We got the chance to speak with Anna Binder, Head of People Operations at Asana, about Asana’s workplace culture, how they’ve scaled their culture across the years, how they drive employee retention and more. Asana is known to have one of the the best company cultures in tech, and Anna shared some insights into what goes behind the scenes in making this happen.
What makes Asana’s culture different from other companies?
Every culture and every personality is different. Your culture is a combination of how do you connect your business goals with the values that you have as leaders and founders with all of your people programs and all the things your employees touch, your norms and your behaviors and connecting all those three things is culture.
If I have to point to one thing that makes our culture unique its really a focus on clarity of purpose, plan and responsibility. We have a deep commitment in ensuring that those things are there in everything that we do. Quite frankly, this is the case when we launched the product 5 years ago and now we have 20,000 paying customers earlier this year and this is still the case.
How has Asana scaled its workplace culture as it has grown its employee count in the last few years?
One of our core values is around mindfulness and in practice that translates to thoughtful planning and reflection. Each year, we have 10-15 company objectives that allows people to focus on what the important things are and have clarity right off the gate as employees plan their year, and as they make their way through the year and all the decisions that they make. Then 3-4 times a year, we have a very deliberate and mindful planning week that is dedicated to planning across organizations—we call it roadmap week.
During roadmap week, different committees form and organize themselves around products and initiatives and come together to reflect on what’s working and what’s not working and to plan for the next few months. These are all very cross functional groups and all these projects and initiatives help advance our company’s objectives. During that planning week, the company commits to key results that we achieve during that quarter. This allows everyone to go off a little bit on their own to execute key results and support their objectives.
Another thing that we do is we go pretty overboard in the best possible way when it comes to onboarding. New people get up to speed on everything that they need to know in the first 30 days. In those 30 days, there’s somewhere between 30-40 individual sessions to help get people up to speed. It ranges from how do you use the product to how do our customers use the product to a day in the life of every group. You learn to do what engineering is doing, you learn what customer support looks like, you learn about the history of the company, you have dinner with the founders, you have a buddy/mentor for onboarding and more.
This not only gives employees an understanding of all the different groups and departments that make the machine operate. But it also gives employees a lot of empathy down the road. Because we’ve invested so much on onboarding, there is openness to understanding another point of view.
What is Asana doing to drive employee retention today?
We want to make sure we are creating a workplace that is radically inclusive, and we’re committing to this notion of thrive. One of the things that it means to us is really true empowerment of our employees in their decision-making.
We have something called the Area of Responsibility (AOR) system. Anything in the company you can imagine, if it’s important enough to do, it’s important enough to have an owner. To the extent that there’s any ambiguity when you’re building a company, you often hear ‘who is responsible’ but because we have this AOR system, we know who is responsible, and that person is responsible for making a decision and resolving what’s stuck.
To me, for employee retention, it comes down to three things. First, are they being successful in the role they’re in, and if everything that the manager and organization does is helping them be successful in that role. Second, are they growing and developing? Are they moving themselves forward? Are they experiencing new challenges? Are they learning new things? Third, do these things lead to happiness and impact? These three things I believe drive retention.
One more thing as it relates to specifically to retention, the fourth thing for empowerment is trust. We have built an environment where you as the AOR holder are responsible for creating space that collects input and hears peoples’ opinion and collects all the important information and once you’ve made that decision, we trust you because you’ve created space for us to give our opinion and you can’t be successful without our trust.
What are some of the challenges you guys are facing?
One of the things I’m working on is how do we scale this system of empowerment and mentorship. The more complicated and overlapping our processes get, the more challenging it is so we are committed to improving the AOR framework and making sure that it evolves as the company evolves. In typical Asana fashion, we put together a committee and roadmap week meeting, and work on it together as peers.
What are some trends you’re seeing within the field of people operations?
There’s an increasing emphasis of the role of the manager, one from being a director of activity to more of an enabler, a coach and an advisor. If you think of 10 years ago, 15 years ago, the McKinsey model of cut your bottom 5 percent, incentivize your top 20 percent with bonuses and reward them, that was all the rage.
Today, I don’t think that’s true. If you look at the research that is coming out, it is really much more around creating a motivated, engaged and thriving teams, and providing definitions of what awesome is. It’s about being really clear with expectation and giving employees more autonomy and room to make their own independent decisions and in that model, the manager is less a director but more an enabler.