Team 21 - Atlassian, Slack and Zoom CEOs reflect on a year of distributed teamwork

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright April 29, 2021 Audio mode
A discussion at the Team 21 virtual conference between the CEOs of Atlassian, Slack and Zoom explores lessons learned from a year of distributed teamwork and takeaways for the hybrid future of work

Atlassian Team21 MC-B with Eric Yuan, Stewart Butterfield
(Team 21 screengrab)

As people start to contemplate returning to offices after a year of working elsewhere, what will the new world of work look like? In a discussion broadcast yesterday at the opening of its Team 21 virtual conference, Atlassian CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes sought the views of Stewart Butterfield, CEO of messaging platform Slack, and Eric Yuan, CEO of video meetings vendor Zoom. The three companies have been at the heart of the digital teamwork revolution this past year and all three CEOs believe too much has changed to go back to the old ways. As Butterfield put it:

You really can't unscramble that egg.

That comment specifically referred to hiring that Slack and many other companies have done in the past year, acquiring new talent based far away from their offices, while existing employees have relocated in response to a relaxation of requirements to work at a specific location. But he also believes the past year has been an opportunity to reimagine work that shouldn't be thrown away. As he explains:

There's a kind of assumption that whatever happened up to February 2020 is the default, the true reality, and we're in this aberration now.

Whether this is an aberration or not, we're in it, and people have already adjusted ... My hope is that people look at this as an opportunity to reimagine the way that they work. Because it's pretty hard to get your head above water, at any point, to think critically about ways to improve. And this is one of the rare shots that we'll have in our lifetimes.

His view of reopening is that it will add the opportunity to do all of the social interaction that we've been missing, without losing the benefits that we've discovered of more flexible working. He explains:

I think the right way to look at it is, okay, everything worked — at least for us, we were probably marginally more productive this last year than we were the year prior. Everything worked — and we're going to get back the ability to visit with grandparents, and have childcare, and go to restaurants and concerts, and get massages and our nails done, and all of that stuff. So everything worked, and life is much better.

Then on top of that, you get the office as an additional tool or resource that you can add to the equipment that we've built around our digital infrastructure over the last year. I think, to me, that's actually kind of exciting, because we just have a lot more options.

A new role for the office

Cannon-Brookes recounted a conversation he'd had about remote work that underlined how much it's ingrained in us to believe that the office is the place where work gets done:

  • Them: How do you know your people are working?
  • Mike: The guy that sits three desks over from you. Do you really know that person is working when you're sitting in an office? I mean, they could be doing something else all day.
  • Them: No, I know, they're there, mentally, because they're sitting near me.
  • Mike: ?
  • Them: [Thinks to self] No, that's a terrible answer. I actually don't know, I just thought I knew.

In this new world, the office becomes a place to socialize rather than the primary place that work gets done. Cannon-Brookes explains:

We're trying to separate how we work from where we work. It's a fundamental philosophical separation, that used to be the same thing ...

We meet to socialize much more at Atlassian now, whereas we used to meet to work. Once you separate those, you end up with very different constructs in office layouts and stuff over time.

The need for social interaction inevitably leads to a hybrid arrangement where people will still need places to meet even while others work elsewhere, says Yuan. Technology tools will therefore have to evolve to support these new patterns of work, so that for example people who are calling in to join a group gathered in a conference room will feel as present as those who are physically there. "A lot of feature enhancement, a lot of a product innovation, can truly enable the hybrid," he suggests.

Invited by Cannon-Brookes to predict how tools might evolve in the next ten years, Yuan talks about future innovations such as being able to share the smell of another participant's freshly brewed coffee or to virtually feel their handshake or a hug. Artificial intelligence will enable simultaneous translation, so that people can meet without needing to speak the same language, and it will automatically generate a meeting summary at the end. He concludes:

I think in ten years, all those cool features can truly deliver a better experience than a face-to-face meeting.

Cultural adjustment

Technology alone will not be enough to sustain these changes. Businesses will also have to adapt culturally. This is a much harder element to forecast, and one of the most difficult aspects of the past year has been the uncertainty around how best to help people adjust to these new patterns of work. While individual engineers, designers, sales people and so on were able to just get on with the tasks in front of them it was particularly difficult for middle managers. Butterfield comments:

They really had no guidebook and didn't have a framework to think about mental health of their team members in a way that's just 10x in terms of prominence, or how people should be working, or how much they should be working.

In the end, we came out, I think, slightly improved and optimistic about increasing the number of tools we have available, but I wouldn't want to go through that again.

The discussion surfaced various strategies the three companies have tried to improve the work-life balance and foster more social contact across the distributed workforce. Every month at Slack, the whole company takes one Friday off — known as Slack Friyays ("I'm not responsible for the branding there," says Butterfield). At Zoom, Wednesday is a meeting-free day. Atlassian has declared a "creative refresh" day, when employees must devote the day to any creative activities of their choice — and share the output with colleagues.

Another worry as companies adjust to distributed working has been how to maintain the company's culture. A particular challenge for all three companies has been onboarding new employees during a time of rapid growth. As Yuan explains:

The onboarding process is totally different. Used to be, we can fly our employees to the headquarters in San Jose, California. We have social interaction, dinners, lunches, it's a great experience. But now, we cannot do that anymore ... In-person meetings for coaching or mentoring, they cannot come back into the office to fix that problem. That's another challenge.

It's been difficult to judge whether the company has been able to sustain its culture through virtual channels or whether it is simply drawing down on pre-existing reserves. Butterfield says:

I do sometimes worry that we're running on the stored fat or the accumulated social capital that had accrued over the course of the years prior.

A strong sense of a common mission helps to reinforce that shared culture. Butterfield adds:

When people feel like they have some kind of purpose or mission they're trying to fulfil, or values they're trying to live up to, made a real difference, because it was something to anchor onto.

My take

It was clear from this discussion that there are no easy answers on how the future of digital teamwork will pan out. We are all on a journey here, collectively discovering the best path, through trial and error. But it's equally clear that nobody is going to revert to how we used to operate before the pandemic arrived.

The advantages we've discovered from these new patterns of working are here to stay and that means we have to adjust to the office having a new role in our lives. It is no longer where work gets done, but instead it becomes a forum for social interaction with colleagues. If anything, we will do our best work outside of the office — and sometimes when we're remotely connected into it — while our time spent at the office will be focused on building relationships and sharing ideas, rather than simply putting in the hours.

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