What a time for the Matrix Resurrections movie to have come out!
Right in the midst of a global event that has left many of us wondering if we are living in a boring, but nevertheless scary, version of The Matrix-like dystopian simulation. Simulation or not, we are definitely seeing a real-life mass experiment play out—an experiment to find out whether true and almost complete remote work can work for a vast chunk of companies and employees.
The jury is still out on whether work-from-home or work-from-anywhere is as good or even better than work-from-office. There are startups, and even large organizations, that have transitioned to a fully remote or remote-first option and are loving it. Then there are those who are still in remote work or have gone back to remote mode only because they have no other choice.
Whichever camp you belong to, the chances are remote work or hybrid work mode will continue for a while, especially considering the new mutated COVID-19 variants that keep arriving quite like the new and improved smartphone models that keep getting released.
At SaaSBoomi we wanted to find out how SaaS startups are making remote work work for them, what lessons they have to share with others who may be struggling or who are just starting out and wondering whether fully online will work for them, and what is not working out.
I believe, just like the mutating virus, our lessons and ‘takeaways’ will mutate and evolve as the feedback loops strengthen and we keep implementing past lessons. Yet, this is a good time to take stock. This is why I checked in with some SaaS founders to not just understand how helming an online team has worked out for them, but also to gather some best practices.
Trepidation, productivity, fatigue
When India went remote in late March of 2020, many startup founders did so with trepidation. Would employees work? How will they manage work and home? Will they get the support they get in office? Will they collaborate? Many believed that this forced work-from-home would last a few weeks or at worst a few months. How wrong were we all!
In the initial weeks and months many startups saw productivity actually soar. With no commute to worry about and not many other distractions, beyond ensuring food is available and the house doesn’t fall apart (privilege check), employees were working around the clock. The novelty factor also helped. Sure, there were issues. Many did not have a good home office setup or did not have great broadband connectivity. But startups quickly came up with home office allowances and home internet allowances.
Startup founders and the HR teams focused their time and efforts almost entirely on ensuring employees were happy, felt connected, seen and heard, and stayed engaged through multiple initiatives ranging from regular town halls, fun online events, and even sending surprise hampers or food and discount coupons.
Unsurprisingly, between mid to late 2020, we saw a flurry of announcements from startups who decided to make the shift to remote permanent or decided to become remote-first.
When Ankit Dudhwewala’s startup Appitsimple, which runs software solutions discovery platform Software Suggest and cloud telephony platform CallHippo, went remote a week before the March lockdown, he did so because there was no choice. However, by June, he had seen the value of work-from-home and had implemented a WFH Pro policy.
Similarly, HR technology startup Springworks announced the company would be entirely work-from-anywhere in December 2020. Kartik Mandaville, Founder and CEO of HR software solutions startup Springworks, wrote of this shift:
“We went through all different types of work model(s) other companies emulate (office, hybrid, remote) and after much deliberation came to the conclusion that we will be going completely remote. We decided that there would be no HQ. We will provide an allowance for co-working spaces and will be meeting 2-4 times a year at an offsite.”
But, even in those early days when optimism was the dominant emotion, concerns surrounding burnout, employee dissatisfaction, and yo-yo-ing productivity among other issues were being raised. In the past few months, the doubts have crystallized further.
There is a very real worry in some of the companies that work-from-home has resulted in a less engaged team; onboarding of new hires, especially freshers, has posed challenges; many employees are getting bogged down by having to be at home almost all the time; some employees are using work-from-home as an excuse to shirk work or to take on projects with other organization.
All these are legitimate worries. Many of them are enough to cause considerable and constant issues for founders – something founders shouldn’t have to deal with.
So, is remote work worth it? I posed questions to a sample set of founders in June 2021 and then again in November/December 2021 to see if the pros and cons of remote work remain over a period of time and what have they done to solve these challenges.
These founders are Kartik Mandaville of Springworks, Ankit Dudhwewala of Appitsimple, Rushabh Sheth, Founder of document workflow automation startup DocSumo, Aravind Ravi Sulekha and Abhijeet Vijayvergiya, Co-founders of B2B sales tech startup Nektar.ai, and Manoj Agarwal, Co-founder of rewards and incentives platform for businesses Xoxoday. Most of the points below are a distillation of their insights.
