Kindness is infectious; it holds the power to melt away all aggressive and unruly feelings. But equally infectious is the absence of kindness. It is strange that something so powerful is rarely talked about in the workplace.
Most people will have experienced hostility in some form and degree in their career. For many, meanness in the workplace casts a dark cloud over their personal lives as well. Some recognize their situation and strive hard to change it. But in many cases, people remain unaware of being treated unkindly.
During a tiring job-hunting sprint, I came across Axelerant's values. And the one that struck me the most was “Kindness.” I was instantly curious to learn how a tech-services company made kindness one of its core values. The search for that answer led to this article.
“Kindness” as a Company Value?
When I first came across this concept, I was confused. I valued kindness, of course, but it had never come up over the course of my job searching before.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about applying to a company for a position? Salary? Extra benefits? Work-life balance? Career growth opportunities? Well, for me, it was a varying mix of all and more.
I Was Desperate
I was starting to feel stifled in my career - economically, mentally, emotionally - and it was time for a change. After browsing through countless job portals, emails, LinkedIn Ads, I applied for over 30 different positions.
At one point, I became so desperate for a change that I put my hat in for a technical role at Axelerant without having a technical background. Why would I do something so absurd? Well, it was the values page that largely influenced my decision.
And Then I Read. . .
While researching the company, I came across the phrase, "relationships first, results second," under one of the core Axelerant values: “Kindness.” The document read:
"We want to nurture a positive, encouraging environment for our team members, and we do not tolerate behavior that is hurtful, disrespectful, or negligent towards others." And that did it for me.
Everything else (salary, benefits, career growth) took a backseat in my search for a job. I knew that what I needed most was a place where team members are not afraid to show up to work. You may love what you do, but if the culture is toxic, sooner or later, it’s bound to affect you.
What Was The Real Story?
But I wasn't entirely convinced. Company documents preach a lot of ceremonial phrases. But how much of it is really practiced? So, the first thing I did after joining the company was investigate how other team members felt and the real story behind it all.
It Started In The Foothills Of The Himalayas
Kindness is one of the three core values at Axelerant; the other two being “Openness” and “Enthusiasm.” It is not every day that you come across such values at the core of a tech company.
So, I found myself grappling with the questions: how did it all begin? Was it always a value-driven company? In search of the answers, I took my queries directly to the CEO of Axelerant, Ankur Gupta.
"The Axelerant we see today wasn't conceived the way it is now. When my co-founder and I started the agency as an idea back in 2005, we started small and without a very well thought out organizational vision," replied Ankur.
The initial goal, like every startup, was to be functional and profitable through the production of quality products and solutions. "We wanted to do good work, team up with the right kind of people, be part of more projects," added Ankur.
The Turning Point
The shift towards its current path as an organization came in 2014 at the foothills of the Himalayas, during the yearly Axelerant retreat. Everyone began to grasp the importance of having a culture that did not just revolve around profit margins. It was time to put the people — who make it all possible — at the center.
Today, Ankur believes, "culture is what helps fire people up to get to work every morning, makes them want to stick around for years, and has them advocate passionately for the brand to customers."
There Was A Learning Curve
At first, the core values decided upon were “Passion,” “Openness,” and “Giving.” But with time, these values evolved as the organization drilled deeper into how it wanted to exist and function. Thus, “Giving” was replaced by “Kindness” and “Passion” with “Enthusiasm.”
Cultivating an organizational culture driven by these core values ushered many other changes as more team members collaborated to make the workplace better. From solely focusing on being profitable, Axelerant started "becoming an incubator for innovative products and services" and "making happiness possible."
And After Choosing Kindness, We Learned
In one of the previous companies I worked at, I was given exactly one hour to get myself inducted into a labyrinth of products they had ever produced. After walking out of the room post-induction, I recall remembering only a handful of colors of books and the company name. After that, I learned to keep my induction expectations on similar sprightly lines.
Getting Inducted Into Axelerant
At Axelerant, the induction was divided into two halves, stretching for two weeks. The idea — and general attitude — behind such a prolonged induction is not to overwhelm people with waves of information, which may leave many feeling anxious.
During the first week, the People Operations team walks the new joiners through a step-by-step checklist. It's worth noting that Axelerant does not use “Human Resources” to address the department tasked with acquiring and managing people.
People are seen as more than mere resources here.
In the following week, team managers guide everyone through their departmental systems. One is also assigned onboarding buddies for the first 90 days after joining, just a text away on Slack. You can reach out to them when in doubt, experiencing problems, or even for a quick chat to feel secure in a new environment.
Kindness at Axelerant is driven firstly by its people and secondly by how it functions by default.
"By having kindness as a core value, it basically cements kindness as a strength and not a weakness," shares Sidharth Subramanian, Frontend Engineer, Axelerant.
We Realized: It’s About Recognition
The culture of exchanging feedback and recognition go hand in hand. "We encourage everyone to ask for feedback once every 30 to 45 days," said Mridula Ujjwal, Director, Learning and Development, Axelerant. At Axelerant, praises and acknowledgments are given publicly, and feedback is shared directly between the giver and the receiver. "Our feedback and recognition system (Paycor) is integrated with Slack, and every day, we recognize people who exhibit our agency values directly in meetings, in conversations, and on partner engagements," added Ankur.
