Atlassian publishes its blueprint for making a success of distributed work

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright January 18, 2024
Summary:
Digital teamwork vendor Atlassian went all-in on distributed work three years ago and has now published a guide to what it learned. We spoke to Anu Bharadwaj, President of Atlassian, about the success factors it found.

Anu Bharadwaj, President, Atlassian
Anu Bharadwaj, Atlassian (Atlassian)

In a spirit of practising what you preach, three years ago digital teamwork vendor Atlassian put in place a deliberate program of distributed work across the company. This week it has published a report what it learned. Called Lessons Learned: 1,000 Days of Distributed at Atlassian, it also includes findings from a survey carried out last September of 200 enterprise executives in the US, which makes the point that knowledge work is already largely done online, even when people are in the office five days a week. The company believes the trend towards distributed work that became established in the pandemic will only intensify in the coming years. Its advice to enterprises is that, instead of attempting to resist the trend, they need to adapt to it. Anu Bharadwaj, President of Atlassian, says:

We believe that the way of the future is going to be, not mandating people to come to work for some arbitrary number of days a week, but more facilitating people to work productively no matter where they are. Whether they choose to come in once a day, once a week, twice a week or whatever, or they choose to work completely remotely, it should be irrelevant to how productive our team is.

We basically think of, how do we unleash teamwork with any setting? Whether it is a remote setting or an in-person setting doesn't matter, it should be almost an irrelevant factor in how things work.

Its argument is that what matters is not where people work, but how they work. It says that research shows that less than a fifth of teams are routinely co-located together already, while being sat in the same office as someone else won't lead you to have more conversations with them if they're more than 9m (30 feet) away. With people already tied to their screens and communicating digitally, it argues that the real challenge is figuring out how to make this distributed work more productive — with better prioritization, less time wasted in unnecessary meetings and fewer distracting notifications.

Smarter ways of working

This thinking led to the formation of an internal program called Team Anywhere three years ago, with a dedicated leadership and supported by behavioral scientists charged with analyzing the results and figuring out smarter ways of working. Atlassian of course was already no stranger to distributed teamwork, having been founded in 2002 to help developer teams collaborate and share knowledge. But it was the acquisition of Trello in 2017 — a successful startup that had already fully adopted distributed working — which got the company's leadership really thinking about what it would take to roll out distributed working across the organization. The advent of the pandemic was the cue to go all-in on the initiative. Bharadwaj explains:

We were looking at [Trello] and trying to figure out, 'Oh, this is really cool. Can we scale this from an 80-person company to, we're now 10,000 people? Would that actually work?'

The moment of having to go to distributed, to remote work, was the moment we chose to lean in, not lean out. We were very much contrarian in our approach of saying ... 'You no longer have to come into our physical office. It's not just for 15 days or one month, it's forever. We will make sure that this is how we will work as a company going forward.' This was very unusual, because most companies were already planning their return-to-office strategies.

From a workforce of 3,000 in 2020, Atlassian has grown to more than 10,000 now, with 57% of new hires last year being remote workers. The company says that allowing people to choose remote work has helped hiring and retention, as well as diversity — for example, representation of women at Atlassian in India doubled last year. There are 13 countries globally with a registered presence that can employ Atlassians. The company supports people relocating from one country to another, and also allows people to spend up to 90 days each year working in a different location, for example to spend time with family.

Success factors for distributive work

There's a quid pro quo for this increased flexibility in where people work. Ensuring teams work effectively requires more prescription in how people work. For example, its internal data shows that, when team members are located in different time zones, there needs to be an overlap of about four hours per day in their working hours for collaboration to be effective. The report documents other ways in which Atlassian keeps teams on track, such as setting OKRs and then regularly reviewing progress against them, and encouraging team members to 'timebox' activities so that important focus work that requires deep thinking doesn't get sidelined by less crucial meetings or interrupted by notifications.

In my conversation with Bharadwaj, she highlighted several key factors for effective distributed work, all of which are reflected in this week's report.

Most important is the finding that it's still essential to supplement everyday virtual interaction with physical meetings from time to time. Even if you're never going into the office, teams do need to connect in person every so often. Atlassian's data shows that bringing teams together boosts feelings of connection by 27%, but those feeling only last four to five months. Therefore it has instituted a policy of bringing teams together at least two to three times a year, ideally for between three and five days at what it calls 'Intentional Togetherness Gatherings'. The purpose isn't simply to work together. It's important to use this time to socialize as well as working on activities that work best in person, such as brainstorming or thrashing out a decision. Bharadwaj says:

Because most people work in this remote environment where they don't really get to see each other in person all that often, we make sure that teams who work together on common goals and common projects get together periodically, typically it's once a quarter, where everyone comes together. But we make sure that they get together for a period of time, where at least a half day or half of the time that they're getting together, is set aside for social activities, just getting to know each other on a fundamentally human level ...

