WorkBoard at VMware
Chief Executive Officer
Business Process Owner:
VP of Execution & Transformation (Joel Neeb)
Organization-wide deployment (37,000+ employees)
Radical clarity and shared urgency to achieve the transformation strategy. Established a single, alignment language to describe the value of work.
Let’s start with the origin story. Tell us a little bit about your role at VMware.
Bryan Hope, Director of Unified Communications and Collaboration at VMware: I’ve been at VMware for just over 12 years. My role here today is leading the unified communication and collaboration team to deliver on its mission of enabling colleagues to do their best work with frictionless and delightful products, experiences, and work practices. For the past several years, this meant shifting VMware from being 80% in office to 95% remote or hybrid.
I imagine how VMware’s campus culture mixed with being very geographically distributed plays into the experience and collaboration dynamics.
Absolutely. As a global company, we shifted early in the Covid pandemic to allow complete colleague choice about whether someone chose to be an in-office colleague, someone at home, or someone hybrid between the two. That presents both a lot of opportunities and complexities in how you keep everyone connected across all those different locations and the different ways they might be accessing their work.
Take us to your first encounter with OKRs and with WorkBoard. Where did that all start?
I began working with OKRs about six or seven years ago here at VMware. At the time, we were self-taught by reading books and tracking our OKRs in PowerPoint and Excel. I brought OKRs into my current business unit around 2019 and 2020.
How does VMware use OKRs and the platform today?
In 2021, we made the decision to accelerate the execution of our strategy at VMware by adopting OKRs company-wide and launched OKRs and WorkBoard at the beginning of 2022 to tap into your expertise and product. Since then, OKRs have been expanding, starting up near the C-suite, and then further down into the company every quarter. Every colleague at VMware has immediate birthright access to Workboard as an application.
“I really embraced OKRs in my personal and professional life because they just seem obvious to me.”
How do you feel about OKRs as a personal mechanism — do you use them individually as a practice?
I really embraced OKRs in my personal and professional life because they just seem obvious to me — to start with an Objective and then break it down into the outcomes to ultimately achieve that Objective. It took planning to the next level. When I do my personal planning, like creating my own vision board every year, and thinking about what I want to achieve, it is such a simple framework for me.
A lot of companies are still unclear what model they want to use and how they might overcome some of the challenges. What are some of the challenges of a remote, hybrid, and ‘choose your own’ work experience and how do you move past them?
Let’s start with just what hybrid means itself. When I think about the way we’re working now, I think of it in both the context of hybrid and distributed work. Hybrid means that people may be doing their work on many different types of devices through many types of modalities. Distributed means they might be doing that from many different types of locations. Solving for this hybrid environment means solving for all the combinations of those two different variables. You could have someone in a conference room at an office working with someone who’s on a laptop at home, working with someone who’s on a mobile phone in a taxi. That is what hybrid distributed work really is. The challenge then is how do you ensure those colleagues are fully productive, but also fully included? And, how do you have an inclusive work culture across all those different possible combinations?
One of the challenges I hear often is when you have employees or individuals who rarely see their manager or mentors and can’t rise as quickly. What are some of the things you think about that help overcome that challenge for organizations?
You’ve touched on two important things, one of which is proximity bias — the perception that your career can accelerate faster if you’re visible and physically close to other people. The other is that people who are choosing to work remotely do have legitimate challenges in building their network across a company. It is harder to onboard and build that capital and that network across a company when you can’t be face-to-face. We’re trying to balance those two things of not recognizing and rewarding proximity bias, but also recognizing that we do have to teach people and enable people to make real connections across a distance. One of the ways that we’re tackling it is recognizing that it’s not one size fits all.
You probably can’t be a hundred percent remote a hundred percent of the time and succeed, but we also don’t need you in the office a hundred percent of the time. What’s most important is we recognize the right medium for the right type of work. What is the right type of work that’s best served by being in an office, and how do we encourage that? And then what is the right type of work that can be done completely remotely without any negative consequence? In some cases that means investing in travel to bring remote colleagues together, and sometimes that means investing in tools that allow you to collaborate across the distance.
Has that changed how you intentionally bring people together?
Absolutely. First, it’s changed how we recommend that people use their time in the office. We’re very conscious that when you do come in the office, don’t sit on video conferencing all day — you can do that from home. Open your calendar on the days that you’re going to be in the office and leave time to wander around, bump into people, and make new connections. It’s changed the tools that we’ve chosen to deploy across the company. One of the things we rolled out very early after the shift to hybrid work was a visual collaboration platform, because the number one question we were getting from colleagues was, how do I replicate the experience of standing around a whiteboard when we’re not all in the same room? With our rollout of WorkBoard, which allows any colleague to go in and see company Objectives, it replaces the news and signage that was once posted in the office.
“By having that consistent methodology, it reduces wasted time switching back and forth and allows you to focus more on the Objective.”
The transparency that comes with being able to see what other teams are working on is a powerful aspect of the WorkBoard platform, particularly for those that are relatively new in the organization.
