Subscribe to The Digital Workplace
Join the journey to a better future of work
Springworks is one of the rare companies in India that is totally remote.
They already had options for work from home pre-COVID. When COVID hit, they went full remote. But after running some internal surveys, they realized that things were bad. People were spending lots of time in meetings and on Zoom calls. They know work could be better.
So Kartik Mandaville and the Springworks team doubled down on asynchronous communication. They wanted to give people their time back and searched for ways to do that.
They replaced the daily standup with a bot, and automatically enter what they did yesterday and what they are focused on today. Then, they use the time together to discuss blockers and more complex issues.
They use automation in several areas as a way to have better and deeper conversations about more important things.
Working against the culture
Kartik talked the challenges of moving against the culture. He said in India, very few people will work according to a planned calendar. He started with having everyone block their lunch time and snack time throughout the day. Then they added blocked focus time.
Not everyone likes it. Some people prefer the spontaneity of the office, but the people who’ve stuck with the asynch approach love the freedom that it gives.
Empathy through cross-team understanding
Kartik says empathy is a big part of success in the post-COVID world. But it’s not just about distanced empathy. At Springworks, people are intentionally placed near each other (in a digital sense). Kartik says that the async world usually leads to silos and people not knowing what others in the company are doing.
So, engineers are scheduled to observe sales demos. People are connected randomly to have a digital coffee together. They make use of peer recognition apps for cross-team appreciation. They do a lot of quizzes and trivia games that give the bigger picture of the company and also introduce new people.
Instead of planning to get the entire company of 100 people together, they arrange a dinner for 10 people from different teams at a restaurant.
Leading into the future
Kartik says that people leave a company for either more salary, better culture, or better growth opportunities. Salary is market driven and you can only compete so much. Growth is not completely in your hands, but you can build out paths for people ahead of time. Culture is the one bit that is entirely in your control. Kartik and Springworks are a great example of a company that is building a culture that will thrive in the digital age.
Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. Today. Our guest is Kartik Mandaville. He is the CEO of Springworks. Hey, Kartik. How’s your day going?
Good. How are you?
Excellent. We’re happy to have you on. You did a video for us for Digital Workplace Day. It was really exciting to see the things you’re doing that’s getting in there. So I’m excited to dive into your journey into digital work and with your company. But first, let’s do a check-in question, a CAPTCHA question to make sure that you are a real life human that we are talking to. So Kartik, my question for you is what makes a great day for you? If you get to the end and say, wow, that was just an awesome day, what would that be?
Sure, sure. So I think a day with less than three meetings and a lot of focus time on just going to say product review. And I know out of those three meetings, two or three are a sales call. So that’s the perfect day, two or three sales calls, and then rest of the day is just product review.
Excellent. And what happens after work? What else makes a great day for you?
Badminton, a game of badminton. That’s what I do every day, plus two to three hours or sometimes more with my daughter. She’s only four months old. So a good day right now is her not being cranky and sleep and fed. I think that’s apart from sales and anything else.
Yeah. That’s certified human there, man, wanting to make sure your young children sleep well. That’s great.
Yes, yes, can’t get more human than this.
Yeah, absolutely. Walk us through a little bit about Springworks. What’s the story behind it? And where are you at right now?
Sure. So we are in the HR tech space. We help companies from background verification to employee engagement. So we’re in primarily US and India are two markets, but other than this is English speaking countries. Being there for around seven years so far, lots of ups and downs. I’ve pivoted almost three times so far. Profitable, only raised around 600k. Apart from that, it’s completely bootstrapped and profitable, and actually brought back some investors as well. So we’re working on well. India is an up and coming market now and with the funding craze happening here where for the first time using Indian startups are being customers. Now we work with the likes of Flipkart and Razorpay, etc. It used to be more enterprises. Now it’s these new age unicorns and new age startups who are now becoming customers. That’s helping. Otherwise the primary majority of our revenue comes from the US.
And tell us about your team. How has it grown over the years? What city are you located in? Have you been distributed? Was it just COVID? Walk us through that.
