Crafting the Future of Work: Sara Escobar, Riot Games

What is your title and can you describe it?

I'm Sara Escobar and I'm the Global Head of Real Estate and Workplace for Riot Games. I oversee our workplace strategy and how we support Rioters in doing the best work of their lives. This includes many elements including defining how we do work (in-office, hybrid or virtual), office spaces, connection points, etc.

I oversee a team of around 50 workplace professionals across 32 countries. The team is split into 5 different functions: day-to-day oversight, construction and real estate, workplace programs, systems and standards and strategy.

I've only been at Riot for twelve months so many of them I have only met virtually so far, but we are aligned on the mission and vision of doing things right for our Rioters, and ultimately our players. I came from entertainment and initially thought that everything would carry over from entertainment to gaming, but the creativity level in gaming is off the charts from what I have seen before.

I'm also the Founder and Chief Experience Officer of Wielding Workplace, my own consultancy.

What is your approach to enable people to do their best work?

Our approach to enabling people to perform their best work involves a more comprehensive approach than just Workplace. It encompasses the entire employee journey, from the recruiting process to setting expectations, providing benefits for both office and remote work environments, and more.

The initial strategy Riot implemented was the 1-3-1 hybrid approach, with employees coming into the office three days a week and working from home the other two. However, this approach failed to consider the different ways people plan their work and resulted in frequent context switching rather than the intended ease of connection.

The focus is on becoming more flexible while maintaining the special dynamic of the office spaces.  

We are piloting processes that are more flexible and cater to individual and team needs.

  • We have conducted 52 workshops over the last month with every business unit leader in the company to help them achieve important outcomes such as hitting OKRs, attracting and retaining talent, and preserving the company culture.
  • To promote meaningful relationships, fun, and creativity, we've developed a workshop to regularly address these questions. Our aim is to create a workplace where people not only get their work done but also enjoy being at the company.
  • In the coming months, we plan to have a mix of on-site and virtual rituals, as the foundation of our approach is about how work gets done, not just the time spent on-site. The 1-3-1 approach was limited in its scope, as it only focused on being on-site rather than enabling amazing work.

How does your work overlap with other internal teams like HR and real estate to actually execute these strategies and get everyone on board?

For the last nine months, I've been overseeing a strike team to figure this out. That strike team consists of Workplace, HR, Legal, Benefits, and Tax. Each one of the pillars within Riot: eSports, Entertainment, Games, Publishing, and Enterprise (which has all of our support functions).

We have to work together because one small decision by the Workplace team could have a huge ripple effect.

For example, when you start thinking about where people live, there is a different tax structure, a different legal structure and different employment laws in every state in the US. That's just talking about the US that's not even getting to our international locations of which there are ~30 of them. A partnership is required across all those teams due to potential impacts that we can't ignore.

The ultimate goal is to make the work happen better for our Rioters, for our players, for our product. And to do that, we need to attract and retain the best talent, who has more options now than ever before. Granted, we're going through a little bit of a recession period, with horrible layoffs across tech, so the markets are a little bit flooded. However, we do want to ensure that the incredible talent onboard has the ability to do the best work of their lives, and that Riot can attract additional incredible talent.

Given also that cultures differ across the world, how are you building culture into and beyond the office walls? And how are you scaling that globally?

Given the diversity of cultures across the world, building a unified company culture can be challenging. At Riot, over 50% of our team is located in the US, making it hard for US-based employees to understand the work being done in other offices, which is just as important.

We have four separate regions at Riot: Americas, EMEA, APAC, and China. While each region operates differently, we aim to bring them together through a global central purpose. Now, that purpose may be translated differently in different regions. China, in particular, has a unique culture, and is home to Riot's parent company, Tencent. To ensure coordination with Chinese culture, we are mindful of the cultural differences and have organized our workplace teams to align on the central purpose while still allowing for regional variations.

To be successful, we need to have strong communication, management programs, and strong beliefs that support flexible decision-making policies while taking into account local cultures.

For example, in Singapore, where there is a significant Muslim population, we have incorporated a prayer room into the office. However, we also learned that in Muslim culture, it's important to have a place to wash feet, so we have added that as well. If you have a prayer room without a place for people to wash their feet, you're actually not meeting the need. So this is a reminder that to truly understand a culture and get people excited about using the space, it's important to get to know the people who will be in it and reduce any friction they may experience.

What is your worldwide policy and how are you measuring the success of not just your policy, but also your real estate portfolio?

Our worldwide policy, which is currently being rolled out, prioritizes flexibility. Part of figuring out that policy means helping leaders define time through purpose. We are asking them to take a step back and review their calendars and expectations of their teams. They are creating "cadence calendars" that document their rituals and provide a visual representation of what is expected of their teams.

This policy takes into account the fact that many things have been done virtually for the past two years, and it will be an iterative process of learning and adjusting as we go.

The goal is to create a future-forward policy that prioritizes people while still protecting the company culture.

This doesn't mean we expect everyone to be on site in any regular cadence like once a week, but rather, we'll stack certain activities so that employees can plan their work and travel/commute accordingly. We'll be taking an iterative learning process, similar to how tech companies approach product development. It's a new approach for the workplace, but one that can be beneficial for our employees and our culture.

Do I know if this approach will work? No, but frankly, no one in the world knows what's going to work yet and we believe it's worth a shot.

Our goal is to try something a little more future-forward, people-focused, and still protect our company culture.

I personally think that many companies that have gone fully remote have unfortunately become lax with protecting their culture. This is especially challenging for larger companies, as it's harder to ensure everyone knows and follows the company's values and direction. I've seen the difficulties firsthand, starting at Riot during the work from home period. It's crucial to protect the culture, especially during these uncertain times.

Read more about social connectivity & maintaining culture.

What is the mindset shift you think is required to achieve this level of innovation?

The shift towards virtual work over the past two years has forced companies to re-evaluate how they operate and how they can ensure success while maintaining their culture.

The focus should not be on in-person versus virtual, but rather on defining who the company is and how to enable success while being true to that identity.

Companies like Shopify are experimenting with new approaches, but this requires a team effort, intentional communication, and a willingness to listen and make changes based on feedback. They're gonna go through pain, we're gonna go through pain, but understanding who we are, how we operate and how we promote that for success is the foundation of it all.

This change should not be viewed as something that is being done to employees, but rather an opportunity for innovation and co-creation. The result is something better for everyone involved, that you collectively believe will be better.

What does the purpose of an ‘office’ look like from your perspective in the next five years?

I hope we won't call it an office anymore. It has a negative connotation because it's a place that we've all struggled in for decades.

At first, it was everyone in their own private offices, and then open offices became popular and it caused a different set of struggles for workers. I have started calling offices ‘hubs.’ If you look at Dropbox, they're calling them studios. The vernacular is starting to change, which is good.

I think that they will be places for gathering, which is work and relationship building. These spaces will become more focused on collaboration, connection, and cohesion. The secondary purpose will support focused work because there are plenty of people who have kids at home or multi-generational households etc, and still need space for that.

Learn more about Sara and Riot Games.

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