August 27, 2022 by Andrea Rajic
Coffee with Gable is a thought leadership series hosting renowned People, Workplace, and Operations experts who share their strategies and best practices for the evolving workplace.
In episode 14, our guest on Coffee with Gable was Tamar Draper Mahru, VP of Global Real Estate and Workplace at Twilio. She’s been with Twilio for a little over four years, and she’s leading the efforts to transform their workplace and design the best employee experience.
Before Twilio, she spent four years at Zendesk, and prior to that, she was the Head of Facilities and Real Estate at AirBnb for two and a half years.
Now let’s see how Tamar uses her vast experience, expertise, and a sizeable chunk of empathy to design a workplace employees love.
Like so many other companies, Twilio moved away from a facility-centric toward a customer-centric approach when it comes to the workplace. The workplace now has a primary purpose of not just delivering services to employees but creating experiences for them.
Twilio adopted a customer-centric approach, obsessing over understanding their customers – the employees – and their needs and motivations. The goal of Tamar’s team is to design a workplace that stimulates inclusion and a sense of belonging and gives employees purpose at work.
Twilio published its Open Work Policy publicly on its website last year. In it, the company demonstrates its commitment to remote-first experience and flexibility for employees. Tamar said the effort started forming unofficially in July 2020, just as it became clear the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon.
It was a cross-functional effort, bringing together the Real Estate and Workplace team with HR, IT, and the executive team. They all sat together and started putting ideas together and learning from other companies, all with one main goal: to solve for a remote experience as a cornerstone of work.
As a globally distributed company, Twilio already knew how to solve for in-person experiences, and they were pretty great at it. What they needed to do now was achieve equitable levels of engagement, belonging, and connection, but from a remote perspective.
This is particularly important when it comes to teams. As Tamar points out, most employees are part of several teams at once; she herself belongs to 5-6 different teams. Understanding this dynamic and the fact that teams cross-pollinate and merge much more often than we think brought the need to focus on clarifying definitions and creating team charters for every team inside the company.
For Tamar’s team, it’s now clear that offices are no longer places where employees come to get work done. Some employees might still choose to come into the office more often and get their focused work done there, but it’s not mandated – nobody has to come into the office if they don’t want to.
Instead, offices are now meant for purposeful gatherings and events. Tamar pointed out the need for companies to enable teams to decide by themselves how and when they want to get together and what that will look like. The role of the Workplace team is to enable those meaningful encounters to happen.
At Twilio, only 17% of managers are co-located with their teams, and this staggering number raises another question that Tamar and her team are on a mission to answer – what do connection and collaboration mean in distributed teams, and how do we optimize for them?
An insight Tamar learned early on in the Open Work experiment was that you can’t change behavior with policy. Policies don’t solve for people – they solve for processes, and human behavior isn’t always as predictable as we would like it to be.
People’s responses to policy changes and the ways they show up depend on a number of factors, including their personal lives. So the sooner we accept that we can’t predict employees’ responses to new policies, the better because we can’t really plan out behavior change.
Additionally, the motivations for employees around the workplace have changed. What once motivated people to be in the office no longer applies today. Before, it was about employees coming into the office and having perks brought to them. What matters to them now is how they can see their team, socialize, and connect with each other. That’s a lot different from catering programs and ping-pong tables. The priority for people is other people.
In Tamar’s opinion, there isn’t a single team that should be tasked with employee experience. It shouldn’t be owned by a team from a single function. At Twilio, took the opportunity to create an employee experience team made up of people from different teams and verticals.
And that makes sense because employee experience is a complex puzzle made up of HR, diversity and inclusion, company culture, and many more pieces that should fit into the puzzle holistically.
For Tamar, measuring the success of her team’s workplace strategies is an ongoing task and a constant search for better, more robust insights into what works best for employees.
She spoke about the importance of applying the understanding of human behavior to designing employee surveys. In the early days of the pandemic, when everyone was still working from home, Twilio’s employee surveys asked questions like “If we implemented a flexible work model, how would you react to it?” and “If you could come into the office as much as you like, how many times a week would you do it?”.
Employees responded to these questions with the best of intentions, but their answers didn’t match their actions when they actually could come back. This was the moment that made Tamar realize that hypothetical questions bring hypothetical answers and that the way they ask questions needs to change.
They switched from hypotheses to present tense questions that analyze what is actually going on, like “You come into the office only twice a month. Why is that?”
Of course, it’s essential not to convey any guilt or blame because, after all, employees don’t need to come in at all.
Additionally, Tamar spoke about relying on data to help make decisions. Her ideal data set is one that is cross-functional, rich, and covers a variety of angles – and she’s always on a mission to achieve it. Twilio uses sensors, keycard swipes, and heatmaps to understand how many people use offices and, more importantly, when they come in, how they interact with the spaces.
However, this approach only solves for those employees who come into the office or live close enough to one. For employees who aren’t close to a Twilio office, there’s a program called Ecosystem of Place. It relies on using remote workspaces to provide an equitable experience to team members who can’t get into the office.
For Tamar, this experiment is significant because it enables employees to connect without the real-estate stewardship of the company, making it that much easier to roll out anywhere in the world and track progress. On another note, it lets Twilio experiment with what works best for their teams and test whether employees really need a branded office to feel like they belong.
To conclude our episode, Tamar offered two pieces of advice for Workplace, People, and Operations experts everywhere.
The first is to not be afraid to fail. We’re all still learning, so failure is nothing but an opportunity to learn and do better next time. This is the moment where we all get to experiment and try out different things before we settle on something that works for our team.
The second and even more important tip is this: Don’t offer solutions. Ask questions.
The more questions you ask, the more open you are to potential different solutions, even if they aren’t long-term.
And for a while, the workplace won’t have a single, fixed, long-term solution. And in Tamar’s opinion – that’s perfectly fine. Iteration, asking questions, and being curious about what your employees really need – that’s the North Star of the workplace of tomorrow.