to you, quit. The success of the company is not a priority for most people on an individual level.

Lots of narratives surrounding start-ups suggest that its employees should find energy to have the north star of making the place successful. I think what people want is to develop themselves, and we act as a catalyst for them to do that.

I want to do great work and flourish in my role. I love to challenge myself and learn consistently, and the company’s success is incidental to that – but that doesn’t mean that work has to be the centre of my life. You can’t find many people who truly feed off of de-throning MS Word as the default way to do contracts, and we won’t pretend otherwise.

Outside of work, I want to have the opportunity to master new skills, like learning Japanese, writing short stories, watching anime and taking long walks. These things allow me to genuinely unplug from work. So long as I can continue to flourish in my job and enjoy life outside those hours, that’s a good equilibrium for me.

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

Honestly, I haven’t done anything life-changing. But I have made a series of small changes that have had really positive implications for me on a small scale.

I’ve tried to incorporate mindfulness into my day more; I’m doing yoga; I’m learning Japanese again. I’ve also adopted habits that have hopefully had a more positive effect on my colleague’s lives too, like not messaging them outside of conventional working hours, as that’s their downtime and I’ve become very conscious of that. 

I think that there’s been an immense amount of pressure to have done something productive since COVID-19 began, but it’s really all about just making sure you’re okay and that you’re finding ways to look after yourself.

It’s a huge success to be making even a series of small changes that will impact you and those around you positively. Of course there are things I picked up that were good but I’ve since lost touch with, but I’m not too hard on myself about that and I’m hopeful that I can pick them back up in the future. 

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

If we’re talking HR-related content, I’m a fan of the People Over Perks podcast and a podcast called Founder’s Journal by Alex Lieberman. 

More generally though, I listen to podcasts from The Economist and The New York Times. Love Still Processing.

If you want newsletter recommendations, I’d recommend Morning Brew and Gather’s People Ops newsletter which comes out weekly. 

Books are an escape for me — some people have no problem reading books about their work after work, I just can’t. So I tend to stick to fiction. My two favourite books of all time are A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami, followed closely by How Do You Live? by Yoshino Genzaburō. Can you tell I’m a nerd about Japan?

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

My AirPod Pros, the noise cancelling functionality is so great. For an app I’d say Ulysses, which I use to write short stories. Also love Marukome instant miso soup.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

I’d be keen to hear a translated interview from Haruki Murakami because I think he’d have some really profound thoughts to share. Everything that this man puts to paper is great. I’d also enjoy an interview with Michelle Obama (or her husband), at the risk of picking the most cliche answer.

I’d also love to hear an interview from Peter Capaldi’s Doctor (from Doctor Who). He was my favourite doctor for sure, so much Scottish snark.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Don’t think too much about all that. If you’ve got a reason to get out of bed in the morning – that’s great. If you go to bed tired but satisfied, that’s also great. The most important thing is to not overthink about work, life or balance. Just try to start a day right and end a day feeling positive as often as you can.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.