“Offer flexibility to create a fantastic work culture” with Atif Siddiqi, CEO of Branch
Offer flexibility: Flexibility has played a key role in our product development and work culture. With our app, we empower employees to create their own flexibility at work by allowing them easy ways to swap or pick-up more shifts and get access to their earnings when they want. Among my own teams, I want employees to perform their best, so try to give them the flexibility to do so — whether it’s letting them work remotely or set their own hours.
As part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Atif Siddiqi is the founder and chief executive officer of Branch. Branch is a mobile-first schedule and financial flexibility technology for hourly workers, providing them schedule predictability, shift flexibility, and the opportunity to access their earnings instantly. Hundreds of thousands of hourly employees at Fortune 1000 enterprises already use Branch every day. Branch was selected as one of ten companies to participate in the inaugural class of the Techstars Target Retail Accelerator program. After previously building software for retailers and seeing firsthand the day-to-day communications challenges that employees and managers face, Atif founded Branch as an EIR at Idealab, the leading technology incubator behind hundreds of innovative companies. Prior to founding Branch, Atif was involved in a number of startups. Before becoming active in the startup community, he worked at Warner Bros. Television in production. Atif holds a B.A. in Economics and an M.B.A. from the University of Southern California. He volunteers as a business coach and provides entrepreneurship education to low-income communities.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As undergrad at USC, I actually started out in production at Warner Bros. Television and decided I wanted to learn how to code for fun. I ended up really enjoying building software and continued to work in the start-up community and create a number of start-ups. After joining as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Idealab (a long-running incubator in Pasadena), I founded my current company, Branch.
I was inspired to create Branch based on my experiences in working in retail as a teenager. I worked part-time at a small t-shirt shop at the mall where we relied on texts and paper schedules. Even 15 years later, I saw that retailers were relying on the same paper-heavy methods and lacked communication technology that had grown exponentially for the desk-based workforce.
With Branch, we wanted to create a technology focused on the needs of hourly workers first and an application they felt comfortable using but built for their work lives. By doing that, we realized we were addressing significant problems impacting the enterprise, when it came to turnover, overtime, and excessive administrative time. We’ve since grown to work with enterprises and become a comprehensive platform providing scheduling and financial flexibility to hourly workers across industries.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Meeting the needs of the hourly worker has always been a top priority in creating and improving products. One of the most memorable experiences we had in achieving this was during our experience during the Target accelerator program. We decided to move our HQ from Los Angeles to Minneapolis and visit more than 100 Target locations across the Midwest to hear about employee experiences directly and help onboard employees to the Branch app.
We were installing tablets in employee break rooms, taking this as an opportunity to train teams and hear thousands of employee experiences first hand. One store didn’t have the space to mount a tablet so we purchased and built a shelf for that break room so that they’d have central access to the app. Having these unique experiences across regions has helped us better understand the needs of our demographic and remember the challenges hourly workers face daily.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We just rolled out a new Pay feature within our app that allows hourly workers to get instant access to their earnings without having to wait one or two weeks for their paycheck. Almost 80 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and based on our own internal survey of users, we found that 70 percent of respondents had borrowed money from friends and family in the last three months. Users have embraced the feature, using it just to meet basic daily needs like groceries and transportation along with personal emergencies. One user noted that they used the feature to help them get by during the government shutdown when their food stamps weren’t available. You can read more about these stories here.
Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
I think it’s a combination of financial and professional stress. A vast majority of Americans not only live paycheck to paycheck, but also have unpredictable schedules. A recent study noted that workers who had more than two weeks’ notice of their schedule had a nearly 75 percent likelihood of experiencing happiness, while workers who had two days’ notice of their schedule or less only had a 65 percent probability of being happy. Uncertainty is stressful and can contribute to unhappiness at work.
Another factor is lack of engagement — about 85 percent of employees aren’t engaged at work. Workplace engagement is so important because it means employees feel connected to the company and want to make a difference.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?
A disengaged, stressed workforce is going to be less productive, so overall company productivity decreases too. Especially in today’s tight labor market, the workforce has their pick of jobs, leading to high turnover, which can also cost company productivity and profitability. The cost of replacing an hourly employee can range from $2,500 to $4000 per employee and that amount is even higher in other positions. Across industries, companies are struggling to attract and retain workers. It’s important that employees feel happy and engaged, not only for their own individual health and well-being, but also the overall workplace. Spending 8+ hours with one another, coworkers influence each other’s attitudes and energy levels.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
- Create a set of values…: Creating a set of values help set the tone and trajectory for your company and employees. As a leader, figure out what’s most important for a successful work environment and communicate them to your teams. These values set up a framework for how you hire, promote, and grow.
- …And stick with them: Set an example for your team and embody the values you’ve established for the company and your employees. A lot of environments are set from the top down so if employees don’t see their managers or executives practicing them, it’s difficult to ask them to do the same. This is reinforced in all sectors, from recruiting to how we work with customers and users.
- Offer flexibility: Flexibility has played a key role in my company Branch’s own product development and work culture. With our app, we empower employees to create their own flexibility at work by allowing them easy ways to swap or pick-up more shifts and get access to their earnings when they want. Among my own teams, I want employees to perform their best, so try to give them the flexibility to do so — whether it’s letting them work remotely or set their own hours.
- Encourage transparency: Transparency has become an important part of my company’s work culture. We encourage open communication whether it’s between employees, customers, or partners. By encouraging one another to ask and answer tough questions, we enable employees to take action and understand how their efforts contribute to larger goals. It’s also helped a lot of really great, actionable ideas.
- Be open to change: While we have established core values, we like to think of it as a living, breathing set. This allows us to be open change over time based on input from the team and new learnings as we grow.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I try to practice alignment and trust as a leader. Alignment means staying transparent about strategy, goals, and context so that employees are aware of the state of the company. Trust is another major component — entrepreneurs often wear many hats and end up owning almost everything when starting out. As your team grows, it’s important to trust your employees so that they have the freedom and speed to take on some of those responsibilities.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Early on in my entrepreneurial journey as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Pasadena incubator Idealab, I had the opportunity to work alongside Bill Gross and understand how he formulated ways to approach problems. One of the key insights that I gained was his ability to breakdown problems down into to small, simple solutions — tests that could be validated quickly.
For example, when we started Branch, we began to offer a simple shift-swapping application for hourly workers. The deeper our understanding of the problems hourly employees were facing, the better we were able to develop and expand our platform to address the needs of both enterprises and their workforce.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We really believe in empowering people through technology and making accessible across industries. Traditionally, the deskless workforce has been severely underserved by technology, even though they make up the vast majority of the global workforce. We also want to find ways to engage the up and coming entrepreneurial community through various programs.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite life lesson quotes is from Marcus Aurelius: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
There are a lot of ups and downs in an entrepreneur’s journey. This quote is a good reminder that any adversity faced can be positioned as an opportunity and a way to strengthen the company.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
One of the things that our latest feature Pay has shown us it that this demographic is underserved by the financial industry. We want to continue to add and build products that meet their needs and can improve financial wellness.