GreyOrange founder Akash Gupta
GreyOrange founder Akash Gupta

Where walls hold the key to success

From surfaces you can write on to a war room and a lounge, ‘hard’ tangibles combine with ‘soft’ intangibles to form the space where GreyOrange founder Akash Gupta works

It takes only one look at the white-walled cabin I’m in to figure out that this is a tech startup. The room is full of writable surfaces—from walls to desks, with complex formulae, diagrams and lists scribbled everywhere. There are two conventional desks but they look decidedly underutilized.

This is the Gurugram office of Akash Gupta, co-founder and chief technology officer of GreyOrange, a robotics and artificial intelligence-based warehousing automation startup. It is one of India’s few hardware-led tech startups to expand globally.

Gupta, 30, shares the space with co-founder and long-time colleague Samay Kohli, the company’s chief executive officer, who is based in the US and travels regularly to India.

“We are super favourable of everything writable because you need to write to discuss and brainstorm, so anything and everything that you see here is pretty much writable," says Gupta.

Apart from a collection of coins from around the world, the 240sq.ft cabin has practically no notable personal items.

The work-room effect

Like many young business leaders, Gupta spends as much time outside his office as in it, if not more. The second work environment that Gupta frequents is equally emblematic of the startup culture: the war room.

Clad with wall-to-ceiling writable surfaces, the war room is one of two purpose-built rooms for group work, particularly product development, where different teams map out a product’s development journey in detail.

“Product team, engineering teams, manufacturing teams, operations teams, everyone comes up with their Post-its and timelines." He points to a series of squiggles and lines on a whiteboard: “For example, this is how it (the new product) starts in March and then it keeps moving until next February, this is how it’s going to get delivered."

He explains, “The central programme manager will start binding it together, saying, no, this thing should be shifted, so you have to negotiate the timeline. It’s a three-to-four-day exercise when you start planning a newer version of your product. Many times it’s a product being developed across geographies so there is a large Zoom room lens here," says Gupta, who is responsible for new product development projects.

Finally, the third environment that Gupta frequents speaks for itself: the sleeping lounge. The dark room is filled with bunk beds, and some employees.

“I usually work from 9am to 11pm, and definitely use the sleeping room for a 30-minute power nap. In the night, you will see this at least half full. People who are working late can take a nap and come back to work. We don’t have fixed office hours. It is all goal-oriented. There are people who are night lovers, who would come at 12 and go at 10, and people who are morning lovers who come at 7," Gupta says.

The workplace also has a long central spine of meeting rooms, running along the length of the office, where Gupta spends much of his time.

Finally, there are R&D labs and customer experience zones, among several tech facilities that the startup has around the world.

WRITING SUCCESS

Put together, the work spaces underline vital reasons for GreyOrange’s achievements. Just as GreyOrange’s robots successfully blend hardware engineering with software intelligence, Gupta’s three preferred work environments illustrate how blending “hard" tangibles in the workplace with “soft" intangibles, such as ways of working, can result in corporate success. Together, they tell us how Gupta sees his contribution.

Let’s start with the writable surfaces in Gupta’s office. They demonstrate the bias for action—the need for urgency, to ideate, innovate, take decisions and move forward. Gupta considers this a key aspect of his role.

“Given the kind of work we do, we fail every day, we succeed every day. You make 20 decisions in a day, four will be good, seven will be okay, 10 will be bad. It’s not about making good or bad decisions, it’s about working with honesty. You don’t have a lot of data, so it’s also about making a decision today, because tomorrow I am not going to get any more information."

Next, the war room. It captures how end-to-end collaboration is critical to the startup, a point Gupta repeatedly emphasizes. “Let’s say, if a mechanical engineer gets a very good design, he thinks that he has given a best design. But if it takes 20 hours to manufacture and 10 hours to service, no matter how good a design it is, it’s not a great product. So there is a lot of difference between you individually giving something which is amazing versus you building a product," he says. “You need understanding and empathy for the complete life cycle of the product."

The startup also ensures that cross-functional teams are co-located to facilitate greater collaboration.

Then, the sleeping lounge. It is part of a larger goal to deliver “a more enabling workplace, rather than a constraining workplace. It should never be that, ‘Oh I want to contribute to the product or the company but I am unable to because of those constraints’," says Gupta. For example, a barber shop and a kirana store also operate with specific timings in the office for employees’ convenience.

By blending “tangible" workplace assets with “intangible" ways of working, Gupta is creating a unique ecosystem designed for innovation.

“For companies like us, people are going to be your biggest asset and if you are not able to give them right environment to think, test, develop then there is no point, you pretty much are wasting your biggest asset. What we are trying to build is complex software plus hardware products. How do you understand a complete system and build solutions and solve problems? I think it’s a mixture of a hardcore hardware company in Boston and a cool software company in Silicon Valley. It has to be an amalgamation of that because you are building those kinds of products," he says.

Creating the right culture across regions is something he’s working on. “I am still getting my head around how do you make that good composite culture while preserving the nuances of each region. I think it’s a fairly hard thing to do. When you are just six-seven years old as a company, your processes are not that mature, so many decisions are still pegged down to culture. If you don’t have written rules, then it’s all about your philosophies, your culture." Just another example of the power of knitting tangibles with intangibles to create value.

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

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