2020 Unmasked — Flipkart’s storytellers tell their story

2020 has been a year of living dangerously, and miraculously. The Flipkart Stories team, which tapped into a different mojo while working remotely, gets candid about what it took to stay sane, focused, and productive in the year of the coronavirus

Flipkart Stories Storytellers 2020

“If you ask me, I would have much preferred not to have had the year we had,” says Vishnu Sreekumar pithily when I call him up to talk about 2020.

Admittedly, it’s been a Dickensian year — the worst of times, the best of times. From staring down the barrel at the anxiety, isolation, and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, to finding strength and solace in distant camaraderie, from being flung in with the sharks to swimming ashore against the tide, 2020 has been a year of trials and triumphs for us in the Flipkart Stories team.

We acknowledge gratefully that we’re still here, all of us, at the end of a pandemic year in which we have been torn away from the familiar, taken-for-granted comfort of office lunches and high-energy war-room huddles. This year has seen us separated from families and friends, and many of us have lost loved ones. Yet, through it all, we kept our nerve. We made peace with the cliché of our confinement — this so-called “new normal” about which nothing feels normal, unless numbness equals normalcy — to find sanity and purpose in the sameness of routine, and succor in the fluid fault-lines between work and life. While uncertainty still lurks outside of the sheltering cocoons we have woven around ourselves, we emerge from this year not just alive and well, but fire-hardened and innervated with a phoenix-like resilience.

Through the last ten months of the pandemic, our stories have been our grittiest testament to soldiering on with courage and willpower, with empathy and humanity. The stories you consumed this year were reported in circumstances new and unfamiliar to us. Working remotely is not the credo of a newsdesk. Our work is about access, conversations, insight, and intimacy.

A story is a multi-sensory experience. And reporting one over a Zoom call subtracts significantly from the experience of absorbing the minutiae through unspoken signals, non-verbal cues, and the observation of detail — all of which enrich the narrative. When a reporter is left to imagine the aroma of malpuas frying in a mom-trepreneur’s kitchen, or the squeak of a Jeeves technician’s bicycle flywheel as he rides 25 kilometres to fix a customer’s faulty mobile phone, a whole new dimension to storytelling kicks in.

Having started up and led Flipkart’s owned media platforms for more than five years, and counting a decade and more of working in newsrooms before that, I assure you that this reality was unprecedented. Which is why, at the end of a year that has tossed us gauntlet after gauntlet to test our mettle, it moves me to pride to doff my hat to the storytellers that power Flipkart Stories, Studio 34, and our social media channels.

As we end 2020 with gratitude, we reflect on what has been a milestone-filled odyssey infused with exhilarating achievement and complex, see-sawing emotions. In the capacity of editor, and admirer, I take you backstage, behind the scenes, to introduce you to the warm-blooded humans who breathe life into the stories you have enjoyed.

Sophia Stephen is a quiet force, with a gift for listening and processing the complex information that she crafts into the details of her stories. Her interviews are revealing, her observations incisive, and her prose quicksilver. For more than three years, she has led the Flipkart Stories newsdesk, shaping its distinctive voice while ensuring that her writers always find theirs.

Flipkart Stories Storytellers 2020 Sophia Stephen

For Sophia, working remotely in 2020 proved a lesson in patience. “The same thing that would take two minutes in the office to get done because you could walk up to someone and hash it out, would take ages while working from home,” she says. “The turnaround times increased, and we had to work around them.”

While reporting or writing the story, one of the most difficult things was to not be present physically in the conversation. “There is so much more emotion that you can gather from a face-to-face conversation than a video-chat,” she observes. “That personal connection decreases a fair bit.”

Ashwarya Malviya agrees. “When we were all at the office, it was easy to get things done — you could walk over to someone’s desk and brainstorm or get their opinion on what you’re thinking,” she says. “Working from home, the biggest challenge was to get in touch with people and get them to be available for meetings.”

Ashwarya, who has led social media strategy and growth for Flipkart Stories for over two years, asks the hard questions. She wants to see the proof, and she’s impatient for results. She’s at home among hashtags, or poring over analytics dashboards. Extroverted and affable, Ashwarya spent her first week at Flipkart immersed in getting to know her co-workers. For her, breaking ice with new colleagues has proved more challenging while working remotely.

“It gets really awkward,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to walk up and introduce yourself and get the ball rolling from there.”

For a self-confessed introvert, Sana Khan is surprised that she misses the office. “I enjoy working from home but it becomes depressing after a point,” says our outspoken graphic designer. “At the office, there are also social gatherings like birthdays — those are always nice — but we don’t get to experience them while working remotely.”

Sana’s alter-ego is a metalhead and cosplay artist who turned heads when she walked into the office with bright red wavy curls over a year ago. While the hair color has settled into a more sedate auburn, her art continues to dazzle.

