On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 health crisis a pandemic. Meanwhile, in India, a country of over 1.3 billion people, active cases were just beginning to creep toward 100. With a low caseload and a lack of information about the novelty and severity of the disease, the government’s response was dawdling, and few businesses were implementing precautionary measures.
Freshworks, a B2B SaaS company that provides customer engagement solutions, had been on edge since earlier in the year, when reports began to emerge about the virus spreading in Southeast Asia, and the WHO’s announcement sent them into action. The company told its employees they could return to their hometowns and villages, and workers traveling in other parts of Southeast Asia and Europe were immediately brought home. Forty-eight hours later, Freshworks had distributed over 2,000 4G internet dongles to its staff.
Founded in the southern Indian city of Chennai in 2010, the company launched the popular customer support software Freshdesk, then diversified a few years later with its sales product Freshsales, its marketing offering Freshmarketer, and a suite of supportive solutions, including Freshcaller and Freshchat, that enable businesses to talk to or learn about their customers. The company opened 12 offices around the globe to keep pace with its growth, but kept the heart of its operations in Chennai.
A coastal city, Chennai regularly experiences severe weather: extreme heat in the summer, torrential rain during monsoons, and ferocious cyclones. In 2016, Cyclone Vardah caused 38 deaths and such widespread destruction—estimates put the damage at $3.35 billion USD—that the city ground to a halt for days afterward. With no transportation available, Freshworks employees were stranded throughout the city, the office was largely unoccupied, and work slowed.
If resilience is the ability not just to withstand but to sustainably adapt to unexpected events, it’s a fundamental quality for any company wishing to thrive in the long term.
For the company, Cyclone Vardah’s aftermath was a time for preparation. Freshworks bolstered its business continuity plan, which encompasses protocols for workforce diversification and cloud backups, with measures to help prepare for an event, however unlikely, that would require its employees to work remotely en masse again. It established a network operations center in the city of Bengaluru and allocated laptops to all employees as a fallback, even if their work primarily required specialized desktop machines.
If resilience is the ability not just to withstand but to sustainably adapt to unexpected events, it’s a fundamental quality for any company wishing to thrive in the long term. Freshworks’ business continuity protocol, modified from the events of 2016, enabled the company to respond swiftly to the pandemic in 2020.
By the time India announced its nationwide lockdown on March 23, Freshworks was already entirely remote.
The transition to remote work came at a tricky time for Freshworks. The company was three months into ideation for its most ambitious project to date, Freshworks CRM. Just as teams were ready to rev up engineering work, their employees dispersed, several of them to villages and towns across southern India. While the company had equipped its staff with 4G dongles to ensure access to high-speed internet regardless of location, uneven signal coverage and power cuts made working remotely from these areas a difficult proposition.
Freshworks CRM was to be, as CEO Girish Mathrubootham describes it, the company’s “iPhone moment.” Freshsales, Freshmarketer, Freshcaller, and Freshchat would be unified into a single platform with an underlying AI engine. The platform would give businesses a holistic view of their customers, from their first contact with marketing materials through to sales and resales. The company validated the concept for Freshworks CRM and detailed a seven-month production plan, with launch slated for October 2020.
Now those plans were put on hold as the company and its employees adapted to a new way of working. The first couple of months were to “settle in, to be able to work from home,” says Srivatsan Venkatesan, Freshworks’ VP of product management. “We didn’t want to assume anybody’s situation. Nobody has gone through this before.”
The company’s HR division made provisions for people to purchase whatever they needed to work effectively, no matter how unique their requirements. One engineer, finding their dongle heated up excessively, had to operate a fan just to keep it from shutting off the internet connection for the day.
If equipping the team with technology was essential, so was equipping managers with the tools to lead their newly remote teams with empathy and trust. In office environments, “attendance is a proxy for performance,” says Janani Dwarakanath, director of product marketing for Freshworks CRM. Now, the company had to set more intentional metrics for performance. “Trusting an employee, giving her the flexibility to do things at her pace [while knowing] that there are check-ins and that [she is] part of a larger goal,” Dwarakanath says, helped the team stay on target. Managers were encouraged to maintain a cadence of check-ins with their teams and create space for team members to share if they were struggling with situations at work or at home.
