Case Study: How Microsoft Sees Everything in Opal

The Difference Between Good & Great: Evolving Opal’s Cultural DNA

by Matt Oxley

Starting with Culture 

I’ve heard it said by commentators for nearly every sport I follow – that winning on the field creates the culture in the locker room. No deliberate actions, just good vibes carrying the day. It’s not uncommon to hear the same idea in the arena of business. Many very intelligent people claim that if a business is successful, then the employees should get along well enough and a culture will miraculously sprout up on its own. 

At its core, this belief dictates that culture is something that happens naturally – rather than something you labor (however lovingly) to create. As the “chief-of-culture” at Opal, I hold intentional culture near and dear. Here’s my take on that sentiment:

Good culture can happen on its own – but great culture is something you craft.

And, how do we know that with such certainty?

Because we experienced the journey ourselves. At Opal, we built great cultural DNA – AND we work diligently to maintain it everyday.

This is the story of reforming our culture at a pivotal time and seeing for ourselves the difference between good and great…

Committing to Change 

The story of evolving Opal’s DNA starts during the global pandemic of 2020. Remember back to those early days of lockdowns…to the time of sanitizing our groceries and binge watching “Tiger King.” The Opal team went from sharing a centralized office space to working from bedrooms, home offices, kitchen tables, and countless other set ups. That’s how it all began…

An observation I’ve had (and one that certainly many philosophers have had) is that unusual or extreme circumstances strip away all pretense, leaving the ideas in your head and the intentions in your heart. In recent years, those extreme circumstances included forest fires, the threat of recession, reckoning with social justice, the great resignation, and, of course, the pandemic. For cynical businesses, these changes meant trying to learn how to best monitor their employees without being able to physically peer over their shoulders. For businesses like Opal that were already people-first, it meant evolving to be more flexible, more balanced, and even more human-centric. In short, for us it meant we became more human.

Deep down everyone always knew that personal wellbeing and welfare were more important than achievement at work. But we didn’t always live it. Passionate and successful professionals unfortunately can have a hard time putting their health and out-of-work lives first. I’m guilty of it myself! But a raging health crisis can really put your priorities in stark relief. The pandemic introduced a new way of working that led to that human balance. The balance we sought looked like everyone having the flexibility to work their way. Whether that meant walk-and-talks instead of Zoom calls or picking up the kids between meetings – your balance is all about you. 

We wanted to evolve our culture into one that not only gave team members the space to enjoy fulfilling lives, but that also fostered them in every way. These good intentions can get lost if you don’t create iron-clad, written-down systems. This looks like a set of permissions that explicitly encourage you to take time for you. It also means that as a leader, I need to lead by example and take that time to balance my life to truly show the importance of it. It all came back to a human-first culture guiding us.

So we went to work, crafting exactly that.

Here’s specifically what we did to evolve our culture…

Saying People-First & Proving It 

  1. Going Fully Remote – We had a gorgeous office in downtown Portland – the site of so many amazing Opal memories. We closed it. Not only were there lingering health concerns about bringing everyone back, but this was an essential component of leveling up our culture from good to great. Employees who work remotely are more likely to take breaks to walk their dogs, play with their kids, and do other essential things during the working hours – and all of that is AMAZING! That flexibility was non-negotiable for the new Opal culture. We’ve always been a company that looks at the output – not at the rigid hours you put in – so going remote was a logical step. In addition, this provided true equality across our employee base, as we already had a handful of team members working remotely and spread across the country (I’ll discuss this topic at length in a future blog.)
  1. Space for Those Who Wanted It – Although we established a remote-first culture and put infrastructure in place to support a cross-country team, Opal also provided options for those who wanted an office. As another nod to balance, we contracted with Centrl to offer flexible office space in every major city. We’ve even found that although most people do their very best work from a home office, sometimes the variety can be essential.   
  1. Unlimited PTO – The next big cornerstone we implemented was providing unlimited paid time off. Now, those who study work culture know that when employees are offered unlimited PTO, they statistically tend to take far less than when they are given a set amount to use each year. We weren’t going to allow that to happen here. That’s why Opal’s unlimited PTO comes with a floor of 2 weeks. Everyone must take a MINIMUM of 2 weeks time off every year (even though 3 weeks or more is encouraged) as a requirement. Seriously, if you aren’t on-track to meet your vacation minimums, someone from my team will badger you (in the friendliest way possible).
  1. First Fridays – There’s no question that individual vacations are great to recharge the batteries. However, powering down the whole company to relax has a distinct benefit, too. On the first Friday of every month, we all take a break to unwind. We strongly encourage no Slack messages, no meetings, and no work that can wait until Monday. Since everyone is taking the day off at once, everyone has permission to not think about work. The reason we do this is to ensure that no one gets pulled into work. This came about because we heard that people were burned out, and they were experiencing the pressure of our social and political climate – yet ultimately didn’t have time to engage with them. We wanted to evolve in a way that made maintenance of your life natural. This is great for running errands, handling doctor appointments, and generally taking time for yourself.
  1. In-Person Connection Events – As travel and gathering became safer, in-person events were able to become a part of our cultural DNA again. While there is certainly a productive element to these events, the main goal is fostering interpersonal connections and instilling a sense of culture. That’s why we invest in team-specific and whole company meetups. Here’s a picture from our most recent event: Camp Opal – in which the entire organization came together in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

What’s Next? 

The company we will be tomorrow isn’t set. There will be more adaptation and evolution to come – and even more conversation and brainstorming. Even if this is a natural time to tell the story, this is not the end of Opal’s culture evolution!

However, I want to say that I am incredibly proud of where Opal is at this very moment. We have an eNPS score consistently in the +70s with nearly 100% of employees responding to our quarterly satisfaction surveys. For reference on eNPS, a +50s is considered excellent – so we are all very proud of this score. Getting some external praise, we’ve been voted a Top Workplace – two years in a row. On top of that, Glassdoor reviews are at an all-time high. But even more than any of those validations, the vibe is real. You see it on our company-wide Zoom calls and when we meet up for in-person happy hours around PDX, NYC, and other cities where Opalites live. Our Slack channels are absolutely brimming with jokes, music, shoutouts, and so much more!   

From a business standpoint (since I’m also the President and a founder of Opal), we’ve never been better. Our marketing planning platform is the go-to tool for countless leading companies. We are proud to count Target, Starbucks, Microsoft, and many more among our clients and champions. We’re growing, too, bringing aboard large and small brands to plan and visualize their marketing in Opal.

This was a very brief look into Opal’s DNA, and there is so much more to say that I couldn’t cover in a 1,000 words, give or take. However, I’m going to keep writing and I’m planning to dive into the full benefits of working from home, eNPS and employee satisfaction, as well as the new Opal values! 

About the Author

Matt Oxley

Co-founder and Vice President

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