Here’s what I found
There are clear pros of remote work, when it is done right. With unnecessary demands on time like long commutes and distracting office chit chat being done away with, productivity is high. Employees are also happier as they get to spend more time with family. There is access to a wider pool of talent. Nektra.ai, which has always functioned as a remote-only workplace since its inception in February 2020, has employees in Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia, apart from India.
Kartik of Springworks says work-from-anywhere has helped him hire employees from all parts of India. Since employees do not have to relocate, that is one friction point the company doesn’t have to worry about. This sentiment is echoed by other founders.
“The inertia in global hiring, sales, marketing, and everything else has just gone away. We now work with many employees/freelancers in different parts of India and outside India. We could have never hired such people if it was work from an office situation,” says Manoj of Xoxoday.
Quicker decision-making, more workplace innovation and lower administrative costs are some of the other advantages.
However, there are challenges to remote work especially if it has not been well-implemented. A significant challenge is the assimilation of company culture and values. This is tougher to convey and implement in a remote environment. This has a domino effect leading to disconnected employees and work becoming transactional.
Training in a remote environment is especially hard. “Lot of things which one learns on the floor by seeing and connecting, requires a lot of handholding in remote working,” says Manoj of Xoxoday. When everyone is open to hiring from anywhere, competition for talent can get fiercer.
The limitations of the place the employee is in or of the home setup, like lack of space or bad connectivity, have a spillover effect on work. There is a chance of misuse across the spectrum, from toxic behaviors in a team not being visible to employees taking on a second job under the radar. Even more significant may be the mental health issues linked to burnout and isolation or from a lack of a supportive home environment.
How to succeed at remote
Now that the main pros and cons are clear, let’s take a look at how to ensure that remote work can work for your startup, if that’s the path you choose.
- Design for remote: Why are you going remote? Will it be short term or will it be permanent? Will it be work-from-home for everyone or will it be a hybrid model with some or all teams getting the option to work remotely some or all the time? Depending on the answer, design your processes, policies and communication specifically for the option you choose for.
If you are going entirely remote, what happens if some employees do not want that? Will you give them access to a co-working space or are you fine if they leave? What about situations where a remote employee has issues with connectivity? If you are planning to go hybrid, decide on which teams need to definitely be in office and who do not have to be. If all teams need to spend some time in the office every month, will you offer out of station employees a hotel and transport allowance? Thoughtful and thorough planning is required and you will need to have answers for all kinds of situations and emergencies.
- Tailor hiring: Hire for the model you are following. If you hire someone who thrives in an office environment for a remote role, you are setting that employee up for failure. Do communicate your expectations and listen to theirs too. You may need to design your organization differently, with more focus on individual contributors rather than teams. You will also need to decide if you will hire from anywhere or restrict the hiring to a specific geography. For instance, if you expect employees to come to the office or have physical meetings with the team once a week or once a month, it may not make sense to hire people in too many different locations.
- Build for employee success: Just because the employees are remote, does not mean they are on their own. It is in the company’s best interest to have employees who are taken care of and feel taken care of. Allowances for home office setups, for internet and phone calls, for F&B are some of the requisites. Access to virtual psychologists or counselors, expanded health insurance, generous travel allowances are some of the additional perks companies are offering.
Most important though is creating a work environment and processes that are built for employees to succeed and flourish. Some of the following points elaborate on this. But the most fundamental requirement is that the founder and the managers will need to work from a place of trust. Founders will need to trust their employees to deliver without constant monitoring and checks. Aravind Ravi Sulekha of Nektar.ai says, “There is no assumption (at Nektar.ai) that work can only be done in the usual daytime shift at the usual workplace. So there is a lot of scope for employees to get creative with building that unique work environment for themselves, and one that aligns with their personal lives.”
Having clear-cut roles, goals and expectations go a long way in helping establish trust among all employees. In a remote environment, it doesn’t make sense to compute time spent on work. Actual work done and goals met are what matter. Establishing OKRs for teams and individuals and establishing a system of regular, but not too often, reviews will help ensure employees are on track.
