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Hustle is Overrated: Fostering Work-Life Balance in Tech at PhonePe

PhonePe Editor|4 min read|31 August, 2022

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“The weekends are stubbornly and sacredly for home and family” — Sameer Nigam, Founder & CEO

Engineering for start-ups is serious business — and it’s often pictured as even more gruelling and demanding in the Indian start-up ecosystem. A lot of high paced start-ups, especially the ones up against significant market competition in the early stages, find themselves romanticizing late night code sprints, six day work weeks and tight delivery deadlines. As long as the numbers show, it’s just good business right? Well, not if you’re looking to build products that stand the test of time! PhonePe, with its 400 million registered users and a 45+ % UPI market share, is a story of phenomenal growth in a short period of time. But, it is also a story of patient leadership and a conscious effort to protect work-life boundaries. It is a story of not just rejecting the hustle culture, but an initiative to foster a work ethic that creates more value for employees.

Here, we take a look at how the engineering teams at PhonePe function to sustain work-life balance in the face of business pressure, market expectations and the ever-changing fintech landscape.

Building a Trust-Based High Ownership Work Environment

Santanu Sinha, Head of Engineering and the lead architect for core platforms at Phonepe, believes in trusting his team to work in a way that’s best for them and best for the organization. He trusts them to do the right thing, and this manifests in different ways. For some of his team it translates into the flexibility in choosing to not commute to office on some days and using those hours to code from home, while for some it is choosing work hours which may be different from the rest of the team. In fact, the team follows a hybrid working model where the planned days in office are high on product discussions, solutioning meetings — and most importantly team-bonding and work lunches. He feels that building good products requires the right mental space and his engineers need to be able to find that, be it in office or at home.

According to him, anything that cannot be completed in the work week and spills over weekends is a sign of poor planning and execution. The engineering philosophy here is to prioritize scale over new features — ensuring that core platforms remain robust. This distills down to a coherent set of goals across the tech team, inspiring transparency and smoother execution. There is absolutely no expectation to log in post work hours or share updates on weekends. On holidays, when the on-call support is available for critical systems, the teams do so on a rotation basis and even then there’s a primary and a secondary on-call engineer with full flexibility to figure things out as per their comfort.The idea is that every individual stands behind their work and completely owns it, and will do it best to their capacity.

He also says that it’s important to ensure that this culture permeates across levels and the outlook remains the same for junior engineers. If he sees any deviation in his or any other department, he strongly pushes for change.

Do Less but Do it Well: Practices that Promote Work-Life Balance

Many proponents of the hustle culture portray work-life balance as this utopian dream that just doesn’t exist in real-life high pressure settings. We are fortunate to be an example that it may take hard work, but it’s not impossible to create healthy work boundaries and disrupt the market, simultaneously. Pooja Gulrajani, Head of Engineering, shares some of the best practices that ensure her team lives well-rounded lives without work pressure seeping into their personal time.

Firstly, she believes that good work culture flows from the top and in her experience of working here, the management pushes for prioritizing and serializing projects. This helps in keeping a clear view of what and how much needs to be accomplished in a quarter, a month, etc. Unlike some of her previous workplaces, the targets here are not shifting goal posts, and there is no expectation to ‘check everything off a wishlist’. Healthy work boundaries are not only respected right at the top, but fiercely protected. This empowers engineering managers to build the right mechanisms and processes for their teams.

Secondly, personal leaves, holidays, festivals etc. are not an after-thought at PhonePe. These leaves are non-negotiable and a consistent effort is made to ensure that personal time-off remains just that — time off! She says it’s critical for engineering managers to have a clear understanding of what they can deliver with the team size they have. While drawing up execution plans, these factors need to be accounted for before any timelines are decided.

Moreover, as PhonePe grows at a super-charged pace, there is an influx of freshers and younger engineers who may inadvertently drop updates on group chats post work, approach seniors for query-resolution on weekends — or even come with an expectation that such activities will be viewed as metrics for good performance. Pooja says that it’s important to help these folks unlearn such behaviour and explain to them that while these habits may seem inconsequential at the moment, over time this will lead to burnout for them as well as the rest of the team. More importantly, this kind of behaviour harms the tech industry on the whole as expectations become skewed.

Celebrating an Equal Investment in Life Outside Work

Kanika Khetawat, a Software Development Engineer, works on some of the most complex payment systems here. But that is only one part of her identity — she regularly plays badminton and tries out new sports for fun. She also finished her post graduation while working at PhonePe. Speaking about her experience she says that during that year, her team members and manager were especially supportive and she was encouraged to do her best in this endeavour. In fact, she knows of so many colleagues who have been able to complete their higher education while working at PhonePe. She remembers that beyond being supportive, people were enthusiastic and work hours or personal days have never held her back — at work or outside. She experienced similar encouragement when she took up volunteer work at an NGO a year later. There are countless stories of PhonePe-rs excelling at dance, music, football and more because they have the time to do it!

Rahul Chari, Founder & CTO, is a strong proponent of building platforms with a long term view of scale and continuous value creation. He believes that positive disruption at scale can only be achieved through the power of technology, and a huge part of building such platforms are engineers who are well-rounded individuals. In that case, a view that start-ups should work relentlessly all the time does more harm than good in the long run.The fact that we have been able to achieve the scale of hundreds of millions of users in a short period of time while following a sustainable model of engineering shows that work-life balance is not a modern myth. Fostering this culture as we grow further is something that is very important to us.

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