OKTA: Interview with Assal Yavari
With offices around the world and over 2,000 employees, Okta, a software company specializing in securely enabling companies to use any technology, has been rethinking how its physical workspace can best serve its people well before Covid forced the rest of the world to do it.
Here, we’re sharing what Senior Director of Global Workplace Management, Assal Yavari, has up her sleeves.
Q: Do you believe that your organization needs a physical workspace?
Assal: “Yes! We are true believers that you still need a physical location for people to come together and have ah-ha moments. Whether it is a hallway conversation or a meeting after a meeting... those are things we’re all missing in our day to day lives right now as we work in the new way of normal.
With Okta in particular, up to 18 months ago, before Covid even happened, we implemented a framework called ‘Dynamic Work.’. The theory behind Dynamic Work is to provide our employees with the flexibility to work in a way that best suits them, and to enable us to hire in regions where we don’t have offices. It expands our talent pool. And it empowers our employees to do their best work wherever they may be. So, when
Covid happened it accelerated that initiative. Over the past six months, what we’ve done is take this opportunity, the silver lining to what we’re dealing with today, and start doing a deeper dive.
There’s never been a question of if we are going to go back into the office or that we don’t need a physical space, it’s just going to look a bit different when we do return.
Q: How should it look?
Assal: “How that space looks... we designed a pilot for that before shelter-in-place. We went from everyone having assigned desks to address-less desking. The space has become a destination place. Whether they need a space that’s a lounge-like collaborative area, what we like to call our innovation space, with lounge seating, power enabled furniture, monitors on wheels, smart digital whiteboards or a heads down
space, that is also power enabled. A small percentage of the space will be our typical sit-to- stand work desks. This ‘dynamic workplace’ is different for us because we don’t have assigned seating, we have less than a third of our seats being at desks, but the floor accommodates four-fold the number of people from a capacity perspective because we’re providing different work environments that are all technology enabled.
Q: Wow! That’s a very holistic, inclusive answer! You mentioned the destination workplace. That’s kind of an overriding theme. We spoke with Tom Suro last week and those are key words that we’re hearing...
Assal: “Our next thought about the workplace is that it doesn’t necessarily need to be in an office space. One of the new features we’re going to move toward, and have mock up’s for, is called an ‘Experiential Center.’ We’re going to open these in regions where we don’t have a physical presence and it will serve two purposes:
From a physical perspective, instead of being an office space on a specific floor of a building, it will be taking old first floor retail space, which there’s opportunity to do right now, and transforming it into something that resembles a storefront for Okta.
This location will not only be home for our employees to go and work, collaborate, and use technology, but it’s also a location where we can bring in customers to check out our product. Think of it like an Apple store.
We already have two mockups done and we’re really excited to go and build it. We have plans to do it this year and early next year. So, whichever way you cut it, we’re still going to need a physical space. It’s just going to have a different look and feel.”
Q: Shifting gears, how do you make the financial case for/ against the workplace?
Assal: “Yes, it’s definitely for the workplace. I’ve been reading a lot and people keep talking about the Hub and Spoke model. It’s funny because we started this over 18 months ago while doing our portfolio planning. It’s good to know, and reassuring, that everyone else is thinking the same thing. We do need to provide opportunity, flexibility, and choice to employees to be able to go to a location where the culture of the company resides, physically. There are some great tools that are allowing for communication and conversation during these times but we’re missing the collision that organically happens. That’s why we know, from a financial perspective, these are good investments. You may not need that larger square footage but you need some sort of presence in places where you have a larger number of employees.”
Q: “Choice” is key. I think there’s a responsibility factor that goes along with that. You have to be responsible to know where you do your best work...
