OKRs for a New, Remote Normal

How to navigate working from home during a global pandemic.

A remote work call on Zoom.

In this unchartered reality, our teams, companies, and industries are transforming at a rapid speed. Expectations have changed as employees navigate working from home with family demands, and our priorities and goals are beginning to shift as everyone braces for impact. As countless teams are now 100% virtual, many of us are getting a crash course in what it means to become an online team player.

In this new era of trying to remain both sequestered and connected, every team has had to reset, refocus, and course-correct to adapt to new realities. Yet focus, alignment, and transparency can be a challenge when people can’t convene face to face.

Luckily, if you’re confronting this challenge, you are not alone. We’re getting stories every day from teams adapting and evolving for the better, and companies finding opportunity in the midst of uncertainty. You too can lead your team, company, and industry through the unknown and become stronger in the process.

OKRs were built for moments like these

In Measure What Matters, John Doerr writes, “One underrated virtue of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) is that they can be tracked — and then revised or adapted as circumstances dictate.” He said, “Unlike traditional, frozen, ‘set them and forget them’ business goals, OKRs are living, breathing organisms.”

We are now beyond business as usual. As we all face difficult challenges ahead, the first adjustment is rethinking how to work in separate locations; the second is to factor the new workflow into how we will realign on the shared mission. Although the mission and destination may remain the same, many of us will need to rethink how and when we get there — meaning, your Objectives and Key Results will likely need some renovation.

In a recent video, Ryan Panchadsaram, co-founder and head coach of What Matters, said: “OKRs were never meant to be these rigid rails, they were meant to be a tool for your teams to collectively commit to something.”

As teams rethink their current OKRs — or set new ones — Coach Ryan recommends pivoting focus on what’s most important at the moment — and steering your OKRs toward those newly emerging priorities.

He said, “OKRs are really meant to be the most concise way to articulate where you want to go and how you get there. Think about how you can use it as a tool to give clarity, to give confidence, and to get buy-in from everyone.”

OKRs were built for this challenge of change. Andy Grove, the founder of OKRs, once said, “Bad companies are destroyed by crisis. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.” Agile Strategies and Culture Trip are two organizations taking Grove’s advice to heart and quickly shifting gears.

Reorienting, reconnecting, and resetting in the moment

Dan Montgomery is an OKR coach and the founder and managing director of Agile Strategies, a Denver-based coaching and consulting firm. Like many companies and teams around the world, in just a couple of weeks, Agile became 100% virtual.

Montgomery believes that with the new all-virtual workplace, trusting others to self-manage their time is critical. He explained, “This is a great opportunity to get better at managing people around outcomes rather than tasks or, worse yet, punching a virtual clock to prove they’re working.”

“Many employees working from home genuinely have big challenges, including bored kids, sick relatives and an unending stream of bad news,” he said. “They need the flexibility right now and will appreciate your trust in them.”

To support employees through the transition, Montgomery emphasized the value of using OKRs to quickly identify what matters most in this moment, and quickly realign everything with those priorities.

Writing good OKRs demands that the group stays really focused,” he said. “This is harder to do when everyone’s at home on a computer than in a room together. Our experience has taught us how to run an effective virtual session, and that’s been a great benefit for us and our clients.”

Changing the cadence at Culture Trip

Culture Trip is a global travel, media and entertainment startup that creates location-centered stories from around the world. Recognized by Forbes as “one of the fastest-growing British companies to watch,” the UK-based startup partners with an international network of freelance creators to share unique travel destinations stories. On their website and app, users can plan their next trip and access travel stories and other entertainment content.

Working at the intersection of creative and tech, Dmitry Shishkin is the chief content officer at Culture Trip. He shared how, in Spring of 2020, the Culture Trip team adjusted quickly and course-corrected their content strategy and OKRs.

Previously, Culture Trip typically operated on a quarterly OKR cadence. The team would make coverage commitments and coordinate with their contributor network well in advance. Yet when the pandemic created travel restrictions in many countries, the team made a quick pivot.

“The situation was changing so quickly that we decided to move to a monthly OKR cadence, to allow for more flexibility to adapt and react fast to the emerging needs across all business units,” said Shishkin.

On the content front, Culture Trip created two teams to respond to the crisis: a “Corona” squad and a reactive global squad. The Corona squad provides users with up-to-date travel information and advice for their own personal safety and well-being.

“Travel, going beyond our cultural boundaries and connecting with the world are at the heart of everything we do at Culture Trip,” said Shishkin. “It is at times like these that we become acutely aware that we are a global community all facing the same challenge.”

While the Corona team connects with users from a travel perspective, the reactive global squad, made up of local content creators, covers social media content, search, and unique content about social distancing.

Transparency, over-communication, resilience all come into play when you need to focus your teams,” said Shishkin.

Leaders at Culture Trip also began short daily catch-ups with their teams via video conference in the mornings and afternoons.

“We even swapped a weekly editorial highlights email to a bi-weekly one with data-led snippets and content pieces to look out for in the upcoming days,” he said. “It creates a sense of continuity and togetherness — and ensures that people have access to information through different channels, which helps them to focus.

okrs in times of crisis, roadsign showing uncertainty

Trust in the agility of OKRs

During unpredictable times, What Matters encourages you to trust in the agility of OKRs. Because they aren’t your typical “set them and forget them” business goals, they will give your team the best chance to quickly regroup and better adapt to a new reality.

“Now more than ever, the goals that we’re setting are so critical for us to be able to navigate what happens next,” says Coach Ryan.

Whether your team is reworking OKRs or implementing them for the first time in this new normal, keep the following in mind:

Be honest and transparent about what you can accomplish. As many of us move forward in virtual workplaces, transparency is more important than ever. It’s important to reset expectations, craft objectives accordingly, and regularly revisit goals weekly as priorities may shift. What’s more, aligning with the reality of this situation will require teams to ask tough questions. For example, Coach Ryan suggests asking:

  • Can our business or organization survive the change to our immediate future? If not, what must change and is that possible?
  • If yes, what are we trying to accomplish now? The month ahead? The quarter ahead?
  • What are measurable ways to get there?

Establish a collective commitment. Collective commitment is a direct result from trust — which can be challenging to build in a virtual environment. Establishing clear goals that everyone understands is a great place to start “When goals are public and visible to all, a ‘team of teams’“ can attack trouble spots wherever they surface,” wrote Doerr.

As the pandemic affected companies in a myriad of ways, it could be beneficial for teams to divide, conquer, and regroup around their OKRs, as Culture Trip has done with their response teams. It reinforces understanding how their individual roles add up to the big picture and adds to the feeling of mutual support and solving problems together.

Once everyone rallies around shared Objectives and goals, it’s just as important to keep a consistent cadence of communication with regular check-ins and updates. Repeating your OKRs in every conversation is a simple way to maintain focus and alignment, especially as new information surfaces. As Shishkin shared, “You ought to take people with you when introducing such new workflows, but you also need to help put the support systems in place so that they can succeed.”

Lift up other leaders. We’re all in this together. As we navigate this new normal, please share what’s working for you and your team. We’d love to hear from you and share your stories of how you’re focusing on what matters most.

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

A remote work Zoom call.

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Alexis Gonzales-Black holding an OKR meeting