The world is getting back to work. But not Prukalpa Sankar, the 30-year-old co-founder of Atlan, a tech company on a mission to democratize data. Sankar is happy in her home office in Bengaluru, with a wooden desk, large screen, Eames chair, bookcase and a small seating area with plants, which she uses as a space for reflection.
“I’m still old school when I’m looking for things,” she says. “I always like to use a notebook and pencil and stay away from laptops.”
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Sankar is not the only one who wants to work from home. Ebuka Ezeh, 26, a senior software engineer at Atlan, works at a desk in his room in Lagos. Despite his initial skepticism about working for a company based in a different time zone, he talks about the joys of working remotely. “I only had one desk job. Everyone else was pushed away,” he says. “I’m really used to working from home.”
So does Isabel Atienza, 36, a business development manager and working mother who works for Manila-based Atlan. “I get to work at my own pace and at my own pace; I like what I do. And I can be with my children. It’s the best working environment for me,” she insists. A portable table and desk chair accompany her throughout the house as she moves between the master bedroom, dining room and children’s playroom.
Sankar, Ezeh and Atienza are a cross section of a company that considers itself a “global remote working startup”. With around 100 employees, three-year-old Atlan has a remarkably global footprint. It has employees in 30 cities and 12 countries, and a remarkably small building stock: limited offices, with almost all employees working from home.
Tech startups such as Atlan often serve customers from around the world, but it’s less common for the employees themselves to be so distributed and operate from home, in a rapidly changing startup environment. It’s a creative attempt to reverse one of the root causes of a problem like “the great resignation”: the reluctance to return to a physical office.
THE formula for success
Atlan’s ability to make remote work successful lies in organizational culture. Culture is essential to the success of any organization, but especially in such a nascent and virtual organization.
Sankar says distributed work was part of Atlan’s DNA from the very beginning, when it started serving clients in other parts of the world, particularly in the United States. Covid has accelerated this way of working and made it easier to hire globally. “Once we decided we were going to be distributed, we just committed to being distributed. I think we’re building this new breed of business, which isn’t location first, it’s people first. What matters is that you are the best at what you do, wherever you are in the world. We fundamentally see ourselves as a global company, from day zero,” she says.
Global hiring has led to a concentration of employees in certain locations, such as Delhi, New York, Lagos, and Manila. The company wants to experiment with a more hybrid format, such as having teams in these hubs often work in a coworking space, or when trying to solve specific problems, or running training programs in office spaces. . “We definitely want to infuse more elements of human connection, but I think it’s safe to say that we’ll never be a ‘fully up and running’ company for the foreseeable future,” she says.
One of the biggest benefits of working remotely is that people are “more thoughtful, more reflective, with a more written work culture,” observes Sankar. This is reflected in the conduct of the meetings. With teams in time zones as far apart as the Bay Area and the Philippines, the number of overlapping hours for colleagues to meet is limited. “We’ve started moving away from meetings for updates, and we’re holding meetings to resolve issues. We don’t have 12 hours a day to be in meetings, we only have three hours a day, if you want everyone to be in the same (virtual) room. And so, if that’s the case, then we need to use the time to maximize the potential of this meeting, problem-solving” and insisting on written preparation for meetings, in advance.
THE TWO BIG Cs
The main foundations of the remote work culture are collaboration and communication. Ezeh describes how these elements play out in everyday working life: “Collaboration is about always being in tune with the other person. Because if you’re working with someone and they’re having obstacles, and they’re not communicating; there will be no progress. You need to constantly communicate with them. Every decision you want to make, you have to communicate it, it’s really important.
“If texting or Slack isn’t working, you can set up a quick Zoom call. If you’re away from your keyboard for 30 minutes or an hour, you should report it, or if you need to see a doctor, do so. In some companies you can’t access your teammates, but here we have processes and workflows to communicate.”
Not being able to see colleagues face-to-face, however, has huge downsides. Sankar recognizes the loss of casual conversations about water coolers that are essential to the social, intellectual and economic fabric of a business. “It is up to us to create serendipity. Serendipity does not happen by chance, you have to create avenues for serendipity to happen,” she explains. For example, Atlan hosts “Jeffersonian” dinners on Friday nights, when the company holds demonstrations of its products. Inspired by former US President Thomas Jefferson, the dinners facilitate “deep” conversations among employees on selected topics, including “emotional or fun things.”
Other structures to promote social exchanges include the establishment of a working group on remote working, whose objective is to build a better culture of working remotely. Atienza, who is part of the working group, likes the “coffee roulette”, which takes place every Wednesday. ” It is not mandatory. People are randomly grouped together and asked to take 30 minutes off to talk to each other about non-work related topics,” she says. For Atienza, Atlan’s work culture is “contagious”. The energy, drive and work habits are hugely appealing, she says.
Remote work has been a preferred way of life for some professionals, and covid has only widened that tribe. Atlan illustrates that remote working is also increasingly part of business strategy, not just a lifestyle preference.
Although Sankar refrains from sharing financial information, she says that the customer base has increased fivefold since the start of the business and she is confident that the business can continue to adopt this model as it increases its workforce.
Companies devote their energies to reaching global customers and markets. Committing to harnessing global talent during a pandemic, Atlan has developed a remote work plan that offers lessons for other companies struggling with post-covid work life patterns.
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