A few months ago, if you’d told anyone at Ather that we will be working from the confines of our homes, and will do so for an indefinite period, we’d have laughed it off. That we would be working from home to deal with a pandemic is something no one would have thought about, yet here we are.
Shifting the entire workforce to remote working was quite a change for an organization like Ather. We are a unique amalgamation of software, hardware, and mechanical engineering verticals, along with manufacturing. The thought was that only a few teams could transition to remote working with ease. Culturally too, in-person meetings and discussions were a primary mode of communication at Ather. It was more of a way of life, and our office spaces were designed to foster this communication. The eternal struggle at Ather to find an unoccupied meeting room or misplaced equipment is proof.
When a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) is being conceived, a pandemic with such prolonged impact is never the first thing that comes to mind. To complicate matters, at Ather we never really had a BCP in place, at least not at an organization scale. When March set in, we figured remote working was inevitable.
Within a very short time, we identified team members who could work from home and started our planning for the eventuality. We pressed on, knowing at some places exactly how to deal with stuff while grappling with solutions for others. Here’s what worked for us:
Cross-functional teams got more efficient
Ather’s design and development activities involve a lot of cross-functional discussions and reviews. They are notorious for eating into the productive time of our team members. Now that everything happens over virtual meetings, the limitations imposed by connectivity issues, and the hard stop on the time boundaries, have been helping us stick to the agenda more than we ever have with our in-person meetings.
We stepped up communication
From the time we got wind of the COVID-19 reaching Bangalore, we stepped up and doubled our digital communication efforts.
This started with something basic like preventive guidelines, travel advisories, and sharing helpline info. We got more regular and increased our all-hands meetings. Tarun, our CEO, started emailing more often and we even experimented with a podcast. To reduce our collective anxiety and to ensure we stayed connected we also started an organization-wide document where any team member could pen down any rumors they heard and the teams concerned could quell them.
Trust and partnership
‘Be Nice’ is a value in our culture and it talks about exhibiting the behavior ‘trust by default’. Everyone agrees that they have to trust each other, it’s obvious. But this gets tested when we work in uncertain times and in a prolonged remote setup. We needed to trust ourselves, then trust other teams to deliver despite challenges. We had to rely on other teams wherever there was a need. We received the trust and support not only from our teams but also from vendors, suppliers, and from our facility owners. Trust is fundamental, there is no clever way to negate it.
There is so much emphasis on ‘knowing’ in organizations. More so in Ather where logic is the binding force. Everyone wants to have all the answers. The impact of the pandemic, and the fact there are large chunks of information that were not clear or are still emerging, took time to sink in: every week new scenarios came up, be it about the spread of the infection, the operating guidelines given by the governments, or the functioning of our supply chain. We had to learn to be okay with ‘not knowing’, to be happy with ‘we are figuring it out’ in the place of ‘we have figured it out’. We worked on plans A, B, C, and D and were conscious that all of them might change.
For an organization that prides on first principles thinking, we had to look at a few assumptions we worked with, like we will become dysfunctional if we go remote. We managed to keep the rhythm and pace. Yes, there are realities that few functions can not operate remotely. Communication is the key. Leaders have to own this piece as their lifeline. The uncertainty is here to stay, we’ve got to take it as part of the scheme and plan with that in mind. This is the new state of being sorted.
And going back to our articulated values and behaviors, in them we will find many answers.
Published on June 1, 2020 on LinkedIn