This blog first appeared as Steve Wunker's piece for Forbes
By Steve Wunker
With remote and hybrid work options apparently here to stay, how are companies balancing their employees’ desires for greater autonomy with the need to maintain cohesion and alignment?
A growing number are turning to OKR software, a tool for managing the increasingly popular ‘Objectives and Key Results’ goal-setting framework. It’s no coincidence, we argue, that the rising interest in OKRs and the explosive growth of the OKR software market have coincided with the global, permanent shift towards remote and hybrid work. That transition has generated new Jobs to be Done for employees and their managers that OKRs are well-suited to address.
The Meteoric Rise of OKRs and OKR Software
Today, OKRs are having their moment. First developed in the 1970s by Intel’s Andrew Grove and popularized by John Doerr’s best-seller 'Measure What Matters', OKRs have gained momentum over the last fifteen years to become something of a “Silicon Valley-standard”: Google, Facebook, Netflix, LinkedIn, and Twitter have all adopted the methodology.
Basic in form, but with the potential to transform how organizations strategize, OKRs can help leaders think more holistically about their companies’ top-level goals. They offer a structured way for non-tech companies to adopt the organizational transparency and employee autonomy that define the Bay Area’s corporate culture.
The framework also forms the basis of one of the hottest corners of the SaaS industry: the booming, 1.5 billion USD OKR software market. OKR software platforms help businesses build and track their strategic objectives, visualize how the daily work of departments and teams connects to certain key results, and pull reports on how parts of the organization are progressing towards their goals. They represent a leap forward in OKR management and look space-aged compared to tracking OKRs on pen and paper, on spreadsheets, or through non-dedicated software. "Our platform makes the framework effective at scale,” says Ari Zelmanow, VP of UX Research, Insights, and Analytics at one of the market leaders, Gtmhub, “You can't manage the OKRs of entire organizations on a spreadsheet without creating some serious headaches, and risks."
The marketplace is also evolving rapidly, with enterprise companies signing up in record numbers. In turn, industry frontrunners are using fresh rounds of venture capital funding to capture a greater share of the enterprise space. Gtmhub secured 120 million USD in Series C last December, doubling the previous benchmark set by WorkBoard last May. Established software giants are also entering the market, with Microsoft acquiring Ally last October for an undisclosed sum. OKR software has moved from an obscure tool into a mainstream SaaS category.
But why now? Like many recent trends, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for change. The move to remote and hybrid work during the pandemic has led employees to rethink their relationships with their colleagues and employers, creating new Jobs to be Done that, if left unsatisfied, risk creating new strategic challenges related to organizational cohesion and worker autonomy. In response, companies have turned to OKRs to help maintain strategic alignment while allowing for flexibility in execution. It’s a goal setting framework ideal for remote workforces.
Employee “Jobs to be Done” in the New Working World
The move to remote work has created a new set of “Jobs to be Done” for employees. By Jobs, we mean the fundamental needs, both functional and emotional, that customers try to fill in a given marketplace. Jobs get to the “why” behind customer behavior, tapping into the driving forces behind their actions. In the case of the move towards hybrid and remote work, we see two, opposing sets of Jobs developing among employees.
The first relates to the increased control that they expect over their working lives. Sure, employees are attracted to remote work because they want to spend less time riding the subway and more time with friends and loved ones. But more fundamentally, remote work offers them the “ability to be the primary decision-maker” of where and when they complete their tasks. It provides them with a level of control over their work life that they would not enjoy in an office setting.
Workers don’t intend to surrender that control. More than ¾ of workers polled by Microsoft and the Harvard Business Review want remote work options to stay in place post-pandemic. Four in ten Americans currently working from home would jump ship if they were pushed to return to the office full-time. Maintaining a level of independence over one’s work life is a powerful Job satisfied by the move to a hybrid or fully remote work schedule.
On the other hand, remote work has led to several pain points related to social and professional detachment. Those pain points have resulted in another set of Jobs emerging around finding purpose and kinship in a remote setting. Many employees complain that collaboration with and support from their coworkers has suffered since their work moved online. Microsoft revealed that “the shift to remote [work] shrunk our networks”, leading its employees to cling to their “immediate teams” while decreasing contact with colleagues across departments and business units.
Additionally, workers feel isolated, unsupported by their managers, and generally less aware of how they and their colleagues contribute to their organization’s strategic goals.