- Focus on culture: When everyone’s together in an office, culture and values trickle down in a number of unsaid ways. In an online and virtual model, more thought needs to be put in. Rushabh Sheth of DocSumo, which has always been remote, suggests documenting Culture right from day one. “Creating version 1 of your culture deck always helps even if it has only 10 slides. Think of it as an evolving document just like your sales deck. Anytime team size exceeds 10, you need a written system to agree on what are the accepted values and expected behaviors,” he says. “Effective remote culture doesn’t just happen. Keep a Googledoc on small things that bug you or pleasantly surprise you. You can include these anecdotes in your culture deck and make sure to communicate on team channels.”
Finding interesting ways to reinforce desired values is a need—some companies have instituted peer awards over Slack channels for employees who embody organisational values. But nothing matches role modeling. In a virtual environment, more so than in an in-person environment, if the founder and the senior leaders do not live the values then it will not percolate.
- Prioritize onboarding and training: Onboarding a new employee is among the key processes of a startup. In a remote environment, it is very easy for a new employee to feel lost, not understand workplace nuances and team dynamics, and feel disconnected and eventually disenchanted. An onboarding process that includes a buddy system or allows new hires to shadow experienced team members even if virtually can help solve many of these challenges. Some startups have created video intros so employees can get to know each other. Startups have expanded their Learning & Development programmes and are investing in specialized online training modules. Training bootcamps and peer pairings are some other methods startups are trying out.
- Use tools: One of the blessings of running a startup today is the availability of a whole host of productivity, workflow and communication tools. The idea is to make virtual work processes seem as intuitive and comfortable, if not more, as the ones in office. Trello, Slack, Notion, Google’s suite of tools, Zoom, JIRA, Trooper, and Obsidian are just some of the tools being used. Manoj of Xoxoday says the company uses over 80 SaaS tools across different departments to bring a lot of process efficiencies and automation.
Many startups have even developed their own in-house apps for employee engagement. For instance, Springworks created a Trivia app and a peer-to-peer recognition app called EngageWith. Interestingly, the company has commercialized these products and they have turned revenue generators.
- Asynchronous work: There is a tendency in many of our offices to get work done through meetings. This need not work well always, even in the physical world. In the virtual environment, such a practice can backfire. Most companies are relying on asynchronous work and strengthening such processes as they are more effective in increasing productivity.
Employees can prioritize their time and ensure work gets done. Many of the workflow tools today enable such a model of work. One of the requirements of not just asynchronous work but of remote work in general is the need to document. Kartik of Springworks says an asynchronous model “means solid documentation (helps everyone, whether current employee or ones joining later), radical transparency (everyone’s aware of what’s happening across teams and at the org level), and fewer and fewer Zoom/Gmeet calls”.
- Communicate more: This might seem like I am contradicting the previous point. Far from it. The idea is to schedule regular check-ins that are quick and fit the requirement of specific teams, organize regular town halls, send out regular emails or Slack messages—communicate in such a way that it takes up the minimum time of employees but ensures they know what the company, their team, other teams and the senior leadership are up to. Additionally, the founder needs to be visible and more open with communication. When employees, including juniors, feel like they can approach the founders and leaders, or when it is clear that the leadership is being transparent with their decision making, employees will feel secure and connected.
- Define face-to-face time: Many remote-only or remote-first companies do recognise the need for in-person time. Only companies that strictly follow the gig worker or contractor model can stay completely remote with no in-person meetings at all. Companies can solve this in multiple ways. A few have scheduled once-a-month office meetups, while others require different teams to spend a week in office by rotation. Most schedule at least a couple of full-team offsites each year to ensure fun bonding time in-person. But face-to-face does not have to happen only in the physical world. Many companies also schedule regular weekly video-based live fun events and sessions during office hours. This helps immensely.
Fully remote work is truly a new experience and the learning curve has been steep. But, it is good for all SaaS startups to figure out how to succeed at remote work sooner rather than later, as increasingly SaaS teams are becoming global and at least a part of the team will be working remotely even when the pandemic is behind us.
As Aravind of Nektar.ai says,
“The future of work is already here, the pandemic just made it vastly apparent. Continue to reimagine the workplace and give your employees the same amount of attention as you would to your customers. The new generations joining the workforce are rejecting the old ways of working. Technology has made this transition smoother than we could ever imagine. The sooner we make this shift, the earlier you can access a wide pool of talent not limited by any barriers like geography, and start building a truly global workforce.”