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Indian IT campuses turn into fun zones

February 17, 2007 13:35 IST

When Pushpalee Lobo joined Infosys Bangalore in 2004, she had zero expectations about her office space. Weren't Indian offices ill-lit, ill-ventilated, dreary spaces in the main? Which is why the 78-plus acre campus, when she walked into it, was such a pleasant surprise.

Here were cheerful cafeterias and food courts, a mini golf course, swimming pool, a handful of state-of-the-art gyms, a supermarket that could put any neighbourhood store to shame, a bank that worked overtime - even a fish pond. She has been with Infosys for three years but has still to overcome her enthusiasm about the facility in which her office is housed.

Working as a senior language consultant, Lobo and her colleagues all bicycle their way around the huge campus (cars, even for the seniormost, are not allowed inside) or walk its length and breadth. The company, luckily, provides umbrellas for those who find the mild Bangalore sun too harsh for comfort.

Although there are a few golf carts on the campus, Harish Sharma, another Infoscion who joined the company straight out of college, says, "The architecture here is synonymous with any sci-fi extravaganza." A regular on the Infosys cricket grounds, maintained at an international standard, Sharma can often be found gazing into the depths of the fish pond.

Lobo, meanwhile, has already planned out her post-office summer exercise routine: "I intend to utilise the swimming pool." Having the luxury of a supermarket on the campus helps employees avoid the hassle of having to rush to the stores for their daily grocery needs. Other colleagues are regulars at the campus bookstore, and the gymnasiums.

A walk through tree-lined pathways and neatly mowed lawns present a near-surreal atmosphere in a city like Bangalore, which has hardly any green cover. Amidst a modern architecture, stands tall a drab, red-brick building that housed its first ever corporate headquarters in 1994. Renamed as the Heritage building, it is the place where Narayan Murthy operates from.

It's easy to be lulled into thinking that the picture-pretty campus is a casual place. Infosys - or any other IT facility in India for that matter - tends to be extremely security conscious. "The rules are not bent for anyone," insists Bikramjit Maitra, vice president & head (HR), Infosys.

With several of the buildings such as those that house infrastructure management services out of bounds for employees, handprint readers have been installed to prevent non-authorised personnel from accessing security zones. On the request of its global clients, Infosys has installed close circuit cameras (in specific areas) to monitor employee movements.

Even employees bringing any external electronic devices into the campus are required to register and sign them in. "If in spite of this, someone manages to get in a laptop or a USB device, we have the requisite firewalls and a controlled IT infrastructure that disables the use of unregistered gadgets," Maitra claims.

Another noticeable feature at Infosys is a grove of saplings that symbolises Infosys' importance in the global IT world. Each visiting VIP to the campus plants a tree here, and neat little signs read like a Who's Who of leaders from around the world. No wonder Nandan M Nilekani, president, chief operating officer and managing director of Infosys, likes to remind Infoscions that the campus is part of the world map.

Though a workplace alone may not be the deciding criteria for youngsters before they join a company, it's clear that the ambience is appreciated. For young engineers like Lobo and Sharma, lunch time is spent lounging at the open-air food courts (there's even Domino's Pizza), while loudspeakers at the nearby outdoor amphitheatre blast the latest R&B rock songs. An eagerly awaited event on weekends is the regular spate of parties with the in-house rock band, the Chameleons.

Maitra feels that creating an ideal haven right in the centre of electronics city Bangalore has been "an important way to win the loyalty of young Infoscions. Our employees are globally mobile and in demand all over the world, and we want to make Infosys the most desirable place for people to work."

Eccentricity apparently is not the sole province of absent-minded academicians anymore. A touch of the absurd helped WNS regenerate a dreary workplace into one where employees come in early, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and leave way after hours, having spent time socialising on campus. "It is out-of-the-box thinking that works the best for youngsters," opines Aniruddha Limaye, chief people officer (corporate HR) at WNS.

Although tucked away on the outskirts of Mumbai, WNS has managed to create a Riverdale-like atmosphere within a traditional office set up. Office lobbies do not have staid posters on the company's core values but are adorned instead with posters with the tagline "we nurture specialists". The ambience might well be out of a candyfloss Karan Johar movie, with lockers in the corridors, a semi-casual office crowd, and with cheery high fives being exchanged every five seconds.

WNS realised its "young brood" had quite an artistic talent. "So we created an art gallery within the premises and encouraged employees to put up their artworks for display and sale," says Limaye.

Today, the initiative has grown to include art showcases for budding artists, and WNS encourages its employees to buy art. The cafeterias are a great hangout area for most, especially since friends working with competitive outsourced accounts are not allowed to mingle on their respective work floors.

"At WNS, where the average employee age varies between 22-30 years, the work culture is crafted strictly to suit the palate. On one hand, employees are encouraged to exhibit their talent through music concerts, bowling championships, rock nights, and on the other they are trained to abide by data security policies that are associated with an outsourcing outfit," lists Limaye.

There are, in fact so many ways of innovative work practices that boost employee morale that adopting some may actually bring back the spring in people's steps. "Since we handle outsourced processes for competitive companies, we inculcate adherence to data security policies," champions Limaye. "If there are friends working on competitive brand accounts, then they cannot converse on the premises except in recreational and canteen areas, and even then they are not permitted to exchange work related issues."

