How to Build the Workforce of the Future With OKRs

Using OKRs to power growth, engagement, and diversity.

woman speaking in okr meeting

Laszlo Block, former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, saw first-hand how crucial OKRs were to Google’s success. Now, with his new company Humu, he’s using OKRs to spotlight the company’s top priorities and define a culture for the future.

Over the 10 years that Laszlo Bock led human resources at Google, no other workforce received more attention and admiration. Rated by Fortune as America’s top place to work seven times from 2006 to 2016, Google took a high-freedom, peer-driven approach, giving employees enviable perks and wide latitude to set goals — as opposed to the top-down, low-freedom environment of most large companies.

Asked by a television reporter whether Google represents the corporate culture of the future and whether the hierarchical, command-and-control model would fade away, Bock replied, “Someday, perhaps.”

If that someday is to arrive, it will be ushered in by Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), he argues. In a series of recent interviews, Bock stressed how he recommends relying more than ever on the clear and precise protocol of OKRs to help manage workforces that must become both more diverse and more engaged while also becoming more technology-mediated.

How OKRs create a purpose-driven culture

Bock credits much of his success at Google to the OKR system, which was in already in place when he arrived.

It was an ongoing challenge, he said, to assimilate 10,000 new workers per year while keeping everybody productive and aligned. “Every single quarter there was a focus on what are the goals and how we were going to achieve them. OKRs were the through-line that caused that system to actually work and scale. It was really the key to Google’s growth.”

Bock now sees vast opportunities to bring what he learned at Google to other organizations. A well-publicized Gallup engagement survey shows about 70% of U.S. employees feel disconnected from their work. Author of the bestseller Work Rules, Bock stepped down from his Google post in 2016 to launch Humu, an ambitious startup to help large organizations improve those engagement levels using artificial intelligence and behavioral science. Humu’s software aims to boost happiness, productivity, and retention.

If Humu is successful, it will mean that the workplace of the future will, paradoxically, be mediated by technology that nudges employees to do more and more humanistic things, such as meeting face-to-face more often and providing continuous feedback to co-workers, rather than waiting for regimented, year-end performance reviews.

Indeed, human factors must always remain central to motivating people. “OKRs provide clarity of purpose,” Bock said. “The most talented people on the planet want an aspiration that is inspiring. The challenge for leaders is to craft such a goal.”

That involves providing your people with a mission that drives engagement. As John Doerr writes in Measure What Matters, OKRs provides the what and the how. Before you set your goals, you must first answer the question, “Why?

At Humu, Bock is implementing OKRs to manage Humu’s own workforce, which has grown to 45 people. “The biggest problem OKRs are going to help us solve is prioritization,” Bock said. “We see OKRs as a mechanism to give everybody visibility and transparency into what’s going on, just as it did at Google.”

Addressing diversity with OKRs

At Google, Bock broke the ice on the diversity issue in 2014 by first publishing the company’s workforce breakdown, revealing that Google’s employees were 70% male and 60% white, while only 2% Black and 3% Hispanic and Latino.

“We’ve always been reluctant to publish numbers about the diversity of our workforce at Google,” Bock wrote. “We now realize we were wrong, and it’s time to be candid about the issues.”

At the time these numbers came out, Google responded, in part, by pointing to its substantial funding of organizations focusing on increasing the numbers of women and minorities in computer science degree programs.

But more broadly across the tech industry, diversity becomes an even bigger challenge when you look higher in organizations, according to a study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Among top-level tech executives, 83.3% are white, while just 2% are black, 3% are Hispanic and Latino, and Asian Americans are at 10.6%, while representing about a third of the overall workforce.

Laszlo Bock acknowledges that subtle forms of discrimination do indeed creep in if you don’t work hard to counter them. "The biggest thing we’ve seen is that people don’t overtly identify as sexist, but there is a plethora of unconscious biases that we have,” Bock told Inc. magazine.

The answer, he argues, is that diversity at all levels needs to be made a top priority.

How OKRs can serve new priorities

Bock says OKRs have a big role in solving the diversity issue — the challenge is elevating it to the very top of the list of Objectives and continually measuring progress. As Bock says: “Putting structure around prioritization helps us solve the issue of, ‘Where is management on this stuff?’”

The OKR system has proven to be flexible and adaptable to changing needs. “Getting clarity on the top five things and their order is really helpful because then we can say, ‘We’re going to spend 98% of the time on these focus areas and only a small fraction on the other part,’” Bock said.

After all, OKRs are about much more than increasing revenue and profits; it’s about building the culture you want to see. “One of the beautiful things John Doerr taught me about OKRs was how they force a different conversation about Key Results,” Bock says. “You want to drive certain behaviors, not have everyone be a machine. It’s not just about dollars. It’s about, 'what’s the higher order Objective I’m going towards?’”

If you’re interested in starting our OKRs 101 course, click here.

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