For Sidharth and many other team members, the recognition system itself personifies the spirit of kindness at Axelerant. "Every time I get a recognition, I feel nice and warm inside. People always notice when you do a good job, but very few say it. When you have something like the recognition system in place, every recognition is an act of kindness," Sidharth acknowledged.
It’s About People-Centric Policies
“We wanted our team members to be thriving, fulfilled, and committed to driving our mission forward—we believe that’s what gets the best results. This talent-first approach is now woven into all strategic decision-making at Axelerant,” clarified Ankur when asked the reason behind this direction in policy-making.
From having a family health insurance policy to health and wellness allowance, most of Axelerant’s benefits revolve around bettering the lives of its people. Many of these benefits are regularly updated, such as the BYOD policy (Bring Your Own Device), which covers 75 percent of the cost of devices used on Axelerant’s behalf.
It’s About Giving People Time Away
But the one policy that struck me the most was only recently implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic - Kindness Leave Pool. "There were people who had leaves remaining at the end of the year, and people who had exhausted their leaves because of the COVID-19 and other medical emergencies," explained Ankur and continued: "We saw the opportunity and came up with the option of voluntary donation of leaves."
The policy allows people to donate their leaves anonymously into a pool during March, at the end of the fiscal year.
These leaves can be applied for by team members in need of leaves. I asked a donator (who wants to remain anonymous) about the motivation behind such a decision, and the reason couldn't have been simpler: "I just wanted to help," she answered. Axelerant began the Kindness Leave Pool by donating 100 leaves and with a promise of equalling the total number of leaves donated each subsequent year by all team members.
It’s About Being More Understanding
Axelerant's focus on being inclusive while actively aiming to hire a more diverse team is truly extraordinary in a world of growing intolerance. During the induction, I was promptly introduced to the process of taking breaks during work hours, for whatever reason it may be. All a person has to do is mention the cause and duration of the recess on the #status channel on Slack.
Speaking of work hours, there aren’t any! Well, yes, there is. But you can easily design your working hours with a minimum overlay with your peers for effective collaboration.
As long as you’re doing the work and getting the results, you can plan your day however you want. There’s no micromanaging. (Yup, you read that right.)
And It’s About Helping People Grow
Something that you don't see every day in technology services companies is the presence of a performance coach. Axelerant has full-time, in-house performance coaches dedicated to ensuring the success of all team members in the company. A performance coach is assigned to you within the first week of your joining. I was granted Mridula.
During my second session with her, Mridula said something that defined what a performance coach does at the company: "I am not a lecturer taking classes standing in front of the class. I am sitting right beside you on the bench and trying my best to help you."
When asked about the reason behind introducing performance coaches at Axelerant, Ankur clarified: "They work with our team by lending an ear whenever someone needs to air their frustration, mediating between team members through any difficulties, and keeping the team happy and engaged, facilitating kindness through mutual respect."
Performance coaches at Axelerant help you with professional and personal blockers, things that might be strapping you to the ground level. They enable you to recognize and work upon these blockers.
But The Question Is: Does It Really Work?
In an organization where I once worked, I saw a colleague walk into the conference room with two managers one morning. After the meeting, she seemed ominously quiet for the rest of the day, even with her closest friend in the office.
A week later, she was no longer coming to the office; she had quit.
Later, I learned why she left: it was to do with how the managers behaved with her during the meeting. She found herself in a state of trauma and couldn't bear to continue working in the same space.
How team members, colleagues, and managers behave with each other, and their subordinates reflect the overall culture of a company. For this reason, I was curious to know how people working at Axelerant feel treated by their peers. Do they even agree with having kindness as a core value?
In short, yes.
What Are The Team Members Saying?
"I've been searching for ways to heal myself in the corporate world, and I've found that kindness is the best way," said Annam Sreenivasan, Quality Assurance Engineer, Axelerant. And she is not the only one. Almost everyone I interviewed — inside and outside Axelerant — rated its importance as a company value 10 out of 10. "Each act of kindness is changing the way we see ourselves and others. We also find ourselves feeling more appreciative and optimistic," Annam expressed how practicing kindness within the company has affected her experience.
Maybe, It Does Work After All
She is not alone in experiencing positive changes in life due to practicing kindness as a value within the company. Brahmpreet Singh, Marketing Program Lead, Axelerant, joined the company earlier in 2021. Like many, it was uncommon for him to publicly recognize others for their efforts - no matter how big or small.
After a bit of encouragement from his performance coach, Brahmpreet gradually developed the habit of recognizing people's efforts publicly, which had an unexpected effect on his personal life.
He started to feel more grateful for numerous little things at his home. For instance, Brahmpreet realized that he had never directly expressed his gratitude to his mother or wife for cooking good food for the family every day. "I opened a WhatsApp channel for my family, and I told them on every Sunday we will recognize each other for at least one thing," said Brahmpreet.
Harvard Agrees With Us
According to the Harvard Business Review article, giving compliments can make us even happier than receiving them. When kindness is practiced actively in the workplace through the way people behave, the way the company sees and deals with its people, it creates a tremendous positive impact.
But does it mean that Axelerant is perfect when it comes to practicing kindness in the workplace?
Not really. Values are not quantifiable and cannot be measured arithmetically. Being kind is a continuous practice; it's like a religion in itself. One can only strive to be kinder than yesterday.
After talking with team members, I realized that the 'striving' to care, look after each other, and be there is ever-present in each team member at Axelerant.