Setting OKRs Remotely


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After my last article on OKR and COVID-19, some people reached out to me looking for tips on how to set OKRs now that many of us are working from home. I have asked Ian Harvey, Senior Portfolio Director at Elsevier, to write a guest post describing how they are setting OKRs with remote teams, and he kindly agreed.

Enter Ian.

Elsevier is an analytics business that helps institutions and professionals progress science and advance healthcare. It has evolved from a small Dutch publishing house into a global company combining content and technology to provide actionable insights. 

My role is Senior Portfolio Director and core to this is helping teams define the outcomes they are striving to achieve. The focus on outcomes over outputs is a constant theme in my career. 

Sudden changes require quick thinking

For almost all organisations, the OKRs for Q2 2020 will have one thing in common: They will be set by fully distributed teams. For Elsevier, this was a new challenge and we decided to share how we approached it for one of our key product teams.

When the Covid-19 lockdown hit, our existing support of working from home was a big advantage. Educating and caring for our kids during work hours and social distancing are major new challenges, but from a technology perspective, we are prepared to support distributed teams.

Our previous experience with OKR

We’ve been working with OKR for two years as a global technology organisation with multiple hubs, and we aren’t strangers to distributed meetings, but generally something crucial like OKR setting is done face to face. Until now.

Generally something crucial like OKR setting is done face to face. Until now.

At the start of the year, we supported some of our product groups with a two-day face-to face-workshop. We started with OKR training as a group, then a Q&A, before reiterating the organisational and product strategies.

The teams then moved to their own meeting rooms and set their OKRs with some facilitated guidance. Finally we had each team share with the group. As a co-located exercise, it worked well!

Shifting to a distributed format

But then the lockdown came, and we had to rethink our approach when another product team of around 30 people wanted support.

We didn’t do too much differently in advance. The two-hour meeting was in the calendar nice and early and we asked the team to bring their updated Q1 key results and to think about what they wanted to achieve in Q2.

The session started with a 20-minute refresher/Q&A. We touched on the principles of great OKRs, the testing of hypotheses and we shared some good and bad examples of Key Results.

So far, moving the OKR setting meetings online is the only thing that has changed with our OKR process.

Making the most of video meetings

One of the key challenges for facilitators of remote meetings is reading the room. We’re long-term users of Zoom and I tend to use the gallery view to split screen with my presentation, but ideally you’d have a second monitor to watch the audience. In an OKR session we want the whole team to contribute!

You have to earn your stripes as a facilitator in a virtual meeting. Even with video it is far harder to get the visual cues that somebody is disengaged or that they disagree with a point, but aren’t speaking up.

You have to earn your stripes as a facilitator in a virtual meeting. Even with video it is far harder to get the visual cues that somebody is disengaged or that they disagree with a point, but aren’t speaking up. Having everybody on camera is important.

Zoom really helped with the next step. We gave each squad a breakout room, which is essentially their own private Zoom meeting, but still connected to the core meeting. 

I could move between the breakout rooms to answer questions and to ensure everyone contributed. It’s much easier to do this in smaller groups. As the meeting organiser you can join rooms manually or teams can request you join them. You can also move people between rooms if needed.

If you’re using Teams, Google Meet, Skype or something similar, there is an alternative. Schedule additional meetings for each squad to run concurrently with your main meeting. Give the squads the URL for their individual meeting so they have a space for their discussion. You can choose which squad to join at any point. Share the meeting links in Teams chat or your similar tool, if people get disconnected it’s quick to rejoin. You can then ask people to rejoin the main meeting when the time for setting OKRs is up. It’s not quite as convenient, but it will do the job.

Felipe’s comment: This short video explains how to create breakout rooms in MS Teams.

Within the breakout room teams used a shared Confluence page with one person editing and displaying the OKRs as they worked on them.

We timeboxed the OKR setting to 50 minutes and I warned the teams via a broadcast message when that time was nearly up. When you close the breakout rooms, the teams have a minute to finish up before they return to the main meeting. This is a nice feature.

Our session finished with each squad sharing their  proposed OKRs. I’m pleased to say we had some great examples of outcome-focused thinking on display. All in all, the session was very successful and the next one will be even better.

OKR training for other teams

We’ve also used Zoom for a two-hour OKR training session. Our particular training includes some exercises undertaken using the liberating structures 1-2-4-All technique. This is a group collaboration approach that gets everybody engaged, delivering better results than informal breakout sessions.

You start with silent self-reflection by individuals, then move on to generate ideas in pairs, building on ideas from self-reflection. Next you share and develop ideas from your pair in foursomes. Finally each group shares with everyone. All the stages are time limited.

We modified this a little for Zoom. We distributed people to breakout rooms with 3–4 people in each, using the random option. We gave people 5 minutes of self-reflection, then 10 minutes as a group of 3 or 4. The results were then shared in the main Zoom Room. It worked well, without being a huge admin overhead. In my opinion, it’s a good way to ensure everybody gets involved in the exercises.

A few final thoughts

Tip: You will save a lot of time if you pre-assign people to breakout rooms before the meeting. We did it via manual addition, but uploading a CSV would be quicker.

After: Few of the OKRs we set had a defined baseline. Make sure you follow up to ensure the teams have their baselines and targets.

Next time: We’re embracing the wonders of Miro for meeting based collaboration and this seems a better fit than Confluence. With Miro, the whole team can edit a document and see each other’s contributions. The mindmap template is a good fit for OKRs, but we will experiment with others as well.

Good luck with your sessions!

Felipe’s comment: Online collaboration tools that enable people to visualize each other’s work are extremely helpful with remote teams. Mural and Miro are the leading tools in this space, but even simpler tools such as Google Slides or Google Drawings can work.