Protocol | Workplace

Even Salesforce hasn’t solved the future of work. But it has some ideas.

EVP of platform Patrick Stokes said the next phase is about well-being, engagement and a massive upgrade in work tools.

Even Salesforce hasn’t solved the future of work. But it has some ideas.

"That's what [customers are] asking us to think through: 'What is the experience?' Not, 'What are the individual applications that you're going to provide?'" says Salesforce EVP of platform Patrick Stokes.

Photo: Salesforce

As companies around the tech industry start to make plans to return to the office, or to embrace a remote future, they're being forced to evaluate their work tools and processes all over again. Some companies are eager to get back to the way things were, but Patrick Stokes, the head of platform at Salesforce, said that's not the norm. "I think most are seeing this as a moment in time when it's good to be really introspective," he said, "and say, 'Are we as efficient as we possibly could have been?'"

Stokes and Salesforce have a tricky role in that process: to allow for lots of possibilities and solutions in the era of hybrid work, while also helping companies make the best possible decisions as quickly as possible. Salesforce has invested heavily in its Work.com platform, which offers a number of tools meant to help customers navigate what's next: managing vaccine status, simplifying HR and IT workflows, monitoring well-being and much more.

As more companies start to make their plans for the next phase of pandemic and post-pandemic life, Stokes jumped on Zoom with me to talk about the questions he's getting from customers, what employees want as offices reopen — or don't — and what it's like to build a product for a future absolutely nobody understands yet.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Do you feel like you have a responsibility to have answers? Because part of the truth of this moment is, like, nobody knows anything, and the answers are going to be different for everybody. But at the same time, you're Work.com, and a lot of people look to you to know how some of this stuff is supposed to work and where it's all headed. What's your sense of how correct you have to be in this moment?

I think we have to be partially correct. And what I mean by that is, we have to have a suite of technology that enables an organization, first and foremost, as opposed to prescribing the organization. To your point, every single business operates completely differently. Even within businesses, they have businesses that work that operate differently, different geos, different brands, whatever it is. And so what we've been able to do at Salesforce over the last 20 years is provide a customer-focused platform for defining how you want your customers to experience your company. And we're doing the same thing for employees, but we're doing it in a platform-centric way. In other words, we're offering capability, we're offering tools and productized solutions like wellness, talent dev and IT service, but we're doing it on the backbone of this platform, which means that anybody can extend it to set it up based on how they want their employees to come back.

So you feel like there's a base level that we can start to understand pretty quickly, and then your job is just to give people tons of flexibility on top of that basic infrastructure.

Yeah. We need to make it easy for them to get started is I think a simple way to put it.

Many brands have really not spent much time even thinking about their employee experience. You buy a bunch of stuff that you know you need: you buy your SSO, you buy your Workday, you buy your Concur, you buy your Salesforce, you buy all of these things. And we've never really had to think about, "OK, we've got these things now, what is the experience that sits on top?" And so what we're trying to do with Salesforce is make it really easy to bring those things, and to get started thinking about it in an extensible and low-code way, so that somebody in your organization can actually realistically start tinkering and thinking through what this experience looks like, based on some preconfigured templates and workflows that can be extended from there. You got to give them that entry point, though. Otherwise, it's really hard to build from scratch.

It also seems like you and the rest of the industry are thinking about the surface area of those questions in a broader way than anybody has before. I've never had company CEOs talk to me about work-life balance and burnout in the way that they are now.

Look at Harvard Business Review, which is saying three in four executives are thinking about employee experience right now, and that six in 10 employees are talking about burnout. It's become critical.

There are three main things. First, there's going to be a war for talent, and I think younger and younger talent, one of the criteria that they'll evaluate companies on is the experience that they'll have within that company. Where can they work? What tools do they have? Are these archaic tools, or are these tools that help me collaborate and interact with my employees the same way I do on Facebook or Instagram today?

The second is overall customer satisfaction. We know that happy employees equal happy customers. And then the third reason is basically revenue growth: With customer satisfaction comes faster revenue growth. So I think for CEOs, the pandemic really, really highlighted that. Suddenly when all of your employees have to work from home, and your physical storefront needs to physically change as well, all of that software, all of that technology comes into light. And you realize, boy, this is all connected, we really need to think through what this all looks like.

It's one thing to say, "We value this stuff, it's important," but especially with things like well-being and burnout, they're hard to measure and hard to build tools to fight against. It's easy to say, "How do we get people to work more hours?" It's hard to say, "How do I measure people's feelings?" So where are we on that front?