Assal: “As a company, your employees experience is going to be key. How do you maintain the culture while working dynamically? The foundation, for us, is trust. For example, when Covid happened... within 30 days we set up a work from home store. Anyone from our 12 global sites could go and order what they needed and it was drop shipped to them or, in some cases, it was fully assembled and delivered to them. We
communicated to employees that they are all owners of the company and to act like owners of the company when purchasing things for their WFH setups, rather than putting a $200 limit on it, for example. That trust is one of the reasons why everyone feels so empowered working in this new way to do their best work.”
Q: Have you been doing much onboarding?
Assal: “A ton! We have a created new onboarding experience. Having choice and flexibility isn’t just ‘can I come into the office or not?’ it’s also
for people who are moving. We are seeing a lot of permanent moves happen. People still want that to be translated from a benefits perspective. So, what we’re presenting in our new employee orientations isn’t just about ‘how do I come in? When do I come in? How does it feel?’ it’s about your benefits too.
We just launched a new platform where, depending on what region you are, we have benefits that you can pick and choose to use. Because what may be important to me might not be something that’s on your top priorities. We’re going down to that granular level. We’re finding, through surveys, what resonates with people and responding so they feel like they’re being heard and their needs are addressed.
Specifically, right now, you have a large population of people with children. I have two. Schools are not happening in many of the regions worldwide. One of the initial benefits we put out we’re different platforms for working parents. Things like online babysitting, educational platforms, tutoring help, and even arts & crafts sessions that people from around the world can access. We’re definitely hearing and responding to the needs appropriately.
Q: Do you think the six-month work from home sample is a good enough period to adjust real estate decisions?
Assal: “Well for us, because we started this initiative prior, it just gave us more data points. At the same time, with the data points we took, we were cognizant that people were acclimating to the new normal. You can't just take the six months and say, ‘this is what it is.’ We all had to go through a transition period to figure out how to work in the new norm. That’s why, for us, one of the key aspects of this whole thing is change
We’ve launched a whole learning and development campaign around working remotely, managing remotely, and managing change.
In that, are the tools and resources to help people with the best tips and trick for running virtual meetings and virtual performance reviews. If you don’t give people the right tools and resources to work in the new norm, I think that’s where you have an issue.
Q: Did you work with change management professionals?
Assal: “No, dynamic work has been a program project that we have been involved in and has representatives from every single department.
Because change shouldn’t be done in a vacuum. Change should be looked into holistically from every single lens. Whether it’s from finance, our IT group, learning and development, or from talent management and recruiting. We had this run as a project, had project meetings, and assigned tasks.
Q: If we could put it in percentages, how much energy are you focusing on the physical workplace and how much energy are you focusing on
the remote team?
Assal: “I think you have to have a balance of both. A lot of that has to do with change management and making sure everyone is aligned with expectations and the rules of engagement, whether you’re in an office or remote. I want to say its 50/50 or 40/60. Why I would say the latter is, the people who are in a physical workplace have a leg up over those who are remote. You still want to be able to maintain your culture and
make them feel engaged.
One of the things we just launched is our diversity and inclusion meeting cues that pushed out to everyone as screen savers. These are reminders for our employees to make sure everyone has a voice, that meetings are inclusive of everybody, and to be mindful of body language.
These are things that people should look at but, more so, be cognizant of for those who are remote.
We’ve all figured out how to work in an office and we’ve all figured out, over the last six months, how to work from home. I don’t think any of us are 100% skilled at that.
Especially when we go back to the new office... We have to figure out how to work in that environment both physically and virtually to maintain our culture and engage everybody so they feel included.”
Q: What is your process for determining the ideal physical work environment for your organization?
Assal: “Here’s a great way to think about it... When you go to buy a car you have a base model. So, we have a base model figured out but to put the finite details of ‘what color is it? what features does it have that works for me?’ That’s where we create focus groups. We work with people from the team to put those finite details in. One team may need more innovation space as opposed to heads down space. We don’t assign desks or seats... we assign neighborhoods. We go through a very inclusive process to determine what is the ideal neighborhood for the group who will reside in it.”