Absolutely. Especially for companies at scale or companies that are distributed across multiple locations. You can’t know everybody, and you can’t know every activity that’s happening. It’s amazing when I go in the platform and I search for keywords, how I can discover what other people are working on and how it’s related to what I’m doing, and that was never at my fingertips before.
As a person who values OKRs themselves, how do you think about the confusion between team OKRs and personal OKRs, and how can we harmonize them?
A learning I’ve had is to remember that when we ask people to think about adopting team OKRs or personal Objectives we’re asking them to make a change, so normal change management principles apply. We must get them on board with the idea, get them comfortable, and really take them through that change management journey. I think sometimes, we might fast forward over that because we’re so attached to team Objectives that it seems obvious to us why personal Objectives are beneficial. So, we can’t skip that change management exercise, but then the benefits are very clear.
The consistent format and methodology between the two different types of Objectives really just means less context switching. There’s a lot of studies that talk about the tax of people context switching between applications all day long.
The same thing applies if you’re trying to switch back and forth between methodologies in your head. By having that consistent methodology, it reduces wasted time switching back and forth and allows you to focus more on the Objective.
It also helps keep things top of mind. Here we’ve adopted WorkBoard as a platform where we’re putting our team Objectives. When you put your personal Objectives into WorkBoard as well, now they’re there together.
Every time I go into Workboard at least once a week to update my OKRs, my personal Objectives are right there alongside them. I’m much less likely to forget about them than if I have to go to a separate application.
Functionalities like Meetings, Workstreams, and Biz Reviews in WorkBoard along with keeping your personal Objectives in the platform creates more of a stickiness and more value for the colleague to spend time in the platform and reduces having to switch to multiple other platforms.
“Having team Objectives well ingrained in the company language and culture already makes it easier to add personal OKRs to the mix.”
Having what we’re trying to accomplish as a team and my own growth and personal business commitments — does sitting next to each other makes them more likely to be aligned?
Yes, even from a timeframe perspective. We often use OKRs on a quarterly basis, and MBOs are often done every 6 to 12 months. Now that they’re aligned, we’re also building personal Objectives on a quarterly basis, the same timeframe as when we’re setting OKRs. I’m sure we’ve all had that experience of setting a goal at the beginning of the year, and then you review it 12 months later trying to record that you’ve achieve that goal when you really didn’t think about it throughout the year, and that’s not adding value.
How do you distinguish between the focal areas of OKRs versus a personal OKR?
I try to keep it simple, and the language we use to describe these things is important. For me, team OKRs are what the business is working to achieve. These are team and business goals, and there’s usually multiple people or teams involved. Working on a particular OKR and personal OKRs are for my own individual personal and professional development. The people who might be working on those OKRs are myself, perhaps my boss, a coach, a mentor. There are two different audiences of people working on these two different types of Objectives.
One of the questions I get asked often is: Are your personal OKRs your best possible outcomes? Is there a difference in how aspirational the team OKRs and the personal OKRs should be?
As a best practice, when you’re setting Objectives, you as a team or a company should decide how aspirational you are so that you have consistent expectations. On the personal OKRs, that’s probably between you and your manager to consciously decide at the beginning — are we going to be aspirational and aim for 80% attainment, or do we want to be a bit conservative and aim for a hundred percent? I think it’s just about having that conversation upfront.
How did VMware, and how do you think organizations can, be effective about how to use Team OKRs, versus personal goals or personal OKRs?
I think what worked well for us is that we didn’t try to do both at the same time. We started with team and company OKRs, and spent an entire year really focused on those during the first span of adoption across the company. At a certain point, we started to produce some documentation and materials about personal Objectives, and they were enabled for people to use. It wasn’t until our second year that we’ve started to promote the use of personal Objectives. Having team Objectives well ingrained in the company language and culture already makes it easier to add personal OKRs to the mix.
Was it easy enough for people to distinguish between MBO history and team OKRs?
It was a challenging area especially depending on where you are in the company and whether you’ve had high adoption of the earlier tool or not. There were also people interested in the adoption of the tool itself. We started by making personal Objectives available without turning off the old legacy capability. We’ve started to promote personal Objectives, and we’ve also created a temporary kind of parody between the two. Colleagues can fill out either one, and both of them will feed into our managers’ scorecards. When a people leader is looking at the health of their team and their talent and the tools, we give them to help assess that. It does bring into consideration whether that colleague has a personal Objective defined or a historical MBO in the platforms. We tried to create this opportunity for people to choose for a little bit, and then maybe in the future we’ll lean more heavily into prescribing one.
As a company, the last few years have been all change. We’re looking for the areas where we can let colleagues choose the pace at what they change versus the areas where we as a company must define that change to be successful.
“The Objective of those AI implementations really is going to be about improving colleague productivity, enabling them to do their work better and faster.”
Generative AI has the potential to change how we think about just about everything, including how we set team Objectives and our personal Objectives. Tell us – what excites you about generative AI?
