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Zoho, the tech company that's going back to the land

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 23, 2020
Business software provider Zoho believes cloud technology can unlock a rural revival - and is turning offices into farms as it puts its vision into practice

A rack of tools at Zoho's Austin campus farm
(via Zoho)

Back in January, Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu set out a gameplan to encourage businesses to move staff out of big cities and back to rural locations, taking advantage of cloud computing and broadband infrastructure to support a distributed workforce. He saw it as a way to revitalize rural communities by bringing back much-needed spending and talent. Pre-COVID, it seemed far-fetched. How times have changed.

In the wake of the pandemic and the widespread adoption of distributed working, it's suddenly become commonplace to talk about the exodus of office workers from cities back to suburbs and rural communities. Many observers believe that this new pattern of work is here to stay, leaving urban centers desolate while rural enclaves thrive.

But there's more to Vembu's vision of a cloud-based rural revival than merely redistributing population from the cities to the countryside. He believes it's an opportunity for office workers to reconnect with the land, applying their talents to becoming part-time farmers alongside their traditional duties. At Zoho, the vision is already being put into practice.

A farm at the Austin campus

In February, Zoho opened a farm on its 360-acre headquarters campus in Austin, Texas. Employees started helping to grow crops, often bringing their families so their children could learn how to farm and grow food. Although the intiative started before COVID-19 took hold, the farm became an outdoor place to catch up with colleagues after remote working was introduced, says Chief Evangelist Raju Vegesna. The company responded by adding more resource into the project.

We set up a new department. Just like [we have] sales and marketing, now we have a farming department with a few employees in that group, where we grow healthy, organic food produce. It's free for all our employees and for them to grow ...

It's not mandated for anyone to come to the office, but if they feel lonely and if they want, they can come. Because this is a farm environment, you don't have the risk of [being in a confined space].

Now the company has started rolling out the model on other sites. In the last three months, it has opened six new farm offices in India, each based in a village and with capacity for 10-20 employees. In Texas, it is currently looking to open new offices in four small towns — average population about 10,000 — each about an hour's drive away from Austin. Vegesna elaborates:

While everyone is moving to Austin, we are moving away from Austin. We believe ruralization should happen, and all our future hiring in US and pretty much worldwide will happen in these rural locations.

My preferred model there is a farm office, not an office where farming is part of it. There's no good replacement to natural sunlight, natural air and good healthy food and whatnot. So, rural revival, we were going down that path, it's just that the COVID accelerated it and it basically [reinforced] our convictions.

Investing in local talent and communities

The philosophy also emphasizes investing in the commmunity. Zoho has always valued education strongly — for a long time it has recruited school leavers and given them opportunities to develop their skills within the company rather than hiring college graduates. Vegesna says the company should take a leading role in developing latent talent around its rural offices, and is already doing so in some locations in India.

We are actually now taking it another step where we are not only going to farm in a village, but we are taking the village kids in those regions — uneducated kids and kids who have potential — and we are investing in some schools. We want to basically train them in whatever interests them, and then they will become employees.

This reinforces the rural revival because developing and employing local talent ultimately boosts the local economy, he explains.

There's nothing better than finding a job in your own village because they don't have a mortgage to pay, they probably likely have another household there. So whatever you pay them, they're not working to make their landlord rich. Instead, it goes into their pocket, which also means it goes into the community to develop the local economy.

All of these are interlinked. We cannot remove from one from the other. I believe all of these are completely interlinked, and we've got to look at it holistically.

Making a more permanent impact

Vegesna admits that it may seem incongruous for a digital business to start farming, but Zoho is a company with a strong sense of purpose and keenly aware of the transience of digital products. Planting seeds in the physical world is a way of making a more permanent impact, he explains.

It is important to maintain the balance between the physical and the digital. That is the reason for the farming. While it completely comes from the left field, it's equally important what you're doing there and what you're contributing.

When you look back and explain to your kids what your contribution is, in the digital world you may not have anything to show. But in the physical world, there is a plant that you grow that is producing fruit and all of that. Philosophically, all of these are connected, and no amount of automation can replace that part ...

There is a role in automating some mundane things, but there is a broader thing that is human-to-human interaction which is natural, and that plays a more critical role.

In keeping with this approach, Zoho also wants to give employees a sense of ownership of their workplace. Vegesna describes how the company is encouraging staff to get involved in the design of the Austin campus and in researching nearby more rural locations.

What companies typically do when they set up a new location, they outsource it to a construction company or an architect that designs an office. I'm taking the opposite route where I'm actually asking our employees to take a part of this campus and say this is what we want to do. Each of the employees are taking a portion of it and then they are executing it.

Now they are not just contributing to the company and helping customers. They are also building the campus and the workplace that they want. So that physical workplace itself, they have built it with their own hands.

It's the kind of affection that you have when you build your own house or when you grow your own trees. That kind of passion should also exist when building your workplace — and ideally in your own hometown.

My take

My reaction when I first heard Vembu set out his rural revival manifesto in January was that, while it sounded fine in principle, the biggest ask might be persuading software engineers, helpdesk technicians and accountants "to become organic farmers in their spare time as they embrace a rural lifestyle." But that was then. Six months on, the experience of COVID-19 has forced many to reassess their lifestyles — and many now may feel that a return to the land suddenly seems far more attractive.

The notion of giving back to communities, of rooting a digital business by planting crops and nurturing neglected talent is no doubt a step further than many companies would contemplate, but it's pure Zoho. The company has always plowed its own furrow metaphorically and will continue to do so. In this case it's doing it literally, and setting a leadership example that may well inspire those looking for a new direction in a turbulent world.

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