Remote Control: Indian Startups And The ‘Work From Home’ Life

Remote Control: Indian Startups And The ‘Work From Home’ Life

Remote Control: Indian Startups And The ‘Work From Home’ Life

Coronavirus has pushed most startups and tech companies to mandate work-from-home for employees

What has been the biggest impact on operations and styles

We take a deep dive into the challenges and learnings of Indian entrepreneurs and VCs

The coronavirus pandemic has forced people around the world to give up their daily lives and limit themselves to their homes. Such a drastic change in behaviour has obviously had an impact on businesses everywhere, including in India, where many IT giants, startups and corporates have also asked employees to work from home. However, this impact is not just limited to their balance sheets but also in their day-to-day operations. 

Of course, this goes beyond just adjusting to working outside the office — it’s also about finding new ways to connect with teammates, reviewing targets and approaching consumers and customers in a more responsible manner. 

Startups and venture capitalist firms in India acknowledge these challenges and have already had quite a few learnings from these first few days of operating a remote workforce. Based on our conversations, some of the prominent challenges faced by companies include team bonding, delay in hiring processes, and infrastructure inadequacies. 

Can Watercooler Conversations Go Digital?

The biggest fear in transitioning from a physical office space to the digital is losing out on interacting and bonding with your teammates. As Sarita Raichura, principal at Blume Ventures puts it, “It’s hard to bond over the virtual world.” 

Team bonding is not just about getting to know a person but maintaining a repertoire with a group of people and doing it regularly enough that the trust and confidence in the team grows. The employee bonding is obviously better when they meet each other, discuss things other than office and share meals together, noted Hemant Vishnoi, cofounder of lending startup Enkash. 

But desperate times call for desperate measures and so companies have started looking for new ways to strengthen team bonding. Blume Ventures, for example, has replaced the usual team building activities like birthday cake cuttings, lunches, chai breaks, and portfolio events with a virtual coffee and chit chat session at the end of every workday. In addition to doing virtual “chai meetings”, freelancer marketplace Tapchief team has come up with the idea of team learning sessions where one person teaches a new concept to the team every day. 

Edtech startup upGrad is betting on team leaders to take the onus of continuous communication among their respective teams. The company has active video conferencing sessions to ensure that everyone is updated. AI-based hiring company PMaps is planning to host a two-hour video conference with the team every Friday to discuss life beyond work.

MobiKwik cofounder Upasana Taku agreed that social isolation can sometimes become mundane for employees. To overcome that, MobiKwik is providing employees with virtual collaboration tools, and arranging informal chats between members so they’re better connected and work goes as usual. 

However, Ashutosh Kumar, CEO of Testbook was sceptical about the effectiveness of informal virtual meetings. “The entire team of Testbook works like one big family but achieving that culture would be hard in the case of remote-only working. We’ve heard of ideas of remote team dinners, informal sessions but still not sure if they would help that much,” he said. 

Tapchief’s Shashank Murali believes the biggest challenge for most companies will be to ensure high spirits amongst team members in these turbulent times. Loneliness and isolation can become detrimental and one doesn’t necessarily have to be an extrovert to feel that,” said Murali. 

Other startups are trying activities to keep employees engaged. For example, Coutloot has planned remote team quizzes and flash prizes. 

Tackling Remote Hiring 

Besides keeping employee spirits high, startups have also been grappling with how remote work has impacted the hiring and onboarding of new recruits. While most have put new hiring on hold, many are relying on a combination of online interviews and remote working tools to onboard new employees. 

Blume has set up a resource stack for new hires on workspace collaboration app Notion. “We usually add the new employees to the company’s Gsuite, Notion plan, and Whatsapp groups about a week in advance (sometimes more) to allow them to read through the same and discuss with their manager if there are any questions. This helps in faster onboarding” Raichura said. 

Similarly, startups are using video calling, multiple phone calls with various stakeholders such as HR and the respective team managers to make up for the lack on in-person onboarding. “Given the current scenario, there’s a whole new era of digital literacy that is already upon us and we are taking concrete measures to adapt to the new ecosystem,” added upGrad cofounder Mayank Kumar

On the other hand, MobiKwik is balancing the practicality of remote hiring with familiar practices but in a cautious manner. After finalising the first round of interviews online, the company conducts in-person onboarding in office, where the recruit, the hiring manager and HR come into the office for day one of joining formalities, account creation, laptop assignment, and basic briefing. Post this, onboarding virtual meetings with peers and team members are being set up for them.

Infrastructure Challenges 

In any other circumstances, remote work might not have been restricted to just working from home, remote employees could have worked from a cafe or coworking spaces or even from their friends’ place. But at the moment, it’s strictly limited to the home, where infrastructure is unreliable at the best of times. Over time, people might realise that their home internet is not that great for work purposes or power outages might become a problem as summer creeps in. 

And the brunt of this challenge obviously falls on the employer who has to preempt these challenges now. Some companies dealt with it by offering 4G dongles and computers with longer battery endurance to ensure employees availability at all times. 

In addition to this, early-stage startups such as Enkash have added some innovation to their business continuity plan. “We have ensured that every team function has only one person dependency and considering the size of the organisation, we have ensured that the roles of our team members are slightly fungible where one can pitch in for the other if required,” said founder Vishnoi. 

But infrastructure challenges are not just limited to power and internet connections. For Testbook, the challenge also exists with handling studio recording as this cannot be done at home. “The big challenge for us is recording classes and handling live classes in studios. Doing them from home while maintaining quality becomes very tricky,” said Testbook’s Kumar. 

Will Remote Workforce Become The New Normal?

“Apart from the physical presence, work from home policy amid the crisis is turning out to be productive and motivating for our employees. Personally, I am finding myself super productive and working harder than normal,”- MobiKwik founder, Upasana Taku 

The biggest upside of working from home for many is that they save on commuting time and costs. Many claim to be using these extra hours to finally achieve work-life balance, learn new skills and others said this has even reduced stress levels in employees. There are also claims of more focussed and productive work schedules. But, are these advantages enough to make remote workforce the normal work culture?

For a product company like PMaps, this seems to be a little far fetched. According to Saurabh, “PMaps thrive on active product discussion between IT, psychology, data and presales teams. Remote tools are fine but it’s too unrealistic to eliminate physical contact for  unleashing the magic of working together.”

However, Tapchief’s Murali felt optimistic about the future of remote work. “While it’s still early to say anything for sure, I believe we would definitely have a higher frequency of work from home days than before once the pandemic settles down.”

upGrad’s Kumar had a more nuanced perspective, “The WFH model is a double-edged sword, which could either bring new practices to life for higher productivity or could break the system in the long run. As a matter of fact, it is now ensuring our safety, but there will always be a demand for the physical workforce due to the nature of our product.”

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