Being very interactive and structured about it has really helped us, especially as we've expanded very much as a company, so a lot of Atlassians are new to the company. Those moments of intentional gathering, building trust, fostering relationships, have been very helpful. We ask teams to do intentional gathering every quarter. And we do that on the exec team as well.

Being present asynchronously

Even when apart, it's important for people to be able to express themselves so that they're not just online to collaborate about work, but also virtually present as people. Bharadwaj cites the role of two of Atlassian's asynchronous communication tools in enabling this. One longstanding tool is Confluence, the company's flagship repository of shared knowledge, which employees use to share their personal thoughts and experiences as well as more work-oriented content. She expains:

It's a virtual watering hole, where people come together and share not only technical content knowledge, not only use it like a knowledge repository, and product specs, launch information, but also we use blogging pretty extensively as a company, where people share personal moments — someone had a baby, someone decided to move cities ... That has very much helped us maintain that sense of community, that sense of Atlassian-ness.

A more recent addition is Loom, the video screen recorder that Atlassian acquired last year. Its main purpose is to replace live presentations in meetings with recordings that can be viewed at a more convenient time — but it also allows people to express themselves with more personality than is possible with a written message or document. Many people also find it easier to deliver content in this format than in writing. She says:

We were using Loom extensively as a company before we acquired them. It's great for reducing meetings. Synchronous time becomes more and more precious as you split across time zones. It's helpful for reducing meetings, sharing context. Also, you can tell more from the tenor of the person in front of you. Saying, 'Oh, that meeting did not go well,' and I'm smiling about it, versus I just typed 'This meeting did not go well,' it's very different, the way it lands. Loom really helps with that.

Shared purpose and values

Another crucial factor when people are working apart from each other is to pay particular attention to sharing purpose and values across the organization and to embed them into how works get done. Again, Confluence and Loom have both been helpful here. Key presentations by the leadership are now distributed via Loom, increasing their reach to 90% of the workforce compared to 60% who attended all-hands meetings. Bharadwaj records a weekly Loom video to keep employees updated. She says:

I publish Loom videos once a week across the entire company to say, 'Here is what's happening in my world over the last one week. These are the customers I met. These are the partners I met. This is what we launched.' That helps the company stay connected.

Confluence similarly helps foster a sense of belonging and purpose. She says:

There is a good balance of not only can people understand the company strategy at one central place, because Confluence helps disseminate that information, but also they can get a sense of belongingness and purpose. Great companies cascade goals, but the really great companies cascade purpose, and to cascade purpose across multiple distributed teams becomes harder and harder.

What we found was, with Confluence, a virtual community is easy to build and easy to maintain. So it has become even more central to the way we run it. Asynchronous collaboration, writing culture, has played a big role in how we maintain that sense across.

Another aspect of Confluence that has been a longstanding part of Atlassian's ethos is its openness. Everything posted to the knowledge repository is visible to all by default. Bharadwaj says this took some getting used to after joining Atlassian from Microsoft, where people typically work on documents in private and only publish them when they consider them finished. The transparency of Confluence makes collaboration the default behavior, and she quickly saw the benefits of this approach:

I got to see how serendipitous it was that different people in the company were able to build on top of what I was doing. People that I didn't know to ask for help from, automatically figured out that 'Oh, Anu's working on this feature in JIRA, and I can tell her the history of it. Or I can tell her I actually made a check-in there that didn't work and share the lesson I learned with her. It was just amazing. I wouldn't even have known that these people were involved in this.

So Confluence is very much the collective memory of the company. It calls on people as needed. It was magical. Once I saw that, now, it's really hard. I don't think I can go back to the old way of working anymore. Making collaboration the default behavior is the big thing about Confluence.

My take

Most organizations have drawn back from the shift to distributed work imposed by the pandemic, recalling their people back to the office and mandating how many days they should spend there. It's a familiar environment where everyone instinctively knows how to behave, whereas distributed work is novel and the parameters of how to do it successfully are still being laid down. Now wonder therefore there's been a reluctance to persist with it.

But Atlassian's right. Distributed work is happening, even when people are in the office, and enterprises are going to lose out massively if they don't adapt to it because first of all they'll lose productivity and become uncompetitive, and then their staff will leave for other employers who do a better job of accommodating and motivating their people.

Gradually, the various practices and techniques for making a success of distributed work are starting to emerge. Atlassian's advice is not dissimilar from what I've heard from other proponents of remote work, such as some aspects of the management style advocated by mmhmm CEO Phll Libin or the philosophy of transnational localism that underpins Zoho's approach to cohesion across a distributed workforce. I've long said that technology alone can't deliver successful digital teamwork — once in place, the tools bring fundamental change to enterprise culture, processes and structure. Atlassian's report helps map out that path for those who are ready to march forward.

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