You're right, it is hard to measure well-being. I think the way a lot of companies used to do it is they used to have physical town halls. They would go and they would do a Q&A, and you could read the room of how your people are doing. You can also rely on, you know, manager to employee one-on-ones.

When everybody's suddenly very distributed, we need to rely more on technology to do that. So for well-being, for example, if we can bring in really proactive ways to go out and ask people how they're doing, not requiring them necessarily to go sign up for some new service and fill out a form, but we can just send them periodic reminders over email or over Slack eventually, and things like that. So just giving them, the HR teams and the CIO teams, literally just handing them the tools and saying, "Here's how you do it. We already have many of your employees on Salesforce, so you can just put this into place and you're off and running."

Salesforce has had a lot of this technology for a long time. Almost every product in our Work.com suite is based on some internal piece of technology that we built to run our own organization. The difference now is companies are suddenly showing up at our door saying, "Hey, you guys have been the customer company forever. What do you have on the employee side, because we're really concerned about this?" We know that this is important. We're seeing the stats, we're seeing it within our own organization. So yeah, we have attention now. They're showing up and asking us, and that's a good place to be.

How has your sense changed as far as what Work.com can and should be? We're in this messy middle period, where hybrid work is the thing but nobody quite knows what that means. How big should the purview of Salesforce in general and Work.com specifically be in this space?

I think the purview is very wide. You can get into real estate apps, you can get into IT service apps, you can get into HR service apps, you can go really, really broad. I think our strategy, as has been the strategy for Salesforce for 20 years on the customer experience side, is to really focus on the platform and the connectivity. That's really what we're learning: You cannot just go all in and say, "We are going to own 100% of the employee experience." But what we can do is connect it all together, and try to build an overall really coherent system, and then eventually connect that back into the customer experience side as well.

That's what's really changed for us: At the beginning of the pandemic, we noticed some things like, we can't hold town halls anymore; how do we know if our customers are good? A whole bunch of brands were suddenly showing up at our door going, "Hey, we use you for customer service, can we use you for IT service? We've suddenly got to requisition 20,000 more laptops to get our employees home that we didn't plan for." There were these tactical moments. And the main thing that's changed is now they're asking us to piece it all together. You know, how does an employee show up, open their laptop in the morning and start working seamlessly across all of these different systems?

It literally is the word "experience," right? Which can be a very broad word. But that's what they're asking us to think through: "What is the experience?" Not, "What are the individual applications that you're going to provide?"

What specific things are customers asking you for? Vaccine trackers seems top of mind for everybody. What else?

They want new ways to kind of enable their employees to collaborate with each other. We saw when everybody moved home, the way you hold meetings and things like that, you move into a much more asynchronous way of working. And so I think we're starting to see customers really gravitate towards that asynchronous way of working, and asking us for ways to bring that type of capability into both their employee experience, and their customer experience as well.

They're also asking us for a lot of automation. We're seeing a tremendous push towards automation. And this means automation that the employees themselves get to experience, like maybe interacting with a bot to get quick answers to their questions, but then downstream automation as well. When I need a new laptop, how can we go through automating the provisioning of that laptop all the way down through approvals, getting it from the inventory center and then getting it shipped out?

That requires not just the tools to provide those automations, which we've always had for customer experience, but also a rich inventory of those HR and service templates and workflows. And so that's an area that we've moved into, and we'll continue to scale out.

It sounds like part of what you're thinking about is how to give each employee more agency in how they operate within the organization, making things like IT and HR more self-serve instead of bureaucracies. Is that part of the transition here?

Not just self-serve, but digital. And that's often overlooked. A lot of these things, they either don't exist, or they do exist but in a physical space. You can even look at Salesforce: We have well-being rooms on every floor, kind of famously, right? And that's a good way to provide a capability or a service to employees to manage their well-being.

How do we make that digital? What's our answer to that? How can we replace some of the old, antiquated, very physical systems, or maybe just augment those physical spaces with more digital spaces?

It's kind of bound to what I said earlier, that the number one reason you should care is your talent. You'll have employees leave because they get frustrated with systems. And you'll have talent who decides not to come because of what they hear about the systems that you have in place. And so yeah, we need to care about it. And we need to recognize that folks that are coming out of college now, they've only ever known really great digital systems, and companies that have been really focused on consumer experience. That's what they're used to, and when they get to work and they don't find that? They'll go somewhere where they can.

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Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporting fellow at Protocol, based out of Los Angeles. Previously, she worked for Ernst & Young, where she researched and wrote about the future of work, emerging technologies and startups. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California, where she studied business and philosophy. She can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

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