He was sitting with his laptop in Smith’s office. Smith walked in and Atal began to say “Brad, let me start with this….” And Smith said, shut that down. He asked Atal to stand up, gave him a hug, and said, “How are you, how is the family?” They had been on Facebook together, so Smith knew Atal’s daughter was graduating. He enquired about that. The presentation was quickly forgotten.
Atal had had a similar experience with Smith during his final interview too, before he was offered the job. What was meant to be a 30-minute interview went on for an hour-and-half. He was blown away by the warmth, the intelligence, the exchange of ideas.
“That is what the company is about. We put people first,” he says.
It is this that has enabled Intuit to be among the best places to work in the world. In India, it climbed to the No. 1 spot in 2017 in the Great Place to Work (GPTW) ranking – GPTW is a global pioneer in assessing company culture – and has been No. 2 in the past two years.
The No. 1 in these two years has been SAP. Like Atal, SAP India’s HR head Shraddhanjali Rao also boils it all down to one factor – employee-centrism. “It’s the culture of SAP, where we don’t create a policy or a process because it’s a trend currently, or is quoted as a best practice. Our entire change is employee and leader co-created, and led by them. Every single initiative that we drive is owned by the business, not by just HR or the managing director,” she says.
The SAP process is led by a group called Change Makers, consisting of about 400 employee volunteers. If any employee comes up with a workplace idea, it is taken to this group. Based on their feedback, the idea is shared with a larger audience. Parallelly, the organisation leaders are asked – do you see it creating a business impact, do you think it will build a better internal culture. “And then we combine the two and we go back to the person who raised it. We give that person a couple of other members, and this core team will develop it into an actual policy initiative or experience,” says Rao.
A successful programme created through this process was one to enable employees to do MTechs and PhDs in India’s top engineering institutions even as they continue working at SAP. It all started when an employee pointed out that since SAP’s objective was to be the most innovative place, it was important for employees to be research-focused. He said many SAP engineers were keen on higher education. He eventually got a group of people together to engage with institutes and figure out how to build a collaboration with SAP. “We went live with this policy a year-and-half ago. It was so well appreciated, but it took a lot of work – evaluating it, budgeting for it, figuring out who can use it, addressing the cumbersome processes some institutes have for working professionals,” says Rao.
SAP’s popular entrepreneurship sabbatical policy also started with an employee, who had been with the company for 10 years, saying that he wants to try entrepreneurship even though he loves this place and his wife is angry with him for wanting to move out of SAP. The sabbatical ensures that such people will be welcomed back into SAP if their project fails.
The process works exactly the same way at Intuit. It started in 2016, when Intuit was celebrating its No. 10 spot in the GPTW ranking. An engineer wondered why they weren’t at No. 1 or 2. “We didn’t have any answer,” recollects Anshuman Kumar, head of global brand & corporate communications. “We seemed to be doing everything we were supposed to do. So, that year, we opened it up to the engineers to figure out what else we could do to improve the workplace experience.”
The company sent out an email saying they are launching an ambassadors programme, and sought volunteers. As many as 140 of the then 700-800 employees responded. “We empowered them, created a leadership. And they came up with a charter on informing, engaging and inspiring employees,” Kumar says. The group also started acting on it. And the very next year, Intuit was at No. 1 on GPTW.
Among the many things the ambassadors’ programme has accomplished is creating an AC-free zone in every Intuit building for those who are unwell, still want to come to work, but are uncomfortable with the AC. The group worked with the workplace team to identify locations and get the space off the central AC system.
Kumar says the group was also singularly responsible for ensuring that during the Covid lockdown, motivation levels among employees remained extremely high. “They set up 21-day challenge to build a new habit, and asked employees to put up what they were doing on a Slack channel that they regularly use. I had started cooking and was experimenting with fusion cooking. I posted those pictures and it went like wildfire. Some took up painting, some yoga, some took story-telling classes for kids of employees. Suddenly, the lockdown became so much fun,” he says.
Intuit’s climb to become No. 1 in the ranking became the subject of a case study done by ISB, Hyderabad professors Chandrasekhar Sripada and Geetika Shah, and which was published in Harvard Business Review. In an interview to an ISB publication, Sripada said: “What caught my attention was the way Intuit focused on the importance of people in the organisation…it is amazing that a company like Intuit, with just about 1,000+ employees, managed to beat top employers such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook, to rise up out of seemingly nowhere as the number 1 Great Place to Work in India.”
In the processes adopted by SAP and Intuit, there are so many involved in the decision-making that it is never, as Rao says, an “HR policy” that is pushed down. Everyone feels a sense of participation. And rarely does someone feel he or she is not being heard.
Atal says he spoke to lots of former Intuit people before deciding to join the company. “Everybody had only good things to say,” he recollects. Today, he knows exactly why.
EMPLOYEES ARE LIKE AIR
We don’t create a policy or a process because it’s a trend currently or is quoted as a best practice. Every single policy of ours is owned by the business, not by just HR or the MD. Every change is employee and leader co-created, and led by them
Shraddhanjali Rao, Head, HR, SAP India
We have some extraordinary policies for employees – to help them focus on their work, and balance their day-to-day needs. And we have a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship that help employees in their personal & professional growth
Sindhu Gangadharan, MD, SAP Labs India
We think of our shareholders as food – it’s needed, but you can live without it for some time; our customers are like water, again a necessity, but you can live one or two days without it; our employees are like air, we live and breathe by them
Sanket Atal, MD, Intuit India
We used to be at No. 7, 8, 10 of the Great Place to Work ranking, not moving up. We couldn’t figure out why. We seemed to be doing everything we were supposed to. And then we opened it up to our engineers to figure out. And then everything changed
Anshuman Kumar, Head, Global Brand, Intuit