Okta CEO Todd McKinnon fought employee burnout by asking for vacation plans

Todd McKinnon, CEO and Co-Founder of Okta Inc., speaks during the BoxWorks 2019 Conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, California, United States, Thursday, October 3, 2019.

Michael Court | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As CEO of a fast growing San Francisco software company that employs 3,500 people and recently closed a $ 6.5 billion acquisition, Okta co-founder Todd McKinnon has cause for concern. .

But few things concern him today as much as employee burnout.

As the company allows unlimited vacations, McKinnon knows how difficult it can be for people to make guilt-free plans to get away from it all and stop worrying about product updates and deliverables for a few days. . This is especially true in the Bay Area, where 16-hour days and work weekends are often the status quo.

So, in a recent All-Out reunion, he told Okta employees about his plans for an upcoming family vacation to Napa in an attempt to relieve the pressure and remind them of the importance of disconnecting.

But he didn’t stop there.

He then asked everyone to email him with their upcoming arrangements, providing as many details as they wanted.

“I got a lot of emails,” McKinnon said in an interview in late June before leaving town and unplugging. At the time, he had received around 950 messages from employees and had received around 300. “They continue to infiltrate,” he said.

McKinnon read a few excerpts from the notes in his inbox. An employee was going to Maui and eagerly awaiting the Mai Tai bar. Another was planning to tour Europe. Others are just making up for lost time due to the pandemic.

“It’s a lot of, ‘I’m going to see my family, I haven’t seen my parents for a year,'” he said.

In the tech industry and the wider office world, the stress of the coronavirus and 16 months of forced remote work have added to existing struggles for work-life balance. With the closure of Zoom School kids and sports leagues, parents have had to keep their kids engaged while trying to stay productive. Young urban workers have been locked in small apartments with few social outlets.

Meanwhile, Okta and many other cloud software companies suddenly had more work to do. As employees at Okta’s client companies dispersed, they needed better collaboration, communication and security tools, and demand skyrocketed. Okta’s identity management software helps organizations securely deploy applications and manage their use.

In March, Okta agreed to buy the Auth0 identity service for $ 6.5 billion, its biggest acquisition by far, and one of the biggest tech deals of this year.

“Acquisitions are big changes,” McKinnon said. He added that the company has hired a number of new senior executives, including a head of global partners and a new chief financial officer. “They promote people and attract new people,” McKinnon said.

Behavior modeling

McKinnon recognizes that burnout and mental health are separate issues. Kristina Johnson, director of human resources for Okta, told CNBC late last year that the company had increased its investment in Modern Health, a digital mental health and wellness service and the app. Headspace meditation, to provide more support to employees during the lockdown.

While mental health involves a complex set of issues that often require the intervention of medical and behavioral experts, burnout is largely the responsibility of management, McKinnon said. Employees must be genuinely encouraged to take time off and managers must adjust their projects accordingly.

“Expectations need to be balanced so that they don’t put people in a position where they have no choice but to be crushed,” McKinnon said. “We don’t want to crush you. It is not in anyone’s interest.

McKinnon said it’s important for leaders at the top to model the behavior they want to see from employees. That’s why he’s so open about his vacation plans. This is also the reason why he is not back in the office full time.

In August, Okta told employees most of them could work permanently from anywhere. The San Francisco office reopened a few weeks ago and is available for vaccinated employees. The space has been reconfigured so that there are no assigned desks and there is more room for collaboration.

McKinnon said he worked in the office on occasion, but didn’t spend the majority of his time there because he didn’t want employees to feel pressured to return prematurely.

“I don’t mean to imply that, well, the CEO is back, so you better go back,” he said. “Once people settle into this new groove, I will be going back a lot. My personal preference is to go back.”

McKinnon said that while the company is committed to maintaining a flexible work plan, he believes a healthy number of employees will want to come back for at least part of the week.

“What continually surprises people, even me, is that they forget about the positive feeling of being around people,” he said.

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