One of my earliest memories of working as a content marketer at Axelerant is of being gently corrected for having used the word “employees” to refer to our team in a piece of writing I just had shared for review.
The person correcting me was our People Operations Manager, Parth Gohil.
“We say ‘team members,’ not ‘employees,’” he said—pointing out to me the implicit hypocrisy in claiming to being a people-first company while referring to individuals by a term that invokes only their contractual obligation to the company, and nothing else. Nothing at all about the blood, sweat and tears they pour into it, or about how each individual is constantly stretching themselves in new directions in order to learn how to get things done better, faster.
At the other end of the line, I blinked, and nodded slowly in agreement, realizing both how important vocabulary is in establishing and even determining our shared attitudes towards things, as well as how seriously Axelerant takes this process of defining and adhering to its beliefs.
Since then, I’ve seen multiple instances of people being respectfully but openly challenged when they use the word “resource” to refer to an individual in the team. “Our people are not resources,” we are told, again and again, by junior and senior team members alike. We tell our clients too.
On the surface, this may seem like a small thing. But it matters deeply in determining the kind of fabric that makes up an organization.
As a remote team, one of the questions we’re asked most often is: “But how does it all work?”
Most people we speak to are amazed by the fact that we work remotely, and have been working this way for so long. In response to their questions, there’s a lot we can say about effective processes, the marvels of technology, the importance of communication, etc.
And we need all of that. We rely on these things every day.
But the core of the answer is something else. The key thing that helps us hold it all together isn’t process or technology or a tool at all. It’s this:
We make as much room as possible for freedom.
People are not machines to be used and then discarded as needed.
The assembly line model might have worked once when the manufacturing industry dominated the economy, but it doesn’t work in the modern knowledge economy, where people are expected to come up with creative solutions to challenging problems. There are so many variables involved in completing any single task for the average knowledge worker that the question of how to measure productivity is a constantly evolving and increasingly complex one.
Where we can begin, though, is with recognizing that each individual in any team has a unique set of needs, wants, motivations and challenges. And that the most effective workplace is one that tries its best to accommodate all of these different facets, instead of trying to whitewash away half of what makes us individuals.
Everything we do at Axelerant—our processes, our communication systems, the vocabulary we use, the kind of initiatives we take up—is driven by this central understanding.
This demands a huge shift in mindset.
It also calls for a phenomenal amount of trust from people at every level of the organization. But when it’s done right, the effect of it is visible across multiple dimensions.
For us, it shows in the fact that in our own ways, we’re all constantly striving to build great things, that our team members are creatively engaged in making impactful changes, that we all want to give and receive knowledge freely, and that we genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
Over time, we’ve evolved our processes and structures to be where they are today. We’ll never be done improving—so long as we exist, we’ll continue to learn new things about how best to structure an organization and adapt our findings into our workplace culture. But here’s a look at where we’re standing today.
This is how we operate on a day-to-day basis.
Being a distributed team, we use all available channels to ensure timely, open communication across time zones.
Slack is our home base, our primary means of communication. It’s what we use to aggregate all information around people’s availability and project updates, so that work continues to happen asynchronously.
Over the years, we’ve set up our Slack to be the most well-organized and efficient it can possibly be, with documented best practices around communicating via Slack.
For team meetings and in-depth discussions, we use Zoom Cloud Meetings (we also use this to hang out and have fun once in a while).
We use email primarily for exchanges with people outside the organization.
For project work, we use a number of collaboration tools.
Our project teams work using multiple tools, with Slack acting as the information center.
All the automations that we've integrated pull feeds into dedicated Slack channels every day. This helps keep everyone on the same page about what's happening on the project. Project channels are open to all involved in the project, integrating feeds from Jira, GitLab and Jenkins (if set up), along with stand-up bots and stand-up meetings notes.
We use AskNicely to capture Net Promoter Score (NPS) data from our customers. All feedback from customers, whether good or bad, is shared unfiltered with our team via a public Slack channel. Further, team members’ KPIs are tied to these scores.
People need regular opportunities to learn and grow.
