June 15, 2020

How OKRs help Rakuten, BetterCloud & Formstack run remote teams

Aaron Terrazas
Aaron Terrazas

Running remote teams with OKRs

Every company has their own story on how they’ve had to change, for better or worse, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only have organizations had to deal with the business impacts, but they have had to work on how to smoothly run fully remote teams. It’s not easy to make that switch, especially when you weren’t planning on moving your entire organization to remote. 

In a recent roundtable discussion with CEO Vetri Vellore, leaders from Rakuten, BetterCloud and Formstack shared how their companies have adjusted goals since COVID, and how they’ve used OKRs to foster alignment, transparency and focus at every level of their organization. 

The shift to remote 

Miranda Nicholson, VP of Human Resources at Formstack, said that even though the company was operating 60% remotely before COVID, it didn’t mean that switching to completely remote didn’t come with challenges both at an employee and business level. 

When the switch happened, the data management company looked at adjusted schedules and supporting self care and mental health for their employees. They are also learning how they can further support their customers, many of which have new needs. 

One unexpected surprise Formstack has seen is an uptick in their eSign product. Because of COVID, customers are now needing to digitize their paper processes. 

For Rakuten, VP of Corporate Strategy Ashish Sharma said that the move to online has benefited the e-commerce and online retail company greatly as shoppers turn online while stores are closed. 

Because of this, Sharma says the company is pivoting to new categories where they’ve seen demand explode. 

As for employees, Sharma said that although most were in the office pre-COVID, they were used to video conferencing with Rakuten satellite offices in other locations. 

The increased adoption of video conferencing because of remote work is something Sharma thinks will stick long term. 

At BetterCloud, VP of Financial Planning & Analysis Joseph Iantosca said the switch to remote for their 300 employees was flawless from the technology standpoint for the SaaS management company.  

“In a lot of ways it was just new location, same laptop,” Iantosca said. 

Iantosca said the company has been focusing on keeping employees engaged in the new environment and also focusing on mental health as employees face new challenges outside of work such as balancing child care. 

The OKR journey 

Rakuten’s OKR journey started a little over a year ago. Sharma said the company was using a more traditional top-down framework at the time. 

“The question in front of us in the leadership team was we hired these really smart people, why do we keep telling them what to do and why don’t we have them come up with the right products and projects to be working on,” Sharma said. 

Sharma says the OKR format has had significant advantages over the traditional top-down method, and has brought out creativity within the organization. 

Formstack’s OKR journey began about four years ago with the company switching to to use OKRs this past year. 

“We realized we needed to align our businesses objectives with our team objectives the bigger we became. We looked at a few things and landed on OKRs,” Nicholson said. 

Nicholson added that adopting OKRs was rocky at first not realizing the power it had to truly suit the needs of the business. 

“It’s a framework not a rule book. We found over time ways to adapt it to fit our needs.”

Formstack first began using OKRs with an in-house product.

“The business was growing faster than that product could grow,” Nicholson said. “We got to a point that it didn’t work for us anymore, then we reverted to Google Sheets, which is sometimes the best or worse idea….that was a worse idea for us.” 

Mid-to-late last year Formstack started looking at reintroducing a software when they found 

“We needed reporting functions, something that would show a trend upward over time and where we could drill down and see if people are setting the right objectives, are people aligned appropriately, are teams communicating and do we know where these things stand…and we found,” Nicholson said. 

Related: How OKRs are helping us stay focused on what matters at

Iantosca said that BetterCloud has always had a goal-oriented culture focused on what is important and using data to drive decisions. 

“In a lot of ways we had all the pieces there, but what we needed was some unifying fabric…for everyone in the company to understand how their objectives ladder into what the organization is trying to do.” 

In February, company leaders went over their vision statement, strategies and annual OKRs. 

“We felt amazing in February, we had never felt more aligned. The entire organization was at and we never had a higher level of transparency,” Iantosca said. 

COVID-19 and OKRs 

“Then, like everyone else, COVID hit us in the face and we are adapting now,” Iantosca said. 

Iantosca said BetterCloud is asking the questions on what goals need to be reset and what strategies need to be rethought. 

“We are kind of in the middle of that process and we will always be evaluating,” he said. 

One thing that hasn’t changed, Iantosca said, is their approach to OKRs. 

“An entire goal around in-person events, that’s impossible, so that goal needs to be rethought,” Iantosca said. “We are going to continue to stretch the organization in the right places to stay on the right track…we just continue to test all of our goals and make adjustments when necessary.” 

Sharma said they have also had to rethink their goals at Rakuten. 

“With the business changing so dramatically, we have to change our areas of focus and the goals we set for them,” he said. 

Sharma says that OKRs provide strategic clarity to the organization during these changing times. 

“Even if you don’t have the goals set down to the specific KPI, at least being very transparent and clear about the direction the organization is taking is very important and that is a tremendous value OKRs bring,” Sharma said. 

For Nicholson, OKRs provide a sense of normalcy in a world that is not normal right now, she said. 

“It’s a means to communicate how we are doing as teams, a way to provide focus in what feels like a very chaotic world…it illustrates that while everything around us is changing, we are still the same business,” Nicholson said. “We are still focused on the same things and all working on common goals.” 

For Formstack, COVID’s impact on business includes a reduction in hiring, which means that the talent acquisition’s OKRs are at risk. 

“You’re not saying set a goal and you’re stuck with that goal for the rest of the quarter. You learn, adapt and pivot,” Nicholson said. “For us, it’s that tolerance and understanding if people aren’t able to achieve the goals they set at the beginning of the quarter…”

Related: How to connect your business mission to long-term outcomes using OKRs

Iantosca said 100% of their employees at BetterCloud are able to see the company’s OKRs, but that they don’t force everyone to use OKRs. 

“Through this approach, we’ve had groups within the organization naturally adopt OKRs…they either felt out or managers are like, ‘wow I see how well this is working to get the company aligned and I want to adopt this.’” 

When it comes to setting good OKRs, Nicholson says expecting perfection at first is just not realistic.

“You have to teach the skill and then allow people to set really crappy OKRs and learn from that experience and build on that skill,” she said. 

Iantosca said they make sure the company level OKRs are as tight as possible and at the end of the quarter, they go through every OKR and discuss learning opportunities. 

“You’re going to have those OKRs that you don’t feel great about that are business as usual…but pick one thing you are passionate about and you want to improve on and make that an OKR, make that a personal development aspect,” Nicholson said. “I think that creates an excitement about setting future OKRs when you have a personal stake in the matter.” 

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