We are mostly in Bangalore. Had a couple of folks who were remote and then Bangalore and had a bunch of sales folks in Los Angeles. We used to be one day a week work from home before pre-COVID. And now after COVID, everyone is distributed. Now it’s I think 55 different cities across India, and then a bunch of cities in the US. So primarily 95% of the team is in India and around 200 people, almost 3x the team after COVID. So from March 2020 to now, it went from around 75 to around 200, 210. And now it’s completely distributed and we’ve taken a call that we will always be remote and distributed. So that is an announcement we made, probably one of the very few companies in India to do that. It’s working out well. People are very happy. People are traveling and working from different places, spending time with family and also it’s working out very well for us.
Yeah, and you said even before COVID, you were doing one day a week that was an option of remote. Was it the same day for everybody or you could pick which day you wanted?
You could pick. And then because of Bangalore traffic, we used to say that you can come in at 12 to 2, somewhere around that and then leave slightly later, say around maybe 6 to 8 to basically beat the traffic. Because everyone else was coming at say 9 to 11. That used to be the office hours. Okay, let’s do it later. Let’s delay it so you can come in late and then get like a four-hour overlap. That used to be the goal. Some people used to come in very early. Some people used to come in at 2 and then spend time till 6 to get a four-hour overlap in the office. That was a requirement we had. And then one day a week, you can choose your own day. That’s it. So you don’t have to say, okay, I will only do Fridays, but most of times, it used to be Wednesdays. That is the big one and then the second biggest one was Friday.
So as you’ve expanded the options for remote work, for where you’re going to work from, and then you also have this team that’s over on the west coast in the US where it’s really difficult time zone wise where you are, and try to have all this time overlap. One of the themes you mentioned in your video was just the asynchronous nature of communication and trying to switch there. So walk us through that process. Was it a gradual thing that happened? Or was it, all of a sudden, you had to figure out how to do everything asynchronously? What was it like for you?
Yeah, so when COVID happened, we said, okay, let’s just do the same thing we were doing earlier. We did like a pulse. I think after six weeks probably in May, and that was bad. People said we were spending all our time in meetings. There was meeting fatigue. HR was doing all of these Zoom calls. It was way too much, right? It’s not completely worth it at all. People were spending a lot more time actually than before. Because I think the overhead of setting up a meeting, joining a meeting, waiting for others to join, getting all the logistics figured out, like okay, this is not the way to work, right? And this is not what remote has promised. So super inspired by GitLab. I personally did their GitLab how do you work remote course. Most of the team has done it. We actually had it at a mandated requirement for the longest time. And now most of the people end up doing it, if not the entire thing, maybe 50% of it. I think they are the pioneers. So small, small things like that.
We do a stand up every day, 15 minutes, 6 people joining, standup is all about “What did you do yesterday? What would you do today? Any blockers?” Why do you need that? That can be replaced with our standard bot. And all it needs is connect your JIRA, GitHub, figure out all the tickets you’ve done yesterday and figure out the tickets you will do today based on your progress bucket. And that becomes your update. Use the time to figure out and talk about blockers, use the time to talk about architectural decisions, if it’s tech. Same thing on sales, automate or everything to CRM, talk about, okay, I need help closing this deal. My customer prospect is asking me this question. I don’t know how to answer it. Talk about that. Instead of saying, oh, I had five calls yesterday, 10 emails, two demos, it’s automating a lot of this gradually. We did four different surveys over the period of I think every six weeks. We saw a gradual increase on how much time you spent in meetings. These are very pointed questions. So things like if you need to get an answer to something, how much time does it take? Five, less than five minutes, five to 15, 15 to 30, or two hours plus?
So then, it used to be 30 minutes, came down to 15, came down to less than five. And that was just because of better documentation. People were, if you have to ask a question, craft it properly, mention the timeline, mention when do you need it by, just don’t get into meetings directly. Small, small things like that. I encourage more voice notes. So I started doing this personally. I used to send these updates, said, okay, let’s not do a town hall, but send async updates, send Loom videos, send voice notes, video notes, long text updates. I forced myself to do reviews asynchronously, used to record myself on a Loom video, send it to the designers, send it to the product person, send it to a developer. And I think when people started using this, everyone started seeing the advantage. Okay, let’s actually use the meetings to talk about and discuss and not talk about updates. So we saw a big increase in asynchronous work that has done wonders, because people are able to match their own timelines. You say, okay, I work from, whatever, 9 to 12, take a three-hour break, come back in the evening.
