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Varun Khaitan of Urban Company: The hybrid leader

The co-founder of home services provider talks about growth during the pandemic and enabling employees to be more thoughtful about work

Khaitan says standing makes him more 'approachable and not intimidating'. (Pradeep Gaur)

I don’t generally think of as a filing cabinet as anything other than a storage unit, but I am mistaken. Varun Khaitan, co-founder of home services provider Urban Company (formerly known as Urban Clap) is using it as a standing desk, during our virtual meeting. He is wearing a mask, headphones and has positioned his laptop on the top of the cabinet, located in an open-plan office in Gurugram. He takes me on a tour. I notice standard startup workplace protocol: the space has few frills, with simple rows of workstations, a temporarily closed gym and some vibrant breakout areas for group discussions.

Speaking in an earnest, measured tone, Khaitan, 33, says standing makes him more “approachable and not intimidating. It just makes me feel part of the vibe. I think it helps, I do find people just randomly walking up asking things, telling things and just being a little bit more open.” He alternates between standing and working at any one of the desks in the office. “I keep changing my seat but right now I just sit right here in between these two individuals. I like to be in the thick of things,” he says, pointing to his desk.

Khaitan has adopted a hybrid workstyle in his choice of work location too. “I have started coming back to the office, but I do a weird kind of hybrid where I work from home from about 7:30am till noon, and that’s when I come to the office (about 14km from home). I like some quiet time and I like to get cracking early in the morning. So, working from home gives me that quiet, alone time for the first few hours. I do get sick of myself by noon, so coming to the office helps me get more energy and helps me do the meetings in person. I find being around my team more effective, productive and better culture building, that’s why I like the balance,” he explains.

Finding the balance

The hybrid workplace is a catchphrase, but Urban Company has gone beyond rhetoric. Employees can choose to come in or not. The office was 20% occupied when we met at the end of March. The number of employees in office since then has come down significantly owing to the recent surge in cases in April. Most people are now working from home, although the office remains open.

“Different people come in on different days. Teams will sometimes decide certain days where they want to come in together and work with each other, and then the remaining days they want to work from home. Then there are some people who are still completely work from home,” says Khaitan.

Work-from-home fatigue, especially among new joinees, prompted the company to lean towards a hybrid workplace.

“Hybrid is more complex to succeed; the two extremes are easier to implement. You’ll first have to define what is hybrid, then everyone has to get comfortable with it. It’s like everyone trying to play two sports and being good at both at the same time. So, we know it’s more complex, but that’s what we are committed towards. By and large everyone’s loving it, because everyone’s able to find their own suitable point. Everyone’s still somewhat experimenting as groups, trying to find their own mojo but I would say overall if I had to compare it to one year ago, everyone’s much happier,” he insists.

Thoughtful@work

Underpinning the perceived success of the hybrid model is a particular mindset and a specific word that Khaitan uses more than once in our conversation: thoughtful. It captures the outlook required to make this model work.

The company is experimenting with several initiatives to enable employees to be more “thoughtful about their workday, about their workweek, about boundaries and just to see a more sustainable workplace.” For example, the company has a practice of no meetings on Wednesdays. It holds “silence hours” every alternate week on all weekdays, from 9am to noon and from 5-8 pm. All meetings in the company have to be held between those times.

Meetings themselves have become more “thoughtful”. “The whole shock of WFH was long enough for us to develop some new muscles. Should a meeting happen or not, who should be present, what should be the duration, what should be the agenda, what should be the pre-prep, how should it be run? I do think overall people are more conscious about all of it. And just like any other muscle in the body, the more you exercise, the more it gets stronger. That’s why some of the other good habits, like silence hours, we have to just keep practising,” Khaitan says, who regularly meditates.

Urban Company’s popular employee stock option plan (ESOP) is another example of corporate thoughtfulness. ESOPs are really “important and powerful,” believes Khaitan. “They are offered to a large number of employees, when they join, and based on performance, they are offered to everybody. As a result, close to 800 people in Urban Company have had ESOPs, which is a pretty sizable number. I can tell you that for most people who have spent two years or more in the company and are doing well, the value of the ESOPs will be anywhere close to five to 10 times of their salary. This is just the value today, as they spend longer time and the value of ESOP grows, really it will be very, very valuable.”

Thoughtfulness appears to extend to 40,000 service partners too, from hairdressers to cleaners, beauticians and technicians. In December, the company ranked No.1 in a list of internet companies in the FairWork India Ratings 2020 report, far ahead of most of its peers. The rating was calculated based on various parameters of service work.

Impact on business

The impact on business is evident. “We recovered fully from the pandemic revenue wise, I think around August-September. And since then, we have only been growing,” he says. “We closed the month of March with close to 2x of where we were pre-covid in terms of revenue. So, sizable growth has been registered in this period.” Safety, service quality and affordability were pillars of this growth, he adds.

This outcome was not intuitive, though. The growth needed “a lot of new thinking, needed a lot of hard work and a lot of reimagination of how we do things,” says Khaitan. Faced with a complete shutdown of business, the company decided to look at the situation as an “opportunity to reimagine safe services in this new world.”

It reconfigured itself, with “new plans, new goals, a new outlook,” completely revised training protocols, and renewing investments in technology and safety equipment.

An office today can be viewed as a sanctuary from claustrophobic homes, or a source of invisible danger and uncertainty. The Urban Company workplace illustrates that keeping people at the centre of the crisis helps to resolve this dilemma.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.

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