Using Confluence and the company’s own project management tool, Freshrelease, employees had a transparent view of the goals and progress of each team working on Freshworks CRM. If an employee was struggling, their team extended its capabilities to cover their work until they could contribute fully again. “If you’re working in part of the squad, even if you’re falling back, there are people who will pitch in to make sure that nobody gets in the red,” Dwarakanath says.
Expectation management—knowing work was not going to progress linearly every day and that ups and downs were inevitable—was key to progressing sustainably. “We were looking at the final [vision], and we were flexible on day-to-day execution,” Venkatesan says. Expectation management stretched to product and engineering decisions as well. “We also went in and revisited our goals. We [asked], ‘Is this absolutely required for us given the situation?’” he says. Product features were reviewed with the intent of optimizing them for ease of execution—a priority brought on by the pandemic.
Among Freshworks CRM’s planned features were forecasting and contact scoring. Using its AI engine, Freshworks CRM would assign a score to a business’s potential customers based on their propensity to buy. This score would ideally be calculated to near-perfect accuracy from around 15 signals gathered from the customers’ behavior across company marketing and sales campaigns.
“We analyzed the data sources,” Venkatesan says, and came to understand that just five to six sources out of the 15, including emails and interactions with salespeople, “contributed to 80 percent of the signals, which could drive for high accuracy.” The circumstances of this new working environment drove the company to pare those 15 signals down to just the most effective ones. “The moment you say 80 percent of the outcome is desired, [with contributions from] five teams instead of 15 teams, that involves less integration, less system testing, less everything. So it directly translates to actual work items.”
Venkatesan calls this sort of optimization the 80-20 rule: By aiming for the “must haves” that satisfy 80 percent of the use cases and seeing the remaining 20 percent as a “nice to have” feature set for a subsequent release, work became more manageable given the unusual circumstances and limited time frame.
Infrastructure designed to enable intentional communication between teams also helped keep the project moving. During the early months of the pandemic, Freshworks decided to dedicate an entire function to communication: Program managers were explicitly tasked with ensuring information flowed smoothly between teams and that everyone was on the same page. Even when team members were in compatible time zones, Zoom meetings were recorded and minutes drawn, with action items highlighted and shared to accommodate the tricky work-life balancing act employees were undertaking and the periodic unreliability of internet connections.
Social structures also evolved to allow more time and space for employee wellness. Mental health campaigns, workplace groups, and counseling options contributed to more sustainable work practices as the pandemic stretched out. “We made sure that anybody who worked on the project, if they’re facing burnout or stress, can reach out to their managers or teammates,” says Dwarakanath, who’s also helping shape the company’s wellness efforts. Investing in a social infrastructure in which employees regularly check in with each other, celebrate together, and feel comfortable asking for help when needed helped build team spirit.
Like the company itself, employees embodied the notion of resilience as adaptability across a range of socioeconomic and family conditions. One engineer, working in a remote village where summer temperatures regularly surpassed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, climbed to their terrace in the early morning hours to catch an internet signal and commit code. Another manager, balancing work and childcare from home, found that working in view of her family changed their perspective of her. If before her work was an unknown—in her in-laws’ eyes, just an impediment to spending more time at home—they now see her as a capable worker and manager, and they’re amending their family structure to accommodate her work.
In October 2020, Freshworks released Freshworks CRM, meeting its pre-pandemic deadline. By making thoughtful investments in its social and communications infrastructure to account for varied circumstances and challenges in employees’ daily lives, the company managed to adapt to a global pandemic while achieving its long-term goal.
Freshworks’ experience serves as a hopeful example: If change is a given, businesses that can demonstrate resilience as adaptability are better positioned to survive and flourish in the face of it.