Pandemic's Toll on the Culture of Indian Startups

By Shefali Anand April 1, 2021
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Maintaining culture in today's remote-working era has been a challenge across companies in India, and even more so for young, fast-growing startups, which often don't have a formal HR department.

Technology startups have been the rage among Indian job-seekers in recent years, primarily for their flexible work culture and lack of hierarchies. They also are perceived as "cool" places to work where employees play pool in the office and hang out at after-work locations.

The Covid-19 pandemic, however, dampened many of these aspects of the startup work culture.

Since March 2020, most of these companies have shifted their staff to work from home, which in many cases has meant working longer and odder hours.

"The impression was that we are constantly at home, therefore always available," said Yamini, a 29-year-old marketing professional who was working at a startup in Bengaluru. She said they would have meetings at all hours, including late in the evenings, and were expected to respond to work messages or file reports even at 2 a.m.

"They had zero boundaries of employee time," said Yamini, who spoke on the condition of keeping her company and her last name anonymous. Late last year, Yamini started getting headaches and nose bleeds, which a doctor attributed to acute stress. "That was when I realized this job was slowly killing me," she said, and she quit her job shortly thereafter.

While Yamini's was an extreme case, startup founders agree that remote work has blurred the lines between office and personal time.

"We are a fast-growing company, so work hours end up getting extended," said Ravish Agrawal, CEO and co-founder Able Jobs, a Bengaluru-based company which provides trained entry-level workers for hire.

Before Covid-19, Agrawal said the work day typically ended for most employees once the office closed at 8 pm. However, with remote work, he is often still at his keyboard after midnight. That said, Agrawal explained there haven't been any reports of stress from his team, as employees "knew what they were signing up for." Still, he said, he finds it more relaxing to be back in the office, which they reopened in late January.

"Coming to the office has made life easier, because for every small thing, I don't have to jump on a call," he said. Brainstorming and collaboration are also easier when the entire team is in the office. The upshot: "We are remotely friendly but we are not remote first," Agrawal said.

Soft Aspects of Work Impacted

Many startups have added staff in the pandemic, but imparting the company's culture to new employees has been a challenge. Finwizard Technology Pvt, a Bengaluru startup that runs the wealth management app Fisdom, hired around 100 people over the past year, all virtually, according to co-founder Subramanya 'Subu' SV.

In normal times, Subu said that new employees would pick up cues about culture and management style by observing founders and superiors, but the virtual office didn't lend itself to that. "That whole cultural assimilation of new employees, what is the Fisdom way of doing things, that became a challenge," said Subu.

To bridge the gap, senior managers and the chief technology officer spent more time with new employees virtually, which in turn was a drain on their time, he said.

The head of engineering and the chief technology officer faced some of the hardest tasks, said Subu, as they tried to manage employees who were working from different parts of the country, many of whom they hadn't met in person. "Tech teams became a group of individuals rather than a team," said Subu.

Interactions Became Transactional

From the employees' point of view, one charm of working at startups is that they can grow faster by contributing to a wide range of projects within the business, while developing a closer connection with the founders. But that didn't translate well in the remote-work setup.

Interactions with employees ended up being mostly transactional, say founders. Once a Zoom meeting ended, the manager moved on to the next one, leaving little space for any discussion beyond the meeting's agenda.

"It is easier to pick up new sets when you are in the same room," said Agrawal. He added that some employees shared feedback that they would have appreciated more mentorship. "As founders, we were not able to spend time with them," he said.

To be sure, working from home has provided some benefits. At Finwizard Technology, Subu said productivity rose in their engineering and products teams, partly because staff was able to save time by not commuting. But once the pandemic is over, he doesn't see startups moving to a year-round remote work arrangement. He said startups thrive when there's a missionary zeal among a group of people to create something.

"That feeling is best done when they get together," said Subu, who added that the "fun" aspect of working at a startup could not be replicated in equal measure in the virtual world.

In pre-Covid times, Subu said their teams would organize impromptu drinking get-togethers, whereas in the last year team managers mostly organized a once-a-month virtual drinking session.

"They are a very, very poor replacement for an in-person get-together," he said.  


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