For instance, employees working on the Virgin Atlantic Airways account in one part of WNS cannot gossip with friends in the British Airways section. "They are forbidden to enter the premises of a competing account. Besides security guards on every such floor, we have cameras to monitor activities and access cards to allow only authorised employees to walk through the gates," says Limaye.

Sapient, headquartered in Gurgaon, occasionally lets its collective hair down to ensure that the workplace can also be a fun place. While its campus is nothing but a contemporary building spread over 2,50,000 sq ft, Sapient does not have to strive hard to distinguish its work culture.

With no particle board cubicles separating employees within the premises, it is extremely hard to spot the boss in Sapient. The senior management can be found jostling for space right next to newer incumbents and managers. And this is the biggest kick for people like Sanjeev Mittal, manager (technology) at Sapient.

"In 2000, (when I joined Sapient) with a size of 30 people, I could walk up to my MD, sitting only a few computers away, and give him my inputs. But even with an office of over 2,000 people now, I can still walk up to the MD's desk, catch up with him over a cup of coffee and share my thoughts on improving our delivery approach."

Quiz him a little more and out comes an honest confession - "The best part about walking in the office is the subsidised Barista outlet." But a major disadvantage of an office sans cabins is the need to constantly tune out the conversations taking place around in order to concentrate on the work on hand, or locating an empty meeting room when on important calls.

Sapient's interiors are in expansive lines of whiteboard. Binoo Wadhwa, director (people strategy) is quick with an explanation, "Within Sapient, employees are required to list out their performance graphs and technical issues that need group deliberation on whiteboards, so it's all in the open."

A direct consequence of this is Babu Thiagarajan, who heads a 250-member team at Sapient, who says they "sometimes end up using the whiteboards while conversing with each other". No wonder one of the crucial training chapters at Sapient is "how to give effective feedback and using the whiteboards".

Patni Computer Systems has been bitten by the lavish campus bug. Ready with a brand new campus in Navi Mumbai spread over 50 acres on an investment of $60 million, "the architecture combines extensive lawn areas overlooking fountains and water bodies, sufficient to give anybody in Mumbai a rush of adrenaline", boasts Deepak Khosla, senior vice president (marketing), with obvious pride.

People like Sumeet Arun Nag, who joined Patni as software engineer, is one of the first to be bewitched by the ostentatious space even before the facility officially opens in April. Very similar to the Infosys campus, the new facility will also have a residential block for those who would like to shift to the campus and avoid commuting to work every day.

Nag cannot stop talking about the dormitory facilities that have been provided "in case of extra working hours during crunch situations". According to Khosla's logic, "The design of the site's network of buildings and interior spaces is based on the idea of connecting 'neighbourhoods'."

The usual array of piazzas, cafes, atria, internal glazed streets, water features, a fitness centre, swimming pool, sports ground and an international conferencing centre add a dash of chutzpah to the campus. Sachin S Patankar, senior software specialist with Patni, is smitten by the building architecture of the new office, by his own confession.

The idea to go a little bit crazy at the workplace is spreading fast. Or how else would you describe the idea of encouraging employees to play console games while at work? At Microsoft's Global Technical Support Centre in Bangalore, you will find people jostling to get into the Xbox 360 room.

Complete with a wall-to-wall plasma display and top-of-the-line sound system, Microsoft employees are free to walk in to the Xbox room at any time of the day to try out the console games at free will. Microsoft GTSC claims its employees have branded it a "destination workplace".

Raghuvesh Sarup is another person who cannot tear himself away from his office. Nokia's modest office in Gurgaon has his heart. "I have come from a work culture that consisted of stark cubicles for the higher management and tiny little cube offices for the rest of us. What I didn't expect (at Nokia) was that my boss would be sitting at a hand's distance from me and that there would be no barrier between the two of us."

Cubicles at Nokia, where Sarup works as head of product marketing, are unheard of, and top-level management is not treated any differently from the rest. Meeting rooms use recliners instead of leather backed chairs, so even high-stress meetings are conducted in an informal atmosphere. The bottomline for Sarup that he has never been called on a Sunday morning for work, and is free to "play" mobile games in office, is good enough to turn him into a Nokia loyalist.

Making the office a fun place to work in is predictably the best thing to boost morale and productivity. But it is being mildly eccentric that keeps employees guessing about the next "stunt" the company will pull to keep their interest alive. Technology may create the base structure for their working needs, but a zany work ecosystem - now who can beat that?   

Common threads

  • Long stretches of dark corridor and closed doors have given way to seamless office spaces.
  • Starched collars in a formal meeting room have been replaced by cool lounge areas where project teams brainstorm and pin up ideas, and not necessarily in formal attire.
  • Cramped reception areas are history. The ideal shop window for potential employees visiting the organisation for the first time is a relaxed but confident and vibrant look.
  • The ubiquitous canteen rooms have metamorphosed into coffee bars, fast food counters, and branded eateries
  • Every company boasts of a quirky recreational area, be it in the form of an ayurvedic massage corner, a yoga centre or a spa, or maybe a console game arena...
Priyanka Joshi in New Delhi