The Future of Work in a Distributed World

Dominic Price, Work Futurist at Atlassian shared his passion about the future of work and how the topic relates to remote specifically.

Below are some takeaways from his talk given on stage at Running Remote 2018. The video clips are specific parts of the talk where he mentioned the points outlined in this article.

While he’s passionate about Atlassian values and wants to share their success, the point isn’t to promote Atlassian’s products or sell you anything. It is to share what worked for them as an organization.

Values are important when thinking about remote and distributed teams because you don’t know the value of why you’re doing it and how you think about how teams interact. You are going to get it wrong.

You need to know what your values are, both as a remote worker but also as a leader of the organization you’re trying to grow.

You also can’t look at culture as a singular thing, because it can’t be defined as a singular thing. Dom gets a little bit tetchy when people talk about culture as a singular thing because he believes that culture really is a singular thing.

 

Atlassian believes strongly in their organization values. As their culture evolves over time, four things continue to hold true.

  1. Don’t fuck the customer. Not “customer first” or “customer-centric”, or “think about the customer.” Do not screw them over at any account because without them you don’t exist.
  2. Play as a team. A recent Ernst & Young report shows that 90% of organizations are solving problems so complex they have to be solved by teams.
  3. An emphasis on cognitive diversity to create generous things.
  4. Collaboration. By its very nature, it should be uncomfortable and a bit scrappy, but it is always necessary in a remote environment.

Dom reflects on his time working at Deloitte while they decided on the companies new cultural pillars. Much to his dismay, they landed on five new pillars for the company; Pride, respect, integrity, collaboration, and knowledge.

Five words which meant nothing to their audience and created no serious sense of culture within the company.

 

Adding value to both parties

Values and understanding the values is important. That’s because it is what shapes a lot of the conversations surrounding remote work.

Where gaps exist is how to combine values that delight the workers as well as the organizations as a whole.

There are many stats that emphasize that remote workers feel more productive than traditional office workers, but is this productivity at the detriment of the team their working with? Are they productive on a singular task? Does productivity decrease when you incorporate collaboration?

These are the questions that leaders should be searching for answers to.

dysfunction

Dom recognizes these gaps as dysfunction within an organization. Dysfunction being the gap between what you know and what you apply or what you do.

Dom relates the issues that exist within remote work to those of creating healthy eating habits. We all know what we should be doing. We’ve been having these conversations for years. So how do we convert that knowledge into action?

The same can be said about remote work. The information on the benefits of working remotely is readily available, however people are still hesitant to take significant action.

 

 

Converting knowledge into action

So how can we convert that knowledge into action? Start by acknowledging the history that we’re living in.

The reason this history is important is it represents the barriers of what we’ve struggled with in the past and represents the conversation we should be having.

Looking at the last Industrial Revolution, you don’t see remote workers, or digital nomads. Things like imposter syndrome didn’t exist, and there wasn’t much talk of innovation happening.

Companies did not care about empathy or emotional intelligence. People were content with their 9-5 jobs and efficiency was king. Everything was about was doing the same thing faster, doing it consistently.

We’re in a very different world now, but a lot of companies are still living in those dark ages.

 

Outcomes Vs. Outputs

To truly embrace remote work, you need to empower people by giving them the autonomy. Living in an efficiency model like the ones of the 1920’s creates a distrust that will never work in a remote environment.

A lot of people ask, “Well, how do you know that they’re working. The answer? You don’t. The same way you don’t know someone in your office is really working or not.

So this understanding of trust and autonomy, and empowerment, makes sense, but can be hard for companies to implement.

 

Efficiency Vs. Effectiveness

A good example to study is Blockbuster in the early 2000’s.

In the year 2000, Blockbuster’s made $800 million in revenue from late fees. That same year they had the chance to buy Netflix for $50 million and they didn’t. Based on the data presented to them, on paper they made the right decision.

DVD players were $1,600, only be the elite had them. The Netflix business model was to go on only into web, which not everyone had access to, pick a DVD and then wait for it to arrive in the mail.

Blockbuster laughed them out of the room. Why would anyone at the time go through that process when they could just go to a Blockbuster and rent a video?

But this is efficiency versus effectiveness.

