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The art of whiteboarding

Chitra Narayanan
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At Sapient, there seem to be more whiteboards than walls and people are encouraged to shout their mind.

Loud and clear: Sapient people are encouraged to put down their ideas, views and feelings on whiteboards that dominate their workspace. — Kamal Narang
Loud and clear: Sapient people are encouraged to put down their ideas, views and feelings on whiteboards that dominate their workspace. — Kamal Narang

(This is the second in a series which features different workplaces and captures their culture, the quirks and eccentricities that make different offices unique. While it will talk about office design and what makes them special, this column will also capture the spirit behind what makes these workplaces tick and hum.)

The first-time visitor to Sapient is sure to goggle at the number of whiteboards dominating its office. Many of these floor-to-ceiling whiteboards have agendas and work plans squiggled on them, beside funny faces depicting various moods — happy, sad, grim, mischievous.

“That's our mood-o-meter. Every employee draws his mood of the day on the whiteboards,” explains Neha Pathak, the peppy India PR lead for Sapient and my guide through the company's brand new office in Gurgaon. “You will often see me drawing a glamorised smiley,” she says.

Sapient started life 20 years ago as a US-based outsourcing services company founded by Jerry Greenberg and J. Stuart Moore, but today has morphed into a marketing, business and technology consulting firm with a market capitalisation of over $1.99 billion. SapientNitro, the marketing arm, contributes over 60 per cent of its total revenues; Sapient Global Markets contributes over 35 per cent; and the rest comes from Government services (basically Uncle Sam's business).

India is very important for Sapient with at least 6,000 of its 9,000-strong workforce housed here.

Raising a cheer

“When I joined the company, we spent two hours during the orientation programme learning how to whiteboard. I thought, what is this: I know how to write — why am I being coached on how to put stuff on a whiteboard,” recalls Prashant Sehgal, Manager, Technology, Global Markets, Sapient.

Six years down the line, Sehgal is a convert to Sapient's all-pervasive culture of white-boarding. He claims it is an art form and one of the reasons why Sapient ‘people' (they don't call them employees here) are so skilled at facilitating meetings.

In fact, the way Sapient runs its meetings is now part of corporate folklore, with a Yale business school case study even suggesting that the company has subtly influenced the way its clients conduct meetings.

Each morning starts with a team meeting. The meetings are moderated by rotation, with junior employees also pitchforked into the role. First, a debriefing on the activities of the previous day is conducted and everyone brought up to speed. This is followed by the agenda for the day, plan for the week, sorting out problems and then comes the mood check. The meeting moderator asks each one how their mood for the day is. If a team member's mood is down, immediately efforts are made to cheer him or her up. The meeting ends with a team cheer.

The cheer can certainly put the smile on any face. “Lets work, Let's grow, Let's rock the show,” I hear a team shouting at the top of its voice — all ‘ josh', no shy or inhibited voices here.

Each team writes its own ditty — and it can have three-four cheers, says Puja Mehra, Director, Sapient Global Markets.

“During our fun events, we organise a best team cheer competition,” says Pathak, as she leads me out of the ‘War Room' where this meeting has just taken place.

Team-building is an integral part of the Sapient work culture as people come together for projects, disband when it is completed and then coalesce into another team.

“Each time a team is formed, there are intensive team-building exercises before the members are pitchforked into the project,” says Mehra.

No personal spaces

At the Sapient office, there are no cubicles or private cabins for management — people are seated in huge halls in unending rows of desks and it is impossible to tell the hierarchy. One would be hard-pressed to spot where Karandeep Singh, the Managing Director, or any of the Vice-Presidents are seated, as they are one among the crowd.

What they have by way of enclosed spaces are plenty of War Rooms — strategy rooms that you can retire into to ideate — and even a Crime Room. This is the hiring room, named after its famous Stolen campaign (it openly talked of stealing people), where Sapient conducts interviews.

Spread over six floors (ground to fifth) in one of the towers of the snazzy new Unitech Infospace Building on the Old Delhi Gurgaon road, the Sapient office is a large, confusing labyrinth.

As Neha takes me up and down, showing me the cafeterias (one on every floor), the huddle room (this is their fun room), the medical room, the gym (only about 60 of the 600 Sapient people use the facility regularly the trainer tells me regretfully), I lose my bearings.

The global markets team has shifted in but Sapient Nitro floors are still getting ready — “That is a funkier place — it's a creative zone and they are doing it up very differently,” says Pathak.

Fun@work

By now, Anand Bhaskar, Vice-President, People Success, has joined us on the tour — rather, we have collected him from the recreation room behind the cafeteria, where he was donating blood. “This is the space where most of the ongoing CSR activities are held,” explains Neha. One day in a year, Sapient people do community work at a project of their choice. But it's their annual fundraiser — the Silent Auction — that has engaged the people most, she says. The management puts up an offer — for instance, a dance by the top team or a breakfast cooked and served by the top team — and people bid for this. “We raised Rs 15 lakh last year,” says Pathak, with the highest bids going for a chance to see top leadership dancing to Bollywood item numbers.

As I exclaim about what a maze the office is, Bhaskar grins engagingly and says, “That's why we organise a treasure hunt when we move into a new facility. It helps people get acquainted with all the nooks and corners of the building in a fun way.”

In Bangalore, for instance, he describes how the last clue of the treasure hunt was — ‘what do you do after a marriage?'

“The teams went berserk cracking that clue until somebody figured out they had to go to the reception area,” he chuckles.

Fun and games are as integral a part of the Sapient culture I learn, as is openness, which is a core value of the firm. This is not only reflected in the open plan, but also in the way it has broken down conventional hierarchical models.

Of course, in a country like India, where hierarchical models are respected, it was a challenge to introduce this concept, which is why 50 expat managers were sent here to live and demonstrate the model.

New recruits are sent to a boot camp called SapeStart and learn that they are expected to speak their mind.

Prashant Sehgal, who says he has come to Sapient after working in banks, finds this openness a liberating factor. “Everyone has a voice and everyone is heard,” he says.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated May 23, 2011)
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