How is Holmusk's culture produced, maintained, and transformed?

Po Yee Ooi
December 18, 2020


An organisation’s culture consists of the human interactions within it; the make-up of its people, the diversity of ideas, the friendliness of colleagues and the interactions between the office’s policies and the people who use them. How are these carried out in the best (and only) product team? How is the office culture here created, maintained and transformed? I interviewed Subra (Chief Technology Officer), Oishik (Software Engineer), Gracia (Associate Product Manager) and Jolanda (Software Engineer) to find out.

Act I: Making culture out of nothing at all

How do you create culture?

It is not straightforward, and certainly “not something you have control over”, says Subra, who has been with Holmusk since 2015. Workplace culture is organic, and a function of the type of people hired into the company. Just like the personalities of the employees and co-workers, the personality of the company is not something that can be changed easily. Thus, I think the key in creating a good workplace culture lies in the very first step: hiring the right people.

The right person at Holmusk is both work-oriented and people-oriented, and neither quality is solely sufficient. Employees have to care about the work they do while having camaraderie with the rest of the team. The hiring team “wasn’t interested in the best programmers or people who could write an app in a day, but people who can deliver a product together as a team”, adds Oishik, who has worked with Holmusk since starting here as an intern in 2019. Having people who can work well together and be friends makes life easier and work more productive and enjoyable. This is especially true in the case of meetings, which often take up a significant proportion of one’s working hours, making it a draining task. Having meetings with people you enjoy being around can therefore have a big positive impact on the enjoyability of the work overall.

How do you hire the right people?

It appears that the key to finding out if someone is the right fit lies in this sifting tray called the team lunch. This team lunch, which introduces the new candidate to 4-5 other representatives from various teams (e.g. UX, Software, Product, etc.) over a casual meal, happens during the hiring process to understand if the applicant fits well with the rest of the existing team. “When a new person joins, it is important for us to meet them physically, to understand what they want to learn and experience,” says Gracia, who has worked with Holmusk since 2018.

Does moving everything online change this?

The pandemic has caused the Singapore government to place strict restrictions on group gatherings. Therefore, team lunches are now being held online. In a teleconference setting, Gracia believes it will be harder to understand her counterparts as well; “due to the limitation of physical interactions, we have to come up with creative ways to engage with our colleagues more effectively.” This sentiment is shared by Subra and Oishik too. Subra added that it used to be a purely social interaction, but now it slightly resembles a second interview. “It is definitely harder to do online”, Oishik recognises. Some of the drawbacks include missing out on visual cues and body language, “but it’s better than nothing, and is a good approximation.” It isn’t ideal, but it will do for now.

Act II: Maintaining what’s good

Caring about the environment

“The environment has to be conducive”, Subra believes, for the great team of people picked during the hiring process to be able to thrive. The slate of activities and structure of work serves not to create passionate and driven people from scratch, but to maximise the potential the team already possesses.

One way of highlighting individual potential is by involving everyone, regardless of position, in the meeting process and making sure everyone’s opinion is heard and sincerely considered. This ensures that every member has a role to play and is an important part of the team. This team dynamic is further enhanced through social activities conducted regularly. One good example of this is the weekly sharing activity during the Product Team Huddle, where randomly selected members share photos or music that represent them and their location well. This is a great way to get to know others beyond the work setting, and showcases the landscapes behind the Team members that are scattered across the globe.

Maintaining this conducive environment has however proven to be challenging in light of social distancing measures as face-to-face interactions are moved online. One has to “be intentional to build interpersonal relationships,” observes Jolanda, a Software Engineer at Holmusk since 2018 “as you lose the chance interactions and the lunches together”. Communications have to be intentional as they now have to be scheduled into your calendar, instead of being spontaneous and carefree. Oishik thinks so as well, as communications are now “more formal” as time has to be set up for meetings, even for small questions, and now we are all “jumping from one meeting to another”. He credits Eileen and Gracia for putting in the effort to maintain the culture and activities that gives “more insight into peoples’ personal lives”.

Caring about friends

One weakness of the team is that “people tend to overwork, and that is not a good thing”. It is common for start-ups to be filled with passionate and motivated people, but this is often accompanied by a reluctance to take breaks. This is detrimental to both themselves and the company. “You can’t always have the car running at 150km/h. The engine will experience wear and tear faster.”

The importance of these initiatives is to help people reset and to make sure they are not going into overdrive. We force people to take the time to have some small talk, and have a break. In addition, being a relatively small group, we have the advantage of organising events pretty quickly. This getting to know others within the team with help to foster more collaborations.

Act III: Challenges and transformations

From working spaces to working times, flexibility is one of the hallmarks of working at Holmusk. Crucially, this flexibility also includes the ability to accept feedback and change.

Holmusk has a global workforce located across various timezones, and that brings 2 main difficulties. One of the challenges which has to be tackled is the ability to communicate during that short window of overlapping time. The other challenge concerns removing the separation between the Singapore and overseas teams.

Since the majority of Holmusk’s employees are based in Singapore, there is a physical office here. Prior to the spread of Covid-19, the Singapore team used to be in a physical meeting space, while colleagues from other locations joined via teleconference. There might be feelings of being distanced, which leads to lowered participation from the overseas teams. Hence, we have to “keep on finding ways to make communication asynchronous”, says Subra, and implement offsite virtual meetings too.

Challenges also abound in finding new ways for the team to know each other personally. The methods mentioned above will still struggle to keep up with the rapidly expanding team. “The culture has not gotten better or worse, but it has changed,” adds Subra. The makeup of the people at the best product team has come a long way since its creation. Finally, Oishik concludes that the teams now are a lot more specialised and larger. Although this means there will be more intra-team bonding and less inter-team bonding, “it reflects growth, and that’s a good thing.”

Concluding thoughts

A office’s culture is thus largely a result of the people selected into the team, and this requires a good way to choose people who are a good fit. A casual setting that allows a potential employee to socialise with other team members helps to evaluate if the group’s personalities are compatible. Secondly, having a lively atmosphere helps to promote the enjoyability of one’s work, and increases each individual’s productivity too. This friendliness is usually maintained through casual interactions at the office but under recent circumstances, more effort has to be made to carve out time to catch up outside of work. Examples of this include having bonding activities to help the team get to know new employees better and more personally. Lastly, feedback is regularly collected and sincerely considered in an attempt to reinforce everyone’s place in the team. Having a significant number of employees based overseas while having a majority of employees in Singapore can prove to be a challenge. The overlap between various time zones can be small, and having in-person meetings for Singapore employees and online meetings for overseas employees can risk developing feelings of distance. Thus, continuous improvements have to be considered constantly to keep the team in good shape.

As an intern, I am truly impressed at the amazing dynamic being built in this team. Throughout my journey here writing documentations for FoodDX and NeuroBlu, everyone I have encountered has been engaging and willing to help at every turn, often giving more than their 100%. All companies around the world are experiencing the same talent crunch, because it is very difficult to find the right balance between a technically competent worker and a well-rounded team player. Yet, somehow, Holmusk manages to do it again and again. This has taught me the importance of bringing the right people together, and the experience of being embedded in the Best Product Team (ever!) is the one thing I will take away once my internship draws to a close.