We understand the importance of providing our team members with the right training and growth opportunities. That’s why, apart from having a clearly defined career ladder for each individual, we offer multiple avenues to keep them advancing in their careers.
Key performance indicators (KPIs) and objectives and key results (OKRs) keep us all in alignment and define directions along which our team members can grow. We’ve also established a peer mentorship system through which team members can seek and offer mentoring on technical as well as non-technical skills like leadership, project management, etc.
We also sponsor certifications and training programs for our team members, and offer a continuing education allowance, so that they can get access to books, courses, and other materials to help them advance in their careers.
We conduct regular webinars and show and tell sessions showcasing what teams and individuals have been working on in recent weeks. This helps others to also benefit from the experience they’ve gained.
Apart from that, we have a life coach on board our team who is available to help individuals resolve any challenges that come up.
We encourage our team members to attend local and international events, and share and participate in the community. Event attendance and travel are sponsored for those whose sessions are selected at relevant industry events.
We try to make sure our team is highly engaged and connected.
In a distributed team environment, it can be easy for individuals to feel invisible if team members do not make an active effort to recognize the great work they do. We use 7geese’s recognition feature to make sure that we acknowledge our team members’ effort and support. These are aligned with our core values: Enthusiasm, Kindness, and Openness.
Recognitions this year so far:
Last Quarter (April-July):
Top 3 Recognized People:
Sreenivasan (113), Mridulla (63), Shweta (61)
Slack isn’t just something we use to communicate about work—it also helps us replicate certain spontaneous activities found at co-located workplaces. For example, team calendar integrations help keep us all in the loop about team members’ birthdays and work anniversaries.
Having a lot of dedicated channels on different topics also helps keep the conversation going. While #general is our channel for watercooler conversations, we also have #humour, and a large number of #guild channels like #guild-cafe-literati, #guild-music, #guild-pets, etc, where people can converse on different topics of their interest and share resources, trivia, and experiences, and make new friends.
We’ve integrated Donut, a Slack bot that automatically pairs random team members to get them together for a virtual donut and coffee break every other Monday.
And we have a monthly Happy Hour on the last Friday of each month, where the whole team gets together to chat on different fun and interesting topics, conduct polls, give each other awards and relax together as a team.
We also sponsor monthly meetups for our team members in different cities, hold quarterly town halls to keep everyone updated on how we’re doing as a team, and bring everyone together for our annual retreat in Goa, India.
We want our team members to feel fully supported, so we offer a range of benefits.
For us, flexible work hours mean that our team members are able to effectively take care of other aspects of their lives as well as their work. Team members also get 35 days of leave per year along with allowances for maternity and paternity leave, and health insurance.
Axelerant sponsors one-time purchases of office equipment, so that our team members are able to set up a work environment that’s best suited to their needs. We also offer a monthly coworking allowance for those who work best in an office environment.
Online tools help us keep on top of administrative tasks as well as feedback collection.
We believe in getting ahead of problems before they have a significant impact on people’s happiness. That’s why we use Officevibe.
The tool sends out a weekly survey to all team members, asking them randomized questions along various dimensions, like personal growth, satisfaction, wellness, etc.
This lets our People Operations team know which departments are doing well and which departments are facing problems that need attention. We monitor these metrics closely and talk about them in detail in our monthly People Report.
In addition, people can write in anonymously (or otherwise) with suggestions and feedback, and these are then considered, responded to and appropriately acted on by our leaders.
The kind of people we hire is important.
Tools help facilitate work. But how effective a tool is, depends in large part on the people using it.
For a distributed team to be able to do impactful work, everyone in the team needs to be responsible, communicative, and collaborative.
That’s why our culture, practices and hiring process are closely tied in to our values, as we find that these align with the qualities that team members need to have to make them highly effective as remote workers.
We do our best, and we trust our team members to do their best too.
We’ve all heard stories about companies that allow remote work but keep a close watch on team members’ every move (either by providing company laptops that literally track their activity and restrict several activities on the device, or by installing time and activity tracking software).
We’re not like that. We believe that people are intrinsically motivated to succeed. All we need to do is simply give them the means to do so.
And the results, as we’re finding, are beyond anything we could’ve imagined.