Wow, this is huge, the types of things you’re saying. So I want to break it down into a couple things. First, I want to talk about the cultural element. I feel like it’s true across the world, pre-COVID. Most of us are oriented to a synchronous environment, in the sense of if you need something, you go find that person, ask them. If you need something from multiple people, you set up the meeting and you go have the meeting immediately. That’s where the real time happens. Just with my experience in India, I feel like that is true and perhaps heightened compared to other cultures around the world, too. Did you feel like you were working against genetics and upbringing and everything that’s about the culture to try to push people this way? Or did you find people to be like, oh, yeah, that makes sense. It was a pretty easy transition.
Yeah, for most people, we had to push back, because as you said, calendars are not that widely used in India. Most people don’t really have a focus time on the calendar, don’t have lunch blocks, those type of things. I looked in the US and there it’s very common. Everyone put a lunch block, open calendars, set up a time, stuff like that. Here you don’t have that. You look at any person’s calendars, it’s like a full week is empty. I’m like, okay, when do you actually do, have lunch or go out and stuff like that, right? So doesn’t make sense. So okay, let’s start with lunch blocks. Getting everyone to do that. Then let’s start with snack block, right? Let’s start with focus time, everyone needs to have a focus time, whatever, 2 to 4 when you’re focused, Slack goes on DND. No one is able to ping you. As simple as that. If things break, everyone knows how to reach you. So don’t worry about that.
That sounds like a worry. What will happen, if something happens, like don’t worry. We’ll find a way.
Yeah, we’ll find a way. So I think it’s small, small things like that have a long impact. Just planning a day ahead, setting up forcing yourself to set an agenda. I think Bezos said this very well. Meeting should be not more than two pizzas. First 15 minutes of a meeting is literally reading a page, piece of paper. That’s the agenda. That’s the prep you need to do for a meeting. And their extreme, from what I think Jeff Bezos explained, he said, okay, every meeting more than three people should have an agenda. If it does not have an agenda, then it should not be a meeting. As simple as that. Because the host has not done the work. We can’t have a meeting, and then so let’s discuss this, very unstructured and what ends up happening, you have the spontaneous discussion, sometimes you get something nice, but most times, it is spontaneous, it is unstructured, gets lost. Everyone says, oh, this sounds good idea, and then goes nowhere. There’s nothing really, no structure, no minutes, nothing of that stuff. And people who would not join that meeting for whatever reason, they would leave, stuff like that, they feel left out. And so that’s not the way remote is supposed to be.
Yeah, what you just mentioned is extremely important because a lot of the pushback people give to digital work is that we’re losing the spontaneous. Remember that one time in that one meeting when somebody came up with something amazing and it was because we were all together and talking about it. Then that’s the evidence. That happened once. So therefore, all meetings are good and all asynchronous stuff is crap. But like you said, let’s look at it in its totality. How many terrible meetings did we have on top of that that there was no spontaneity and that we just lost everything? We didn’t record anything. It was never there. Is that trade off worth it? Because I mean, there is some level of spontaneity that you do lose when you go asynchronous. But for you, it’s more of a calculated decision to say I’m willing to take that, right?
Yeah, yeah. And you save that time, right? So it’s like a product grooming discussion can just be an async video. So you save 30 minutes into 10 people, and then use that time, once a week, twice a week, to have these focused discussions. Let’s not set up an agenda. Discuss all things about our product, right? This is our roadmap. Let’s discuss, spontaneous stuff. And then we break the ice, right? Do like a lunch together, everyone. I do like a dinner together. Then have some kind of structure to it. But then you can get that spontaneous thing. It’s not the same as the office, for sure. I don’t think it’s completely possible to recreate that. You have to force yourself to have some structure. That’s how the mindset is. But you can still get some of this. So I think that is possible, and you save a lot of time, right? From four hours a day in meetings, you can get to 30 minutes, right? And that’s a big thing.
Yeah, totally. I noticed a lot of times you were saying like, I forced myself to do this, to push that. As the CEO of the company, how essential was it that you practiced all these things? And how often did you feel like you were just pushing up that big boulder up the hill to try to make it happen? And then at what point did you feel like, oh, other people are starting to also help and push this along?