Blockbuster now no longer exists. In fact, after the year 2000, they had a very successful IPO but they weren’t thinking about the future. They thought their business was video rentals. Netflix realized their business was entertainment.

blockbuster vs netflix

Netflix has reinvented themselves three times. DVD rental, streaming, and now content generation.

Netflix is no longer a $2.2 billion business. It’s a $12 billion business with 120 million active customers globally making it twice the size of Blockbusters in their heyday.

So when you’re thinking about remote work and you’re thinking about teams and how teams work together, we have to think about this effectiveness.

How effective are the teams and people you are hiring going to be when your company shifts and grows to accommodate change?

 

Businesses have to refresh

As a remote or distributed team, you have to think about how you stay relevant and change. This all comes back to your company’s “why.”

As an example, these are the “why” for Atlassian:

  • We sell products that enable remote collaboration.
  • We place an emphasis on remote collaboration.
  • We want to be able to share that knowledge because we genuinely think that sharing is caring.
  • We build a culture that feels like home for A players.

Atlassian has nine locations all around the world plus one home office. Remote workers are their third largest office if you were to put them in one place.

 

Types of remote working

 

 

Distributed teams

Atlassian has two offices but they are in separate locations, time zones, geographies. That is the majority of their teams.

Atlassian has just shy of 3,000 employees and 480 small, nimble teams. Those small nimble teams are spread across geos because they’re cross functional teams that come together, swarm on a project and then often disband afterwards.

And so distributed teams, whilst not truly remote, still require a way of working that enables them to connect people across a wire where they’re not co-located.

“Occasional” kind of work from home

I’ve got a dentist appointment. My dog’s getting its teeth cut on Wednesday. I’m not going to be in.

If you hire fully-formed adults and trust them, the occasional working from home should be a transaction that just occurs. If you’re having that conversation, leave.

Because if you’ve not got enough trust to work from home for an afternoon, that’s probably not a conducive environment for growth.

Remote-friendly

This is something that Atlassian thought they were good at until a year and a half ago when they acquired Trello and realized they weren’t as good at it as they thought they were.

Trello was remote from the get go. So what they have learned, the knowledge they’ve acquired, the practice that they have are significantly better.

 

How to Help your Remote Team Thrive

 

Pick tools that make sense for your company

It’s obvious that in a technology company, employees look to specific tools to make their lives easier.

But a fool with a tool is still a fool. So be very careful. You’ve made them faster.

So if you do have idiots on your team, do not give them technology! You will make them faster at being bad and that is not a good thing.

Emphasize a Growth Mindset

Growth mindset enables you to challenge the status quo. You’re all about exploring and abundance, and experimentation. You love getting stuff wrong because you learn from it.

Fixed mindset is, “I am who I am. I am where I am. I have what I have and this is all I can do”.

Atlassian hires for the growth mindset, but here’s the bit where remote work and distributed teams got caught up. Their practices are ways of working around policies and procedures that are baked in the 1920s ideology.

Assessing successful projects is a waste of time

When assessing their internal processes, Atlassian first decided to take a look at three awesome projects that they had accomplished. They quickly realized it was a huge waste of time.

When you look at a great team or a great project and you say, “What was the secret sauce that made you awesome?” the answer is usually, “It just worked, which is really nice.”

It’s great to identfiy what worked but that process can’t always be repeated.

So instead they looked at three Atlassian projects that were failures. This information allowed them to land on eight attributes that create a healthy project team.

 

Eight Attributes that Create Healthy Project Teams

 

 

1. They are cross-functional

About 80% of teams in Atlassian act and smell, and feel like a project team. They are cross-functional. This isn’t departments.

2. They Inspire and Mentor

They are there for their teams to actually amplify them. They are a true multiplayer. They also set long-term vision and direction.

3. They set the North Star

You’ve heard a few people talk about purpose and mention Simon Sinek. That there’s that big hairy audacious goal leaders want you to get excited by. They’re the two things that great leaders do.

4. There’s no pigeon boss

The third thing we noticed with our leaders is what we call the pigeon boss.

The pigeon boss has read the book on autonomy and empowerment, and they leave you alone. And then the second week of the month or like towards the end of the quarter, they wake up a bit nervous and they fly into your area, shit everywhere and fly out.

They’ve not got bad intent, they’re not malicious, but they distract and disrupt the entire team with a random statement.

