“The weekends are stubbornly and sacredly for home and family,” says Sameer Nigam, Founder and CEO, PhonePe, which boasts 400+ million registered users and a 45+ percent UPI market share.
The story of India’s leading payments platform is one 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 its employees.
Engineering for startups is a serious business — and it’s often pictured as even more grueling and demanding in the Indian startup ecosystem. A lot of high-paced startups, especially the ones up against significant market competition in the early stages, find themselves romanticising late-night code sprints, six-day work weeks, and tight delivery deadlines. As long as the numbers show, it’s just good business – isn’t it?
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 is best for them and also best for the organisation. He trusts his team members to do the right thing, and this manifests in different ways. For some, it translates into the flexibility in choosing to not commute to the office on some days and using those hours to code from home, while for others it is choosing work hours which may be different from the rest of the team.
The team follows a hybrid working model where the planned days in office are high on product discussions, meetings, team-bonding activities, and work lunches. He feels that building good products requires the right mental space and his engineers need to be able to find that, whether in the office or at home.
For Santanu, 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 prioritise scale over new features — ensuring that core platforms remain robust. This distils down to a coherent set of goals across the tech team, inspiring transparency and smoother execution. PhonePe does not expect its employees to log in post work hours or share updates on weekends.
On holidays, shares Santanu, when the on-call support is available for critical systems, the teams do so on a rotation basis and even then there is a primary and a secondary on-call engineer with full flexibility to figure things out as per their comfort. He added that the idea at PhonePe is that every individual stands behind their work and completely owns it, and will do that to the best of their capacity.
“It is important to ensure that this culture permeates across levels and the outlook remains the same for junior engineers,” says Santanu. If he sees any deviation in his or any other department, he strongly pushes for change.
Practices that promote work-life balance
Many proponents of the hustle culture portray work-life balance as a utopian dream, especially in 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,” says Pooja Gulrajani, Head of Engineering, PhonePe, while sharing some of the best practices that ensure her team lives well-rounded lives.
She believes good work culture flows from the top management. At PhonePe, the management team encourages employees to prioritise and serialise 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 my previous workplaces, the targets here are not shifting goal posts, and there is no expectation to ‘check everything off a wishlist’,” adds Pooja.
“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,” she says. Moreover, personal leaves, holidays, festivals etc are never an afterthought at PhonePe. These leaves are non-negotiable and a consistent effort is made to ensure that employees fully enjoy their personal time off. She said that it is 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 deciding on timelines.
Moreover, as the company grows at a massive pace, there could be 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. “But, senior members should 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,” adds Pooja.
Celebrating an equal investment in life outside work
At PhonePe, employees’ life beyond work is also highly valued. Kanika Khetawat, a Software Development Engineer at the company, not only works on some of the most complex payment systems at PhonePe but also regularly plays badminton and tries out new sports for fun. She also finished her post-graduation while working at PhonePe.
Speaking about her experience, Kanika shares how her team members and managers were especially supportive during her post-graduation period, adding that her work hours or personal days have never held her back. She experienced similar encouragement when she took up volunteer work at an NGO a year later.
Rahul Chari, Founder and CTO, PhonePe who is a strong proponent of building platforms with a long-term view of scale and continuous value creation, 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.
Revealing the secret sauce of PhonePe’s work-life balance, Rahul says, “Startups that work relentlessly all the time do 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.”