The outbreak of COVID-19 has forced businesses to change how they operate. Social distancing rules, lockdowns, and stay-at-home orders meant that many desk-bound office workers were required to work remotely. Many companies have also had to make changes to their products and services, whether from lack of demand or COVID-19 restrictions that made it impossible to function ‘as normal.’
These sudden changes mean that for many companies, 2020 became a year focused on surviving, rather than thriving. But for MURAL, COVID-19 posed a different survival challenge: as a digital workspace and visual collaboration platform, the company saw its demand grow by 10 times, with 251% year-on-year active users. The increased workload while employees learned to adapt to a new working reality sharpened MURAL’s sense of urgency to focus on the things that are truly important.
Appointing OKR shepherd to guide the company
MURAL has adopted OKRs since its early days as a company. Mariano Suarez-Battan, MURAL’s CEO and co-founder says, “At MURAL, we are building a culture that embraces autonomy and complexity. I hire empowered adults who make decisions fast. A clear vision, strategy, and values guide us… but we also need to execute, and that’s where aiming for outcomes come in handy.”
To do that, one of the first things that Suarez-Battan did was introduce an OKR ‘shepherd,’ MURAL’s VP operations Felix Beccar. When Beccar joined the company in early 2019, the company was using OKRs “in different ways for different teams. So each team did their own little thing,” says Beccar, and his job was to consolidate the company’s efforts to implement OKRs. He started by training all of MURAL’s employees during the company’s annual retreat, and then went on to coach individual teams.
MURAL’s implementation approach is simple: the leadership team meets to decide on the company’s focus for the quarter, and aim to allocate OKRs 2-3 weeks before the quarter starts. Typically, the company’s OKRs will include an element of revenue or market confirmation of MURAL’s product, and an element of how the company operates internally. It takes a few rounds of iterations for leadership to decide on the company OKRs, says Beccar. “Sometimes, we debate whether some of these should be at the company-level, or at the team level.” Once leadership agrees, they then take it back to their team, decide on what the OKRs will look like at an individual level, and track progress using OKR software. Beccar stresses that it’s an alignment, rather than a top-down effort. Individual teams need to work towards meeting the company’s OKRs, he says, but acknowledges that there will be specific OKRs that aren’t 100% correlated to the company’s. “If you are too rigid with the process, you can go into a rabbit hole. I think you should empower the individual teams to think on what is impacting the company, but also what each team needs to do.”
COVID-19 and acceleration of goals
MURAL was in the middle of planning its Q2 OKRs when COVID-19 forced remote work to become the new normal. A large proportion of MURAL’s team is distributed and work remotely, but disruption to day-to-day realities required Suarez-Battan, Beccar, and the rest of the leadership team to tweak systems and practices to meet a sudden increase in demand for MURAL’s products and services.
COVID-19, says Beccar, brought "a new reality to some people who didn’t know what the world of remote work was all about.” In the past, a considerable part of MURAL’s sales and marketing efforts focused on educating customers on why they needed a digital tool to collaborate visually. With COVID-19, however, companies quickly realized that they needed a tool to operate in a remote-first reality. COVID-19, says Beccar, “educated the market way quicker than we could have done by ourselves.”
Suarez-Battan and his team realized that they could achieve their yearly OKRs in a quarter. So that’s exactly what they sought out to do. “Our yearly OKRs became our quarterly OKRs,” says Beccar. One of those objectives, for example, was to be a public example of a high-performing distributed team. Rather than aiming to do that by the end of 2020, Beccar says, MURAL saw an opportunity to achieve that by the middle of the year. With so many more looking for information on how remote-first companies function, the marketing team doubled down on writing blog posts, sharing their stories on mainstream media outlets, and ensuring that they were present in conversations that involved remote work. Another objective they had originally set included the number of new customers they were hoping to onboard. Beccar and Suarez-Battan declined to provide specific figures but said that the surge in demand meant that the number they were hoping to achieve in December became the number they aimed for in June.
Adapting to an increased workload amid a global pandemic
Of course, meeting goals on an accelerated timeline involves a reshuffle in priorities, and changes to one’s work schedule and its day-to-day. That wasn’t easy to execute in the middle of a global pandemic. Lindsey Eatough is an enterprise transformation manager at the company. Her team helps and advises MURAL’s customers on how they can best transform their digital workspace. As demand for MURAL’s products grew, so did the need for the services she oversaw. That required Eatough to grow her team, and to work “on the art of saying “no,” something that the rest of the company also had to learn to do quickly. Says Suarez-Battan, “The most complicated part was helping my team be okay with saying no, or doing things “good enough” as we moved through this incredible growth time.”
On using OKRs effectively as a company
MURAL wasn’t alone in having to adapt due to unforeseen changes triggered by COVID-19, but Beccar said that the structure and pillars that the company had built—including implementing OKRs—helped the team maintain its focus and work towards its goals.
Having OKRs, Beccar says, “gave a lot of clarity and alignment to the team. We were not running around like headless chickens.” Leadership could point to the OKRs that the company had set from earlier in the year, and make a plan on how they can get to those key results in a faster timeframe. “I think it helped us a lot to have this in place. It gave us a place where we can grab each other and say, okay, these are our pillars, we discuss them, we understand them, we know what we’re doing, let’s use them.”
Beccar also believes that a key aspect of what made OKRs so effective in MURAL is that it’s less of a top-down effort than a collaborative one. His previous experiences with OKRs had been more of a ‘cascading’ arrangement, where individuals and team managers had less ownership of the objectives at a team level. “There was a disconnect between the company and the individual because the teams didn’t have the glue that we need in OKRs, what I find MURAL does very well is that the team level OKRs become the glue between the company OKRs and the individual OKRs.”
Implementing OKRs successfully requires three things, says Beccar. First, the organization needs to be nimble, and willing to adapt. There is no such thing as a silver-bullet, he says. “Every company is different. You need to pick up the bits and pieces you see working in other companies or any books that you see out there, and apply it to your own company.” Secondly, start with leadership alignment, but make sure that you get buy-in from individual teams and middle-managers.
Third, establish OKRs as the “drumbeat” of one’s work. OKRs shouldn’t be something that you just think about two to three weeks before the quarter, Beccar says, but something that managers discuss with their team members at least every other week. “If you don’t have that drumbeat, you will never be able to detect when you need to pivot,” says Beccar. “You’ll only be able to see it at the end of the quarter,” he says, when you realize, “Oh, this objective didn’t really make sense six weeks in, so I didn’t do anything else.”
Having OKRs as the drumbeat is really crucial for MURAL, says Beccar. As a remote-first company, “we trust our employees, we give them autonomy to do work wherever they want, however they want. OKRs help you see what everyone else is doing.”
Beccar stresses the company doesn’t care whether employees do their work “at night, in the weekend, or in the mornings.” The only thing that matters, says Beccar, is that the work that they do contributes toward their objectives and key results for the quarter.
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