Yeah, I think it’s very important for the CEO to do it or the top management to do it, not just one person, because if they don’t do it, people are like, okay, why should I do it? So that’s one. Second is I think some people just adopt this very well, because they’re like, okay, it’s nice. Now, I can actually remove myself out of the process and unblock the team from me and take out morning, two hours and go cycling. So I know one person said this in the first week or two weeks, like, wow, this is nice. Then the person exactly gets what remote async is, right? This is why you want to be async, that you unblock the team and then the very nature is no one should be dependent on you. Because that is how well structured things are. If you’ve given a task to someone, that’s how well documented and explained the task is. So people started seeing that, I think sometimes it feels, okay, we’re not heading the right direction. And all communication is very important. We say this once, twice, thrice, four times, five times. Keep repeating it yourself.
Even I am guilty of breaking this async rule. I just sometimes want to say, “Let’s just jam together, let’s just discuss.” And then maybe we have to come back and say, okay, let’s just focus, let’s over communicate, this is what we want to do. Keep talking about these calendar blocks, this is how to ask a question. This is how we should work. This is how we should send updates. All of those small, small things, I think our communication helps, and it’s a habit. It takes a while. We have to literally unlearn what we have done for the last 30 years or whatever, the last 10 or 15 years of working. And that’s not easy. Because we keep hearing these complaints, like, oh, I love the way we used to be in the office, because I can just walk to person, and knock on person’s shoulder and say, “Can I ask you this question?” Like, oh, yeah, let’s think about that. It’s five minutes of walking there, then discovering, okay, that person is actually having tea, then you come back and go.
So that’s 15 minutes lost, as the only person is there. So five minutes of walking, plus 10 minutes of discussion, plus, whatever, 15 minutes for that person to get back with your context. So you basically lost 30 minutes of that person’s time and your time. Was it worth it? Was it worth that one small doubt you had? Or could you just have actually texted that? And people say, no, it’s too much to type it out? No, it will take me 10 minutes to type it out. It’s not easy. Okay? It’s fine. Do a voice note. So much easier. Now, Slack allows it. Now, Loom has it. 30 second, 45 second, one minute voice note, more than enough to convey. Text is always nicer thing, text is better, because it forces you to be structured. You are able to explain to the other person with structure better, and with the voice, I think, very easy to break this structure rule and have slightly unstructured. People start seeing the benefits. Sometimes it takes a while, but mostly everyone seems to benefit. But at the same time, this is not for everyone. We are very clear in our hiring process that it is not for everyone, it may not be for you. But if you want to do a better way of working, then this is the place to be. So we have seen people who have left and come back.
Oh, yeah, that was going to be one of my questions. Have you had people actually opt out and say, I don’t like this, I’m going to get out of this. And some people may be, legitimately, they just can’t work that way. But then you’ve also said you’ve seen people come back from that. So tell me more about that.
Yeah, so we had people who left just for this reason, I want to be in office, right? And then we have seen people who have kind of left, joined other companies. Like, oh, no, I can’t go back to this old way of working because I’m in meetings all day, and it’s taking away all my productive time. Of course, meetings are nice. But after a while, you’re not growing with meetings. You’re actually growing with the focus time as in the company growth and all that stuff. But your personal growth matters based on dependent on what you work and how you work. So people have come back saying I just love the culture here. I just love the way of working. I want to be working in this kind of environment where I’m not going to be getting pings or slacks every, whatever, 30 minutes.
Yeah. Great. Kartik, there was a second topic you brought up during your video where you talked about empathy, which is also one of those things that takes some getting used to in a new world of working. So explain how that’s manifested in your company.
Sure, so with our distributed and hybrid, remote teams, one of the challenges is silos being created. In the office, you go to this, whatever, water cooler, coffee station, and you just end up naturally meeting people you would not have met for work, a salesperson meeting a dev engineer, right? That would just never happen at a remote distributed setting. There’s no reason for them to meet. And so I’m like, how do we recreate that in a dispute setting, because it’s very important. Otherwise, people are always focused on their function and nothing beyond. So one of the ways is we have a feature in our app where this virtual coffee which connects two people randomly, every week and then gives them some icebreaker questions to break the ice and the awkwardness out. So that helps. People love it. We’re able to connect to more people. It’s just a way to talk outside of work and be like, oh, wow, no, I did not even know that you were in this company. I didn’t know that you were a Harry Potter fan. I didn’t know that you love cricket, right? Small, small things like that, just to kind of icebreaker. I think that’s one way.