Roshan Pai has let his hair down too, helped by the fact that he hasn’t encountered a hairdresser in the last ten months. The glib anchor of our Studio 34 podcast turned on the camera during a recent team call to a chorus of shocked gasps and appreciative sighs.

Flipkart Stories Storytellers 2020 Roshan Pai

“The isolation is not just physical,” he says. “There is a very real sense of detachment.”

One wonders if he’s being ironic, because it seems an odd thing to say in a year that Studio 34 broke records both for the highest number of podcasts and plays. Roshan can pun his way out of anything. He’s the jedi master of deadpan, cracking funnies with the straightest face while regaling you with obscure trivia. That he manages to do that over a Zoom call is saying something. Roshan has donned different hats in his four-year tenure, with his longest stint anchoring Studio 34, which, like his hair, he has lovingly tended and grown into a high-impact aural storytelling platform.

Everybody misses Jishnu Murali’s booming laugh. Echoing in the bay with a contagious ripple effect, it had become a staple of languid afternoons. “I perform a lot better in the office environment, with a lot of collaboration and having my colleagues around me,” says the writer of three years’ vintage whose burly frame conceals a toffee heart. “I really felt that to be lacking when I was working from home. It was a struggle to come up with the same enthusiasm for work. And I had to motivate myself to get back.”

“I find it better to manage expectations in person, it’s a lot less stressful,” adds Vishnu, a former engineer who chose a career in writing and joined the team two years ago. “Over the phone, or in texts, it’s harder to manage those relationships. There is more likelihood of communication gaps.”

Remote working took many of us by surprise. We found ourselves suddenly confined in spaces with a fractured, schizoid identity.

“I miss being able to go home,” says Vishnu.

“I hate — it’s a strong word but it’s true — that everything is in one place,” says Sophia over a Google Meet call, interrupted frequently by her cats Momo and Louie. “You roll out of bed and you drift back to the bedroom because your desk is there. Your day is spent in one room all day. What I’m dealing with is not so much blurred boundaries but blurred spaces.”

“Starting the day was difficult,” chimes in Ashwarya. “As the months passed, I got used to it. Having a pet around helped a lot.”

Flipkart Stories Storytellers 2020 Ashwarya Malviya

In February, a month before the first COVID-19 lockdown, Ashwarya had just moved into a new apartment in suburban Bengaluru that she shared with two housemates. Actually, three. Coco, a two-year-old black Indie, would become her pandemic buddy and the apple of her eye during the months of isolation, more so when cases of coronavirus in the housing complex forced the roommates into quarantine.

“At some point, my routine was the same as my pet’s routine,” she laughs, adding that feeding and walking Coco became vital switch-off breaks for her. “My housemates and I would all break out of work at the same time and we’d spend that time with Coco. With that, my routine fell into place.”

Sana found herself practically isolated during the lockdown in a small rented apartment in suburban Bengaluru without neighbours. Even the security guard had gone back home during the migrant labor crisis of early April. With depleting supplies of food and water, she was plagued by frequent internet outages and power disconnections. A May thunderstorm plunged her home into darkness and left her incommunicado for two days, leaving us tense until she surfaced tentatively on a WhatsApp group chat with a terse message: ‘Battery really low. Might be disconnected.’

For Roshan, power cuts and internet outages were par for the course. “Living in Bengaluru means living with all of that,” he says, determined not to be fazed. Moving to his mother’s place during the lockdown helped him to support her and be useful around the house. The harder part was not being able to make his weekly trips to the partner studio where he records and edits his podcast episodes.

Accustomed to being hands-on and independent, Roshan adapted reluctantly to remote working. He misses the spontaneity of his erstwhile working style, where he would chance upon people and stories while strolling about the office. “Now I have to wait for things to come to me,” he says ruefully.

Coping has been hard but necessary, and each of us tapped into reservoirs of hidden strength.

Flipkart Stories Storytellers Jishnu Murali2020

“That whole ‘I don’t have the time’ excuse is now out of the window,” declares Jishnu. “What 2020 put in my hands was time — to think about what I want to be, what I want from life, from the next year, from the future… it really put things in perspective and helped me prioritize on a day-to-day basis. I was able to focus on my health and my peace of mind. I was able to try meditation — which, honestly, even though I was advised to try before, I had never found the time for.”

Sophia agrees. “Before the pandemic, I’d never really been a ‘routine’ person — someone with a schedule I’d follow through with,” she says. “Working from home has made me a lot more disciplined. If I am not disciplined, I don’t get time for myself. Virtually every hour is calendarized for me, and that helps me set boundaries not just with other people but also myself. A set routine helped me out both in terms of getting work done and getting that balance for myself.”

