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How Coupa is thinking about the future of work in a COVID-19 world

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez April 9, 2021
Ray Martinelli, Chief People Officer at Coupa, argues that whilst things have changed, the strategy stays the same - a strong value system and accountability.

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(Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay )

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced organizations to rethink their workforce strategies in a way that hasn't been seen for decades. Persistent distributed work over the past year or so has meant that new habits and ways of working have been established - and companies are asking the question: which bits do we keep and which bits do we get rid of? 

Some companies have begun to release their future workforce strategies in recent weeks, with the general consensus being that a hybrid approach will be adopted going forward, with flexibility for workers at the core. COVID-19 has reminded many that an organization is nothing without its people and there is a renewed emphasis on ensuring the ‘future of work' needs to be one that keeps its workforce happy. 

However, as recent research has highlighted, not all the ways of working that have been adopted over the past year have been beneficial to everyone - with complaints that leaders are out of touch and that workers are overstretched. 

As such, when offered the opportunity, I was very keen to catch up with Coupa's Chief People Officer, Ray Martinelli, to get an understanding of how the vendor is thinking about its future of work plans. Coupa has a solid reputation for investing in customer success and often has a forward thinking approach to enterprise operations. 

And Martinelli didn't disappoint. Where he and I are in firm agreement is that too many companies are focusing on practical details, whilst losing out on the big picture perspective - work should be outcomes focused and employees should be trusted to get work done in a way that works for them. Cutting through the noise, he says: 

I think as much as things have changed, I don't think they really have changed. My view on this, and this is based on my experience over the years, is that the only way that I think a company can truly be successful is to be really clear who they are as a company and their value system. It's so important. 

If you have those values in place and you have them integrated into everything you do  - from hiring to performance reviews to rewards to recognition - that is what will help you navigate through the changes that we're all going through. It helps you navigate through challenging times. I'm not saying it's easy, but my advice is that it's core to the growth of the company, and that value system has to be clear and in place, all the way up to the CEO level.

Values and accountability 

Whilst Coupa talks about values, it doesn't appear to approach this in a way that is not tangible for employees and leaders to understand. And there are things that Coupa is going to change as a result of the pandemic (more on that later). But as noted above, Martinelli's focus is on ensuring that the workforce understands that responsibility for work is down to individuals and teams, where they should be accountable for the outcomes they are trying to achieve. He says: 

Customer success is huge to us and that means really getting clear on what the deliverables are for our customers, and the results that we're trying to achieve. We believe in focusing on results, which means we have minimal process in place and we have a spirit of bias for thoughtful action and to take chances - do things that are out of the box. If they don't work, be accountable and learn from it. 

One of the other things that's kind of embedded in our value system is accountability. We talk about that at all levels of the organisation. The go-to position is, assume positive intention and accountability. It doesn't matter where you work, how you work, because the outcomes are really what matter. It doesn't matter how you get there, as long as you are in concert with our value system. It has made it a lot easier because it's so clear. Okay, you're accountable. If you're going to step up and get the job done, and you're going to be accountable, and honest, and transparent, I don't care where you work or how you work.

In addition to the above, Coupa has also adopted an inverted organizational structure, whereby leaders sit at the bottom of the chart. Martinelli says that the wording and concept of this is hugely important to Coupa, whereby they don't talk about ‘managing a team', but instead talk about ‘supporting a team'. He adds:

What that means is we, as leaders, are here to support the organisation. So I think in some ways, this last year has put more challenge on our leaders, because if it's truly our goal to support our employees, we're having to make sure that we're reaching out in a way that we haven't reached out before.


Martinelli says that Coupa is yet to release its comprehensive strategy around what the future of work and what a workplace looks like at the company, as it wants to be thoughtful and not announce something that it can't live by. 

That being said, Martinelli says that Coupa does believe in the idea of the office and that there is benefit to being there - at least some of the time - for collaboration purposes. However, it is going to aim for the greatest flexibility possible, allowing employees to work in a way that makes sense for them. 

Martinelli adds that given that it has been over a year since COVID-19 struck, and that people have been working remotely all this time, new habits and requirements have formed and that people have adjusted their lives. Coupa can't just expect things to go back to the way they were. However, he says:

I think that the biggest risk is this need for collaboration. There's something to be said about being in the office. How do you maintain the value system and the culture, when most of the people are remote? In fact, we grew 60% this year from an employee perspective, and all those employees were hired via zoom. We haven't met them in person yet, so that's a concern. How do you keep that connection going?

Martinelli says that Coupa is specifically looking at some of the best practices that it can keep from the COVID-19 experience. For example, in the past, when carrying out a meeting in an office, if there were say six people in a room, it was often the case that one of those people may be on a call or Zoom. However, Martinelli says that what would happen - unintentionally - is that the people in the room wouldn't pay as much attention to the person on the Zoom call. COVID-19 has levelled the playing field in this respect and Martinelli says: 

I think one of the best practices that we want to take forward is if anybody's not in the room, everybody should be on Zoom. And that is a big, big deal.

In addition to this, Coupa has learnt that there are huge opportunities for remote learning, which it had failed to acknowledge in the past. This will also change going forward. Martinelli says: 

The other thing we've learned is that although we were doing remote training before, we can do even more of that now and reach a broader group of people. A lot of the training and onboarding we did, we were bringing people into our corporate office or our Dublin office, which is the hub in Europe. 

We'll still do some of that, but we don't have to do as much of that, and that's a pretty powerful thing. We've learned how to navigate through Zoom. So I think that's been a wonderful, wonderful result of this. In the past, you would have to fly people in and it would take longer. That doesn't happen as much.

And closely correlated to the above two points - in terms of how remote communication can level the playing field - Coupa is keen to maintain the access the workforce has had to leaders over the past year, going forward. Martinelli says: 

We also get a lot of the executives to make sure that they're in front of the employees a lot, having Q and A's, and town halls. The broad reach you can get doing this via Zoom is pretty impactful. So there have been some positives that have come out of this that we will definitely carry forward, for sure.

My take

What I like about Martinelli's approach is that it is in tune with what I think are the core elements of a successful workforce strategy, regardless of COVID-19. Put trust in your employees, make them accountable and ensure that success is rewarded based on achieving outcomes. If you want to do something that you think is going to be beneficial to customers - go and do it. Strict processes and approaches often stifle successful work. As long as you're sticking with the ethos of a company and you're being transparent in your work, then how you get to that outcome shouldn't matter too much. 

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