Atlassian Doubles Down on Distributed Work

In a recent interview with Fast Company, Annie Dean, Atlassian’s VP of Team Anywhere, made it clear that the Australia-based software company’s future is distributed. 

Dean was a proponent of flexible work long before she came to the company known for collaboration tools like Trello and Jira, but in the years before the pandemic, her point of view just wasn’t catching on. Even in the early weeks of 2020, Dean was doubting whether remote work would ever catch on:

“You have to think about where we were. CIOs did not have Zoom links in calendars as a matter of default. People were still largely working shoulder to shoulder at that time.”

The COVID pandemic and its subsequent periodic spikes changed everything, obviously. After a stint at Deloitte and then becoming Meta’s first Head of Remote Work, Dean moved to Atlassian, where she’s working to help the company transition to what she calls a “distributed-first model.” Interestingly, that work includes a team of researchers who are investigating “distributed work pain points and solutions—and how we might solve that for ourselves and for the industry at large.” (We’ll certainly be paying attention to their findings!) 

As with every company wrestling through the pros and cons of having a distributed workforce, Atlassian and Dean are trying to understand productivity. The ultimate question for them is simple: do employees get more done in the office or out of it?

Of the countless answers I’ve seen in response to this question, Dean’s is the most cogent: 

“What I can say is that when we look at the challenges at work today, I think it’s pretty well accepted that our greatest challenges have to do with distraction, the lack of ability to focus, the fact that we can’t prioritize important work fast enough because we’re letting our calendars dictate on time. And when you look at those as the key problems and impediments to productivity, fixing where we work is not the answer to any of them.”

Entrenched work cultures are hard to overcome; Dean readily admits that “the status quo is a powerful thing.” But she and her team, like many of us at Automattic, are in a unique position to push back against it. As distributed employees of distributed companies, we’re able to advocate for the tactics that have helped us find success—even if that model isn’t yet the norm. 

Check out Dean’s full interview—which is well worth your time—over at Fast Company (subscription required). 

RTOblox: Roblox Steps Away From Remote Work

In a recent post to the Roblox company blog, founder and CEO David Baszucki mandated that the large majority of Roblox’s remote employees return to a physical office in 2024. Citing concerns about “Zoom fatigue” and lack of creative collaboration, he concluded that “we aren’t there yet” when it comes to a remote work technology that works.

Roblox has been doing great work for years fostering digital connection among its users. However, this is not a technology problem. It’s a culture problem. 

As an Automattician, I couldn’t help but notice this line in particular: 

“A three-hour Group Review in person is much less exhausting than over video and brainstorming sessions are more fluid and creative.”

Of course it’s easier to do a three-hour meeting in person! But maybe the issue here is that three-hour meetings are common occurrences.

In my years at Automattic, I’ve never had a Zoom meeting last longer than an hour and a half. Most are 45-60 minutes, and those on the longer end of that spectrum are town halls and all-hands meetings rather than creative or collaborative discussions. In short, it’s not about the tool; it’s about who’s wielding the tool. 

As a recent New York Times article pointed out, studies are showing that management bears more responsibility for productivity than any other factor: 

“productivity differed among remote workplaces depending on an employer’s approach — how well trained managers are to support remote employees and whether those employees have opportunities for occasional meet-ups.”

As Automattic has shown for the last 17 years, we are there in terms of collaboration tools and distributed work strategies that get the job done. Sure, there are pros and cons to being a fully distributed team of ~2,000 employees; however, those pros and cons have helped shape our policies in instrumental ways. For example, we prioritize meetups not just so that people can enjoy time together in the same space, but so we can use that in-person time to have those long, crucial conversations about our business goals and priorities. Because distributed work can sometimes blur the lines between “work time” and “home time,” we provide unlimited time off (as well as generous sabbaticals/parental leaves) so folks can draw those lines clearly and recharge whenever they need to. And because we know remote work can feel isolating at times, we offer a coworking benefit so that folks can enjoy the social benefits of being around other people, even if it’s not their fellow Automatticians.

While we’re rooting for Roblox’s success, this feels like yet another example of a company responding to the wrong problem. With the right strategies in place, a distributed team can and will work—no matter what its tools are.

The New York Times Takes Stock of the WFH Revolution

In a recently published article, The New York Times offered a brief overview of some things society has learned (or not) about remote work. More than three years after the pandemic kicked off what reporter Emma Goldberg calls “a mass workplace experiment,” plenty of companies have yet to figure out what works—either for employees or for productivity.

For employers, productivity concerns outweigh most others—no surprise there—but the studies conducted thus far have been anything but consistent. Results range from productivity declines of 19 percent to gains as high as 24 percent. (Commence the cherry-picking!) Interestingly, though, Stanford economist Nick Bloom claims that the differentiator isn’t remote work itself, but how each company implements it:

“It all comes down to how workers are managed. If you set up fully remote with good management and incentives, and people are meeting in person, it can work. What doesn’t seem to work is sending people home with no face-time at all.”

Nick Bloom, economist and remote work scholar

One of Automattic’s core values from the start has been the importance of in-person meetups. All of our employees can expect to spend 2-4 weeks each year with their coworkers not only working on projects together, but also just spending time together, sharing meals, and generally getting to know each other. Regular meetups, both as single teams and as entire divisions, are a key ingredient to the success of our distributed workforce.

As Bloom ultimately concluded about remote work, even with seemingly mixed productivity results, “This is the new normal.” At Automattic—where we’ve been fully distributed since the company was started over 17 years ago—it’s the only normal we’ve ever known.

Read the full article here. (Subscription may be required.)