For Sana, the time saved on commuting to office and the relative isolation have provided opportunities to expand her domain knowledge, learn new skills, and research new software, which may have been challenging given workplace network policies. “I have a home set-up with three workstations, including my office laptop, and this gives me the freedom to watch tutorials or videos while working simultaneously,” she says. “Also, not being surrounded by people affords me the freedom to focus.”

“I am finely tuned to people around me and this kind of remote working situation can be anxiety-inducing when you can’t read people,” says Vishnu. “I learned to be chilled out and zen about it. It’s not the end of the world if something doesn’t get done immediately, because I need to take care of myself, too.”

While Vishnu learned to bake, Jishnu began to cook healthy meals for himself, a departure from his pre-pandemic habit of ordering in. “I’ve always been a foodie and I realized that I’m pretty good at cooking when I tried my hand at it,” he chuckles. “There’s always an uncertainty to it. Only when you’re done and you taste your food do you know if you’ve succeeded. That has changed something fundamentally for me!”

Flipkart Stories Storytellers 2020 Sana Khan

Once habituated to working within eavesdropping distance of each other, we became a distributed team during the last ten months. Some of us packed up and returned to our hometowns while others stayed put. Sana, who moved back home to Bhopal just before The Big Billion Days, had to get her home-office work-ready. Getting a WiFi dongle for backup internet connectivity was the first step. “It was challenging but exhilarating,” she says. “I’ve never made so many arrangements for myself!”

Ashwarya, who travelled often to her parents’ home in Hyderabad, worked on the move, tethering to her phone’s WiFi hotspot. “But The Big Billion Days wasn’t something I could do sitting at home,” she says. She moved back to Bengaluru before the intense campaign had the team working 16-hour shifts. “I wanted to give myself the time and the environment where I could really sit and think. It’s really difficult to explain this to your parents!”

Ironically, the year has been a significant one in terms of both the quantum and complexity of stories told. No deadlines were missed and the output has been copious.

“We’ve been really lucky that each one of us realized the constraints we face, and we all upped our game,” says Sophia. What glued the team together, she observes, was the shared awareness that things now take longer to do, and that the storytelling process is harder to pull off remotely, especially with flaky internet connectivity and trippy power.

“I’ll be honest,” she admits. “There were days in the beginning when the smallest mistake would set me off in a panic, but I’ve learned to take it as it comes now. Because that’s really all you can do.”

There’s discipline on the one hand, and empathy on the other. Patience, and tolerance for minor misses, and each having the other’s back — these traits became critical to binding the team together. Just ahead of The Big Billion Days, Sophia had surprise goodie bags of healthy snacks delivered to her writers, even to Vishnu who had moved to Kochi by then.

Flipkart Stories Storytellers 2020 Vishnu Sreekumar

“I used to be a very busy person before COVID-19 kicked in,” says Vishnu, who moonlights as a stand-up comic. “On weekdays after work I had my creative pursuits. On weekends, I had workshops and engagements. I used to be out and about quite a bit. That part of my life totally screeched to a halt once the pandemic began. So, I picked up a lot of stuff to read and that definitely helped my writing. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I thought, I’m going to have a lot of time to be bored, so why not use it to build my brain?”

For Sana, too, the situation compelled her to step outside her comfort zone and expand her neural networks. “At the office, I could just doodle an idea on a whiteboard to explain it to someone, but it was a challenge doing that online,” she ruminates. “Now, that has morphed into another mode: It has to be verbal, it has to be in text. The lockdown has made me more communicative. This is something new and will stay with me.”

“I do feel that we’ve become stronger as a team,” observes Jishnu. “We’ve become better at communicating with each other. We didn’t feel the need to strengthen that while at the office because things just happened. There have been a few rough edges and I feel that they were important and they have taught us a lot. And that’s why we are communicating the way we do now.”

Well-being has become a culture at Flipkart, facilitated by employee-friendly measures such as flexible working hours, a mandatory monthly time-off, a no-meetings policy during lunch hours, and regular expert sessions on mindfulness, health, and recreation. Those interventions have sensitized us in deeply human ways. Each team call now begins with checking on how we are doing, not in a perfunctory way, but listening sincerely for answers.

We look forward to a time when we can be back in our bay together, unmasked, racking our brains over the next campaign while sharing a box of chocolates without having to sanitize our hands. Meanwhile, as the stories continue to flow, will there be something about these strange times that we will miss when they are gone?

Ashwarya will miss cradling Coco’s warm paw in her hand. Roshan will miss the long nights of gaming and chatting with his best friend. Sophia, meanwhile, is thinking of giving her cats some space and an opportunity to miss her.

“I’ll miss going out and looking at the world,” says Sana. “This experience has made us aware of geological and environmental factors, and it’s hopefully a change that will stay for the rest of our lives.”

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