Everyone has a work-from-home story these days, and while many seem to be funny, some bring the harsh realities of lockdowns to the fore.
Aftab Ullah, chief operation & delivery officer, Brillio shared one such anecdote:
“One of our employees in the US office suddenly called us at midnight that his pregnant wife in Bengaluru immediately needed to consult a doctor. It was a non-Covid-19 case, but since it was the initial days of lockdown nothing was moving. Yet we had to ensure she is admitted to a non-Covid-19 hospital. Thanks to a few duty passes that we had for meeting the essential services, we could do that the very next morning. Since then, we have had multiple health-related cases that have been resolved successfully.”
It may seem like a situation handled quickly and efficiently, but think about it from a company’s point of view. As a startup, these are the new challenges when it comes to work culture and employee wellbeing.
Working from home can work both ways. It could improve productivity, as it did for many companies, it could also dip in the productivity curve if not addressed certain issues that are unique to work from home culture.
Start With The Basics: Ensuring Essentials For Employees
The Covid-19 pandemic has almost sent the entire world on the ventilator. While the governments have announced lockdowns across the countries, MSMEs, startups and corporates who were already facing the heat of slowdown caught in the middle unprepared.
While manufacturing, ecommerce and supply chain startups have limited scope to operate in lockdown, all others have been working from home, which many expect to be a new work culture for startups.
Brillio, Lendingkart, Instamojo and many other startups had announced WFH well in advance before the government announced a complete lockdown on March 25.
Mithun Sundar, CEO of Lendingkart, averred,
“Work from home is currently not just mandated across the organisations in India but around the world. However, at Lendingkart, while we maintain the physical distancing by working from home, we have also ensured that the same must not result in social distancing.”
However, work from home can’t be a solution if you don’t have the essential equipment to work on. This includes high-speed internet, electricity backup, laptops and working space. Lendingkart had to shift around 500 desktops to their employees, with battery backups, and internet hotspot dongles to the people, who needed,
Instamojo’s cofounder and COO Akash Gehani added, “Not just equipment, but the essential tools such as Google suite of cloud computing, productivity and collaboration tools to slack and other essential tools.”
Brillio took almost four days in order to make the essential arrangements for everyone for the WFH effort. “In our case, each and every employee has been given a laptop, we could have made it in overnight to make employees work from home. However it took almost four days to do the same,” said Aftab Ullah.
This is partly because the company had anticipated that once work-from-home is announced, people might prefer to go to their hometowns and work from there. So, it took a little long to make arrangements such as uninterrupted power supplies at their villages, towns. Besides, in the case of any urgency, a helpline must be issued to all the employees which could work 24×7, said many founders.
This Work-From-Home Is Unprecedented And Employees Need Training
These are not the only measures. There is a whole new dimension to work from home, said Aftab. Many of the companies have work from home facilities in the past too. However, this one is unprecedented.
Earlier, it was about a few people from a particular team, while now, it’s about everyone including the vendor companies and client companies, so the things are actually more complicated than what appears to be in principle.
“This situation we have never tried in the past. So, we’ve had to very quickly come up with the training of managers, training for programmers and others. And this is especially important in those parts of the work that we do, which requires very intense collaboration with the customer.”
Bringing Transparency And Data Security Into The WFH Culture
Training alone won’t help especially when employees are dealing with multiple parties. Clients may have apprehensions about businesses working from home as it weakens their data safety and security. Managers who are used to seeing their team working in the office would love to have updates more frequently from the employees now. At the same time, employees may not be very keen to share frequent updates as meetings and calls add extra friction in the processes.
These are small issues but needs to be addressed to ensure transparency, safety and security. Similarly, clients will be more concerned about productivity in WFH.
While training and communication help bridge the gap, Aftab Ullah said, “As soon as we started working from home, we realised that customers would be concerned about the productivity, about the safety and security of their data and their IP and so on and so forth. So, we decided to share updates with customers twice a week instead of the usual once a month.”
Keeping Productivity Going In WFH
“We have successfully raised productivity by 10% since we started working from home,” said Aftab.
Instamojo’s Gehani agreed that productivity has not been an issue for the company so far as there have not been any misses or delays in the timelines. Most of the projects are moving as per the set guidelines and timelines, said Gehani.
On how productivity has gone up, Aftab said, “We initially attributed it to the reduction in commute time. In the case of WFH, the employees have been able to save around two hours per day. We went a step further and introduced a new department in the company called the office of proximity which helps employees to have unplanned interactions among each other and this further helped improve performance. This helped bring people closer to what they were doing.”
Various live chat rooms have been created to replicate coffee table conversations for the employees. As many of the employees do like constantly being reminded of things over emails, these chat rooms served that purpose as well, explained Aftab Ullah.
Even if they’re working from home, there has to be the same level of engagement, believes Lendingkart’s Sundar. “Location does not matter, productivity does, we need to ensure that each and every employee does have basic work facilities, similar engagement level among each other and essential software tools for the same.”
For engagement purposes, online contests could be organised, Sundar opined.
Hiring Remotely, For Work From Home
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. Many startups have laid off or furloughed numerous employees in order to preserve cash as part of their cost reduction management, whereas Brillio is on a hiring spree. The company is currently 400 employees.
“Layoffs are a big worry among employees. Each report of layoffs fuels their worries. So, we had to make a public announcement that Brillio is not going to lay off or furlough any of its employees.”
In India, the company has currently employed around 2000 people while 700 in the US. “The entire hiring process is being done remotely, digitally.”
So, what’s been the hiring process these days?
Yes, there are two major differences, said Aftab. “The first main difference is that we obviously have to safeguard against a candidate. We are not interviewing the person face-to-face, so we have to take certain steps to digitally verify the identity to ensure that it’s the same person. This is done before we fix the video interviews.”
The company has already put in place no-touch hiring, which basically means that technical skills are automated. “However, there is always an interview at some level to check whether the candidate would fit in culturally and their communication skill set.”
In the case of online hiring, Brillio is using psychometric assessments and communication assessments through the video interviews, to make sure that candidate is the right fit. The technical, psychometric and communication capabilities are thus verified digitally, said Aftab.
Lean And Resilient Practices To Survive The Pandemic
“25% of total Indian startups i.e. 10K-12K startups may have to shut down. And, according to me estimates, it will take at least 18 months to get back to where we were in October 2019. This too, is also contingent on the relief measures being given to businesses,” said 3One4 Capital founding partner Siddarth Pai.
Instamojo’s Gehani, feels that the recovery time for different sectors will be different. And, in the case of payments and lending industry, the recovery time will be much less, around 3-6 months.
In these times, startups need to be resilient, agile and be able to redo the mathematics of cost reduction management, said Sundar. They will have to count on the most cost-effective way of their deliverables. And, it’s not a one-time solution, this should be a part of the regular exercise.
“In short, startups who are super resilient and do their stuff better than others will have more opportunities while startups who fail to upskill themselves will be on the losing side of it.” – Mithun Sundar
While Pai believes that layoffs should be the last resort as startups tend to have cash in their banks unlike many large companies, Sundar said that in such a tough time, the entire team must be on the same page. “The realisation has to be there we have to be in it together to be able to make the company do well.”