It’s something we’re thinking about a lot. What’s most challenging to get our heads around is that it’s such a broad topic that it’s going to show up in our lives in many ways. We’re breaking it down into how we think it’s going to come into our daily lives here at VMware and how we work. The first one we think we’re going to see is AI will come in through a trusted application that we already have in our ecosystem. This is where we’ll see companies like WorkBoard bring in capabilities to help write higher quality OKRs faster. The Objective of those AI implementations really is going to be about improving colleague productivity, enabling them to do their work better and faster.
As we progress beyond those, we’ll start to see AI coming in other ways. For example, tapping into Azure Open AI is something we’re exploring where it’s an API driven AI model. It requires more development and more investment to get it up and running, but it’s going to be built directly into business processes to increase automation.
Another way we think about it is, how do we build it into our own products? How are we as VMware going to build AI into our products to help our customers achieve efficiency, productivity, and a better experience?
“The concept of publishing an operating rhythm that everyone can adapt to is very powerful, and someone needs to be sure that people are following through on it.”
So much opportunity is in front of us. The ability to just synthesize information and serve it to people quickly is such an accelerant. You get to use your brain power for higher order thinking, and you get to use it more often, and I’m incredibly excited about what that means. We’re watching what we can do to generate smart Objectives and Key Results for teams versus how long it takes for them to look upline and look at their prior quarter, think it through, and come up with a draft. You can shortcut that by hours.
Giving people a draft to react to is much easier and faster than starting from scratch. That’s what’s hard about adopting OKRs – it is having to learn how to use the language. We can shortcut that for people and reduce the pain of change.
I would agree. I think that even with OKRs, especially the methodology might seem simple, but writing a high-quality Objective and Key Results is hard. It takes practice. It’s worth investing in proper training and coaching to get good at it. You get benefits and dividends from investing that time to make sure you’re writing high quality OKRs. Another AI use case that we’re seeing come up a lot is summarization. We think about it as a company that has a large sales force — when a new account executive comes onto an account, the power of having AI summarize the last three years of customer account history as a starting point for getting that can cut days, weeks, and months out of their learning curve.
What advice would you offer other people who have a similar role and similar passion areas as you? How might they engage and take that opportunity to lead a bigger impact? I think what’s important to remember is you don’t have to have a role or a job title that says strategy and execution to start the momentum. Anyone can start the conversation. You will eventually have to get to a point where you recognize that strategy and adopting OKRs is not just something that you say you do. Leadership cannot just tell their direct reports, go have a strategy and make some OKRs – you have to focus on and invest in it. That’s going to mean different things to different companies. For a company at a larger scale like VMware, this probably means having a results management office or an execution office within the C-suite, people who are mandated and tasked with driving the strategy and the execution of that strategy with OKRs.
For smaller companies, maybe you don’t have people dedicated to it, but it might mean making it an official part of someone’s role to drive on behalf of the company. That has been a key learning for me — having people that have that focus is a critical success factor.
In either of these scenarios, these people are then responsible for defining that operating rhythm for the company. The concept of publishing an operating rhythm that everyone can adapt to is very powerful, and someone needs to be sure that people are following through on it.
Another success factor is building your community of practitioners who will help with the change. Especially at the size of a company like VMware, we’ve been very intentional that the results management office is creating the community of practice for OKR practitioners. We’re investing in building a vibrant community of people who come together on a regular basis, who we preview the strategy with, who we touch base with as they go through these quarterly ceremonies to set their OKRs. That allows you to scale and touch all the different teams that must reset their OKRs every quarter. You can’t do that with just one or two people in a results management office. You need that scale of the community of practice — and that’s been a big critical success factor for us.
“You’re not going to get it right out of the gate - allow people to bump into each other, allow them to stumble a little bit, and empower your people to fail a little bit.”
How many people are in that community now?
We’ve got several hundred people at this point. We’ve been very focused on the senior director community at VMware, which has a scale that’s quite broad, has a lot of influence as very senior leaders in the organization, and is a very vibrant community. We also have a differentiation between people trained as OKR coaches and those trained as experts on the platform. Different people are good at either of those roles. We let people find what they’re good at and allow them to tap into training in that discipline.
Your first bit of advice is perhaps the most valuable lever. We’ll have people responsible for the operating cadence of our execution against the strategy we care about and be intentional about driving the pace and cadence of alignment and execution against that. That turns out to be one of the most common mistakes that we see in leaders who want to roll out OKRs but don’t allocate the resources to have someone responsible for that cadence and rhythm.
The leaders who are sponsoring the change have to also recognize and empower their colleagues to know that they’re not going to get it right all at once. It takes several quarters of doing OKRs to start to feel like it’s a natural practice. You have to learn a new cadence and concepts. It took me several quarters myself to start to feel like I was going through a familiar process. You’re not going to get it right out of the gate — allow people to bump into each other, allow them to stumble a little bit, and empower your people to fail a little bit. And you can’t shame them for having that failure of a particular KR because that shows up publicly in WorkBoard or in whatever platform you choose. You have to empower them to be honest and recognize that you’re not going to achieve every OKR, and that’s okay.