Qualtrics CEO Zig Serafin is in the listening business. And, given the sea change in work and life the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, that business is booming.

Founded in Provo, Utah, and having gone public in January 2021, Qualtrics opened a second headquarters last June in downtown Seattle, setting up shop in the rechristened Qualtrics Tower at the corner of Second Avenue and University Street across from the Seattle Art Museum. The company has nearly 900 workers based out of the seven floors it currently occupies.

Serafin and his colleagues make, in the industry parlance, an “experience management” platform. As Serafin describes, the $16 billion market cap company’s software uses surveys, automated outreach and analysis to helps organizations understand what’s working and what isn’t for their customers and employees. Odds are good you’ve encountered Qualtrics’ work without knowing it — its 16,750-company-long client list includes Amazon, T-Mobile, Alaska Airlines, the city of Seattle and Seattle Public Schools.

Much of that analytical power is currently pointed at a key problem facing employers — the return-to-work. Sitting down for an interview, Serafin spoke about what Qualtrics has found so far, and why he, a Microsoft veteran, is excited to grow the company in Seattle. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is understanding the employee experience so important to employers right now?

Nearly a third of the U.S. employee population is planning to leave their employer this year, and about half of the employees say they would stay longer if they had more flexibility with their schedule. The way we work is changing in a significant way, and the market is more competitive as a result. People are throwing out their old playbooks, around how you engage the workforce, how you build the culture that you want, how you drive performance. People are basically reinventing the things that you’ve done before.


It’s interesting. Flexibility is more important than compensation for people, even though compensation is important. The combination of factors that people look at no longer is a guessing game. You have to actually go in and make the right call at the right time, because the stakes are very high.

Are we seeing people in customer-facing positions looking for more flexibility?

The reality of it is, regardless of the industry that one is in, there’s a lot of change. I have the privilege of talking with CEOs and chief people officers in many industries around the world. How you engage your employees, how you recruit, how you bring in new talent, it’s changing. The more things change and the more uncertainty there is, the more important the employee experience is.

I’ll give you an example. Southwest Airlines is adding an ambitious number of employees to their workforce in 2022, and they’re using our Candidate Experience Solution as part of their platform in order to understand a job candidate’s experience, even before they become an employee. The reason why they’re doing that is that they can then take action at the most important moments.

How does Qualtrics work with companies to act on the data that’s collected?

There’s a lot of companies that produce data just to have more data visibility. The difference in what we do is that we’re a system of action. What that means at a large scale is that managers and their teams can use Qualtrics to create action plans. If you’re in a call center, as an example, you can tune in to what’s happening every single day that might be creating friction and bring that to the surface. And then you can then activate actions that improve the employee’s ability to serve a customer, which, by the way, better engages that employee. They feel like they’re part of an organization that’s making a difference.


What drew Qualtrics to Seattle?
I have strong roots in Seattle, and frankly I believe it’s a destination workplace. The experience of living in the Puget Sound area, given all the outdoor things you can do, the culture, the restaurants, it’s one of the places that people want to work in and want to live in. We’ve tuned into that.

We have a dual-headquarters model, with headquarters in Seattle and Provo, Utah. It’s a really nice corridor — the route between the two locations is an hour-and-a-half flight.

What is Qualtrics doing for return-to-work?

First off, we use our system. We were listing and tuning in to the things that matter for a very diverse workforce. And what you want varies depending on what your background is, what your family situation might be, what your commute hours might be.

We’ll have a hybrid work model. Employees can work wherever they feel most productive, and most safe. If things continue to improve, we’ll expect that employees are using the offices more regularly, based on certain purposes and outcomes. When they come together, they connect with other individuals. They end up creating experiences that would be hard to replicate that they’re just sitting online in their homes.

Part of this also invites people to re-imagine the physical workspace. How do you set things up for people to be productive when they want to do individual contributor work? How do you set things up when you want people to be creating connections, to be able to create inspiration and innovation and great ideas together? It’s an opportunity, and it’s not just for us. Most leaders that I speak to are basically saying, “OK, how do we use that physical work environment as an advantage and complement what people are doing with the digital environment?”

What have we learned about working in that remote, digital environment?


Obviously, productivity actually improves for people when they’re in that work mode. What’s also interesting is, when you go into the digital environment and you’re collaborating, everyone has a seat at the table. You go back to the time when people would walk into a conference room, not everyone actually had a seat at the table even though they were at the table. Their voices weren’t heard as much. What we’ve found is you’re actually creating more inclusivity when everyone has a video tile, and they can communicate differently. They can use chat. Not everybody likes to communicate verbally.

Do you think we’ll reach a point where we no longer talk about a “hybrid” office, when this is just the standard?

I do. I think there’s just a new set of norms that people are creating.

If I go back 20 years, when I had the privilege of working on collaboration technology, it would’ve been hard to imagine this world where within a single click you can connect with anyone at any location. But that has become the new norm with how you connect with people globally.

In many respects, I think people are now saying, “OK, you have these new norms that are now building on that capability. Now let’s get really clear about how we bring out the best of that physical workspace because it’s very powerful in how you create some of your closest connections and how you build culture, how you build teams.” So, it’s that mix that I do believe will become a part of the new norm.

You talked a lot about inclusivity. What have you found works as far as creating a workplace that’s good for people of all backgrounds?

First of all, it’s listening. Truly being able to listen means that you’re authentically engaging with people, which happens to be extremely relevant. The other part of it is how you take action. We’ve been developing capabilities that help companies to create new programs, strategies and ways of engaging to create an environment that draws more people. We want a workforce that is representative of the world around us, and an inclusivity that exceeds the world around us.

Why is that a goal worth pursuing?

It makes us a better company. It helps us to engage customers of different backgrounds, with different problems. It is a destination, and it’s certainly not something that we have achieved yet. Ultimately it makes for a better organization, and it helps us to live up to our mission of ridding the world of poor experiences and building deeper relationships with people, which is what most organizations want to do.