With 4 years as a fully remote company, we at Upekkha often get asked, ‘What goes into building a high-performing workplace and now running a fully remote accelerator program?’ Here’s a detailed rundown of how we did it.
A culture of writing-is-thinking, discipline & trust
Upekkha started 4 years ago with a conscious decision to not have a physical office space, even though the founding team was based in Bangalore. Meetings and sessions were held at offices of our community startups and stakeholders. The team met once a week, more frequently when required.
From the outset, the founding team put in place a culture of discipline, writing-is-thinking, trust and accountability that are the bedrock of a high-performing organization.
As the pandemic progressed through 2020-21, we iterated on internal communication structures, and did more and more work async, using synchronous time (i.e. meetings) for review and debrief. More on that later.
Post-pandemic: Taking the accelerator program online
Before the pandemic, our accelerator sessions were run as one-week offline sprints where cohorts of startup founders came together, went through the learning modules and then went back to apply these frameworks over the next 6 weeks. This cycle repeated multiple times over the program duration.
When COVID entered India in March 2020, and meeting physically became untenable, we took the program completely online. While we flipped our model, we also advised our startups to do so through a remote work guide with curated resources on how to make this transition.
We digitized all our content, and flipped the model of our sessions. We would send out pre-recorded videos and exercises before the sessions and use the Zoom calls for peer interactions and feedback. We met everyday on Zoom, and stayed in touch all through the sessions on Slack and email. Over time, we adjusted to the new process, and were able to cut down on the amount of meeting time needed to prepare and run each session.
Uncovering upsides to a remote org
We also realized that the online/remote model offers some real benefits, and decided to capitalize on these:
- We hired people in different cities/towns and committed to staying fully remote.
- This gave us the opportunity to hire diverse people from different backgrounds who bring different perspectives to the table and enrich our way of working.
- We expanded our startup founders to people in other continents who could not have attended otherwise.
- We changed the structure of the accelerator program to bi-weekly sessions instead of cramming a lot of modules within a space of 1 week. This has given
founders more time to absorb, apply and internalize the learning.
HOW WE WORK TODAY
OKRs for ownership & DACI model for execution
We have set our North Star: to realize meaningful financial outcomes for our founders, balanced with meaningful outcomes for Upekkha.
We have broken this down into yearly goals, which translate into quarterly OKRs for each team. This vision/mission message is rinsed and repeated often so that even new members have clarity about why we're doing what we're doing.
As the team has grown, we've created small, specialized units that have sub-team meetings with tight agendas, and moved the company meetings to a fortnightly schedule.
We use the DACI model - every project is assigned a Driver, an Approver, several Contributors and others are in Inform mode.
Writing-is-thinking: Getting to ‘good’ vs fast decisions
Every project or activity starts off as a document on Notion, which we circulate to team members for inputs and comments. The driver meets 1:1 with team members if needed and presents the final version in a team meeting.
All our meetings are documented on a Notion page. Sometimes, our Managing Partner Prasanna adds an audio/video message to reinforce some aspect of our company mission or culture, which we can watch at our own convenience.
Above: A voice note on team diversity from our Managing Partner Prasanna Krishnamoorthy to the team
All our decisions are documented in a decision journal, with supporting context around it, so that we can come back and evaluate the quality of our decision-making process. The goal is to make good decisions, not necessarily fast decisions.
We've streamlined our content and templates into a library for easy reference by our startups. We have playbooks and runbooks for every program and session that we run, and we're constantly iterating on them, based on participant feedback.
Hiring and on-boarding: Bias for async work
Our job descriptions and selection process emphasize that working async and remote is a prerequisite. So the ability to communicate your thoughts clearly through writing and audio/video messages is key.
We create detailed on-boarding plans for our new hires, and over time we've built up enough documented content for them to ramp up, in a phased manner.
This is true for internships as well.
Likewise, every exit has a documented process, and we capture employee feedback to improve our processes.
We invest in team learning & automating workflows
We invest time in team learning sessions, because not everyone comes with a background in SaaS or investments and startup finance.
We also invest in automating the repetitive aspects of our workflow - using simple Slackbots, or Google scripts, or integrations between the different tools in our workflow.
We've tried different tools over the years - today it's a combination of Notion, G-suite, Slack, Zoom. But honestly, it's not about the tools - it's about the mindset and discipline.
Bonding: It’s always community-first at Upekkha
In a fully remote organization, the elephant in the room is - how do you promote social bonding among people who have never met in person?
We hope that things will change in the future, and we will be able to get together in person, for offsites and events, but in the meantime:
- We play pictionary and other games online, with a lot of banter and leg-pulling.
- Prasanna uses Kaapi on Slack to check on the pulse of the team from time to time with simple questions to check on org health, and also to trigger trivia questions that are a lot of fun!
- Through the second wave of COVID in India, we cut back on work for ~45 days and focused on being there for our teammates and startup teams - many of whose families were impacted by COVID - calling up hospitals to check for availability of beds, arranging oxygen cylinders and ambulances, or just being available to talk to someone who had suffered a loss.
- We've arranged vaccination camps in several cities for employees and family members (192 people in all) of our community startups.
- Some of us did meet in a small group for a team lunch, with necessary precautions and protocols. Hopefully, someday we can meet for an offsite as well.
Respecting people's time and attention
A big part of being effective in a remote org is about managing your own time and respecting other people's time. An oft-recurring complaint one hears is that, with the pandemic, life has become an unending stream of Zoom calls.
This is where it becomes extremely important to set aside blocks of time for specific areas of attention. We use calendar to block time with each other for specific topics, and several of us practice blocking time on our calendars for deep work as well (to prevent context-switching which is disruptive and unproductive).
To indicate availability:
- We use Slack to update everyone if we need to step out for an errand, or need to take the day off for some reason.
- We have a published holiday list - several are optional holidays to be taken based on which festivals each person chooses to celebrate.
- We haven't yet created a formal leave policy 😂 Team members give advance notice when taking time off, unless it's an unforeseen situation.
And finally, the Productivity Debate
A lot has been said about lower productivity when people work from home. It depends on what you measure, and your mindset. We've found that we can cast the net wider and hire better talent when we are no longer constrained by location. Also, working async is a more inclusive model - it helps those who need time to process information and mull things over to come up with the best ideas.
What’s Upekkha’s purpose?
- We focus on good outcomes, for our founders and our own programs.
- We also focus on the well-being of everyone involved in the Upekkha endeavour.
While these two are non-negotiable, other stuff is flexible. Individual working styles, individual schedules, individual temperaments. Our Managing Partner Rajan even has a "Working with Rajan" document that lays out what is the best way of working with him - covered in DH!
As individuals within Upekkha, we do our best work when we are in a state of "flow". That happens when we have the autonomy to work in our preferred mode, feel a sense of ownership for what we produce, and a sense of alignment and purpose towards what we are building.
As an organization, Upekkha functions best when it can create that alignment through a shared purpose, provide an underlying structure for support and guidance, and yet give each of us the flexibility to operate in our own space within that structure.
It's a constant balancing act between rigidity and fluidity, but I would argue that going fully remote and using async means of communication has given us more avenues to strike this balance.