Second is having, whatever the engineering team is doing, how will the sales team even know? So these cross functional demos, encouraging engineers to join sales demos, encouraging sales folks to join engineering product demos. These cross functional demos are nice, doing these type of show and tells. So we encourage to record a 15 minute, whatever, 5 to 15 minute video, post it maybe once a week, and they talk about what, how they work, what do they do, how does their job help the company move forward. Small, small things like that. Then having a recognition culture, peer recognition, not top down, not bottom up, peer recognition culture where every person is able to recognize a peer, and then it’s posted onto your wall. In a traditional day, I used to remember, we used to go to McDonald’s, and they had this employee of the month wall. They used to be used to be stars and top performers and stuff like that, and used to be voted by employees, and not just the management. At least that’s what I was told.
So how can you do that in the non distributed world? Slack is your office. Post it on Slack. Or one of our apps that does peer recognition, post it onto Slack, and people are able to see, oh, wow, this engineer got a kudos from this other person to help fix a bug. Small thing, but it’s a social gratification. So you are able to build that empathy through these tools, get people closer. Do even custom trivia question, if you’ve seen an improvement there, the old way of introducing an employer’s, like a nice looking graphic, this person is from this engineering college, this MBA, likes to eat this, is from this state, wants to do this. It’s more like just a graphic or a three-line statement or three to four lines paragraph. And it’s okay, but how many people even read it? The new way is you do a quiz on that person. No one really knows the answer. But out of these four options, what’s this person’s favorite food. And then it’s just a nice, fun way to actually know that person.
Small, small things like that. Do a custom quiz on your company. What is our latest product launch? Out of these four, what feature did we add? Which one of these customers did we recently add and closed the deal with? Small fun things, again, a nice, fun way to engage employees, get people together. And then obviously, it’s trivia at the end of the day. So people want to win that. It’s fastest fingers first, right? So people want to be fast. People want to be accurate. So that really helps get people together, having water cooler type of conversations. Doing smaller team events, I’m not really a fan of 100 person event, because I think you lose over Zoom. You do a 10 person event. Pick 10 people out of whatever, the company and get them together, a sponsored lunch for everyone, play a game.
But again, making sure you’re cross functional. They’re not just like the same team.
Exactly, yeah, not just the same team. Small, small things like that. That has a much higher impact. Easier for the HR to also organize. Otherwise 100 people, what do you even do? And so you hear everyone speaks, you can put on video, stuff like that. So small, small things have, I think, a lot for good impact, and people understand. And this really helps people get closer and builds that bond. I always think the three reasons for a person to leave the company. One is comp – completely market driven, market or industry driven, not under your control. Second is culture. And third is growth. With culture and growth, you can solve. Growth is slightly market driven, but culture is completely in your hands. That’s something you can solve. Culture is how you work, how do you treat employees, how do they feel treated, is there feedback taking, and stuff like that. All of this comes under empathy, culture, whatever you want to say.
And if you can do that, they will leave good feedback even after they’ve left the company. And that is the best possible signal. If some person is posting on LinkedIn, five days after they quit the company, and then you can be rest assured that person was very happy because there’s no reason for that person to post a review. Comp, you can’t really compete on comp. We have people who have left at 2x salaries. It is what it is, right? Sometimes you cannot match but it’s fine. They will go out and give the review to five other people. That’s what you want. You want good Glassdoor ratings, you want good review selling, then you want people to be our evangelist. And if we can do that, then your employer branding is taken care of, helps in recruiting, helps to retain existing employees, and just overall, helps the empathy part.
Yeah, and there’s so much to look at there. We’ve reached the end of our time here, but I love the ideas that you’re pulling that really looking at empathy is seeing the whole person but then also seeing person not just, hey, it’s somebody in my team I didn’t get to know, but the whole company. Yours, like you said, is at 100, 200 people. That’s still at a size when you can know a lot of people. But if you are asynchronous distributed, you might only know 10 and you don’t know that there are all these people out there. So I think you’re at a great place to still be building those bonds and bring things in. So, thanks for sharing, Kartik, everything you’ve been doing. Where can people go to learn more about Springworks what you guys do there?
Excellent. We will put all those notes in the show notes. We are excited to talk to you, Kartik. Hopefully we get to speak to you again in the future.
Sure. Thank you for having me.
Kartik Mandaville is Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Springworks. While building contemporary solutions for the HR industry of the future, Kartik also serves as the Senior Technical Advisor at Science-Inc and Acting CTO at Plowz & Mowz and Burst.