So, employees want both flexibility and structure. They want the freedom to work when and how they please, but they also want to collaborate more closely with their peers, be recognized for their work, and feel a sense of purpose and ownership over their company’s top-level objectives.
These aren’t just powerful, emotional Jobs to be Done, but strategic imperatives for businesses that want to retain talent, break down siloes, and drive alignment. How can employers thread the needle here?
Using OKRs to Drive Alignment and Autonomy
Enter the OKR. The framework balances two “superpowers” - Doerr’s words - that together help address the Jobs that have emerged out of the move to remote and hybrid work: alignment and autonomy.
OKRs drive alignment through transparency. And ideally, OKRs are transparent for everyone. Although some managers might balk at having their key results open for the entire company to see, that radical visibility promotes a sense of unity and mission. A software engineer or sales associate can see how their individual efforts contribute to their team’s objectives. By travelling up the chain of command, they can also visualize how their efforts contribute to their organization’s highest objectives. Making everyone’s OKRs transparent promotes a sense of ownership over not only one’s personal key results, but a company’s overarching strategy.
Setting transparent objectives and key results also increases interactions between teams and departments, particularly in remote settings. It helps employees understand how their efforts connect with the work of others and encourages them to reach out to colleagues in other departments to question a specific KR, or to suggest collaborating on a cross-functional objective. This can help drive alignment both vertically and horizontally, especially in organizations where teams may not have that frequent face-to-face contact with management, or where coffee chats between friends from different teams no longer occur. “Leaders have always looked for alignment when setting top-level objectives,” notes Zelmanow, “but it’s become an absolute prerogative at a time when whole departments could be working remotely. We’re helping drive that alignment from both the top-down and bottom-up."
The OKR framework also allows for varying degrees of autonomy. It can be used to encourage experimentation at the ground level, resulting in insights and innovations that make their way up the organization. While some objectives originate from up on high, especially when strategic priorities need to pivot on a dime, individual teams can also set their own game plans for achieving certain objectives. As a result, no two teams will tackle the same problem in the same way.
Combined with a visibility into how other teams and individuals set their KRs, the OKR framework can act as a catalyst for spreading good ideas across an organization. Maybe a software engineer discovers a workaround in her code that helps her team smash a particular KR. Other teams notice this and investigate. Soon, that workaround has helped to improve the performance of totally unrelated products in other business units. Crucially, that cross-pollination of ideas stays at the team level, without management needing to get involved. The two sets of Jobs to be Done are balanced: team members are working towards a common goal, but in their own way.
The OKR framework can help make hybrid work, work. It encourages a decentralization of decision-making while also providing a structure that helps workers collaborate, learn from each other, and develop a sense of ownership over their company’s core goals. When implemented with a software platform that allows teams to share and view OKRs from anywhere, the framework helps remote organizations remain flexible, but aligned.
Companies struggling to maintain their strategic focus or accommodate their workers’ expectations for both flexibility and structure in their remote work lives may benefit from testing OKRs. We suggest the following:
1. Uncover the Jobs to be Done for your workforce: How are your employees dealing with the transition to remote or hybrid work? What challenges have they been facing? What do they want from their working lives? Running an employee engagement survey can help your organization gauge expectations and unmet needs regarding remote work. You can then assess whether your organization would benefit from adopting a new goal-setting framework better suited to remote work environments
2. Speak with an OKR consultant: The OKR methodology is simple in theory but challenging to implement in practice. Letting an OKR consultant walk your leadership team through the framework and connect it to your organization’s specific work culture and existing management practices can help drive interest from your workforce
3. Reach out to an OKR software vendor: With the OKR software market growing at a breakneck pace - and with enterprises becoming increasingly interested in the OKR framework - vendors are fiercely competitive. Start with a trial and keep up the conversation with a handful of vendors to assess whether one would be a valuable partner over the long run
4. Test OKRs within a small team: Running a proof of concept within the leadership team, Project Management Organization, or a departmental management team can be a low investment, low stakes way of assessing whether the OKR framework could work for your organization
As the nature of work is changing, so too are employee’s Jobs to be Done regarding their professional lives. They want both flexibility and structure, alignment and autonomy. Those expectations might seem to be in tension, but OKRs can help organizations find a harmony between the two.
This piece was written with my colleague Peter Hale