As a co-founder and COO, I know the importance of authentic connections in fueling growth--in believing in each other and in working together toward one vision. I've also learned that executives need to set an example to offer our time and undivided attention in order for employees to feel connected because building relationships at work starts with access.
It was easy for my co-founder Todd McKinnon and me to build and maintain personal relationships when we were 100 employees or less. We all worked on one floor in one office and interacted in some way everyday. Now our headquarters in San Francisco is split between two buildings and we have offices all over the world. We can't rely on daily encounters to connect with hundreds of employees. Instead, we give them access to us via our open office set-up, we encourage regular skip-level one-on-ones and transparency during company-wide meetings, discourage the use of technology during those meetings, and we go into every conversation with a "small mouth, big ears" mindset. The result? An open, collaborative culture where relationships develop outside of direct reports and teams.
Believe in An "Open Office" Policy
Mark Zuckerberg famously doesn't have his own personal office. (Some Facebook employees call the conference room he uses "the fishbowl" because of its glass walls.) Abandoning the traditional walled off corner office makes him and the others who have followed suit--Indiegogo CEO Slava Rubin and HubSpot's CEO and COO don't even have desks--to make themselves more approachable. And while there are many arguments against "open office" policies, I believe the pros outweigh the cons.
At Okta, no one has a personal office and our desks don't have any barriers, encouraging cross communication. Employees interact easily throughout the day and approach managers and executives without having to schedule a meeting. Our set-up isn't without rigor or rules--executives all sit in one area, sales has their own floor, etc.--but the lack of walls encourages mingling among those who might not normally interact. Our head of product can easily jump into a conversation between our chief customer officer and head of sales about a feature request or an upcoming rollout--and the exchange will make our customers more successful. Our open office structure encourages these interactions.
Encourage Feedback from All Directions and Levels
Casual cross-office conversations should be supplemented with one-on-one meetings and company gatherings. Todd and I make ourselves available to all employees by hosting skip-level meetings, in which executive management bypasses mid-level management to meet directly with employees.
Not only do skip-level meetings show employees that we value their opinions, but they also give us the chance to hear feedback and learn about team priorities, and how different members work together. Both parties gain from these experiences, which is why Todd and I prioritize them, setting aside a few hours each week for the effort. They're tough to balance with the daily rigors of growing a business, but it's just as important to stay in touch with your employees as it is customers, as it is your board.
Don't Hide Behind Technology
Todd and I will never be able to individually meet with every employee, but we do give them the opportunity to approach us with just about anything. And that doesn't mean via email, Confluence or Slack. We've held weekly company-wide meetings since our outset in 2009, and unlike most, these have become conversations instead of presentations. We field questions from the audience, we answer anonymous questions (received via email) on the spot and we regularly share decks from important meetings. Todd also often calls up various organization heads without giving them any warning to share on a certain project. That in-person access--whether one-on-one or company-wide--is invaluable in building trust and transparency with our growing team.
Of note, we also discourage the use of technology during meetings across the company, all-hands and otherwise. I actually take shorthand notes in a notebook that I then transfer to my Evernote-- I have over 1,000 notes--because I want whoever I'm meeting with to know that with access, comes my full attention.
Channel Your Inner Fennec Fox
When in meetings, I channel my inner fennec fox and use my ears more than my mouth. (If you're not familiar with the species, do yourself a favor and do a quick Google Image search.) I want employees to know their feedback matters so I let them do the talking; I sit back and listen. I have my selfish reasons, too. The most productive meetings are ones where I learn something and I'm not going to learn anything if I'm not paying attention.
Todd and I do our best to lead by example with a "small mouth, big ears" mindset because, as much as we offer access and prioritize building relationships, employees have to buy in as well. In order to build a successful company, everyone has to feel connected in a meaningful way. It's our job to make that as easy as possible.