5. Leaders have an agreed rhythm and cadence

Great leaders have an agreed rhythm and cadence of how they communicate, and they work to inspire and multiply the team, not micromanage and not this laissez-faire, “I’ll fly in at the end of the project.” The answer is somewhere in between.

6. They understand service teams vs. project teams

Service teams were an interesting choice for Atlassian. They smell and look a lot like project teams, but instead of having a backlog, they have a queue.

So their first job tends to be to triage. You’ll know the service teams in your organization. They’re the firefighters. They got capes in their drawer, they wait for shit to go wrong, they fly in, and put the fire out.

Be careful for firefighters, they’re also fire starters. Because when stuff starts breaking, they get nervous they’re going to lose their job.

So when no one’s looking they’re like, “Oh look, a fire.I happened to be here to put it out, to get my Employee of the Month badge.”

Service teams are great for understanding how you prevent and not just cure. In remote environments, this becomes even more important.

As a distributed team, this means that they have a meaningful conversation in advance of how they work person-to-person.

Cognitively diverse teams are awkward and painful. They can feel like an investment when you get them right. But at first, it slows you down, it’s scrappy.

Atlassian worked on this internally and it allowed them to scale at a rapid pace. Here are a few things that happened when they made service teams more of a priority.

  • They actually start to work quicker and have more mojo.
  • They won ‘Best Place to Work’.
  • They consistently have good employee engagement.
  • As they’ve added more teams they’ve gotten faster and better.

7. They documented internal processes.

Atlassian did this by creating their Team Playbook. The playbook is comprised of three health monitors, one for each of their teams.

Imagine it is like a fitness instructor, who puts the teams through the drills. The plays are things like a project poster, elevator pitch, retrospective. They ask questions like ‘How do you do a project kick-off?’

In the Team Playbook, you can see every artifact that they use to manage their 480 teams globally.

This is used by their distributed teams every single day to avoid the friction and natural conflict occur when you’re in different cultures, customs and times outs.

It enables them to get on the same page up front rather than fixing the problem after. It avoids that miscommunication.

Interestingly, they only have one version of this. So the teams at Atlassian, those 480 teams, they use this same site. When they published the playbook publicly, they made a decision to retire their internal version.

This isn’t a marketing play to get people to buy their products. It’s free. Anyone can use it whether you use their products or not.

Every template and blueprint they have is in there for anyone to use free of charge.

8. Understanding how remote teams are different

Atlassian isn’t a FULLY remote company, but their work-from-home group is their third largest office giving them great knowledge on remote teams.

Atlassian believes that with every interaction, there is an opportunity to reinforce how much they care about remote teammates.

Every interaction is also a chance to screw it up, to get it wrong, so you’ve got to make sure that those interactions are meaningful.

A great example is when you’re in a conference room with remote people dialing in. How much do you hear from them? Not very much. You start having a conversation around the table and you forget they even exist.

Back in the day before video conference when they used to dial in, you’d be like, “Jason, are you there?” And you lost Jason 50 minutes ago.

It makes it seem as though his contribution was that unimportant, you didn’t even notice he’d fallen asleep.

This was a challenge for Atlassian, as it is for a lot of organizations. Again, every interaction is a chance to reinforce that your remote team is important.

 

Leveling the playing field between remote and in-office

Atlassian’s policy now is that if one person dials in, everyone dials in.

It does not matter how many people are in the same location, they do not gather in a meeting room and have one person dial in. Everyone dials in.

They hold town hall meetings with you’ve got 120 people, 50 of which are in an office and 80 of which are dialing in remotely, but it levels the playing field for everyone.

It just makes sense when you do it and you realize how it works. The process builds empathy that you could never build in any other way.

As a tech company, Atlassian is very indulgent with their swag. They used to get all swag delivered to the office. There’d be a swarm because engineers love a free t-shirt like nothing else, other than a free lunch.

trello swags

One day they were like, “Hang on, this isn’t cool for our remote employees, they’re missing out.”

So now when they have new swag, it doesn’t get delivered to the office, gets delivered to employees homes. It doesn’t cost them any more, but it makes that remote employee feel equal and equitable to everyone else.

They also started asking their teams to share personal experiences and stories with each other to build more personal relationships among their remote employees.

They began asking their teams to go out and do something with their families and then share it with the team. They also gave their remote teams the afternoon off to balance out the among of in-office celebrations that remote workers don’t get to be apart of.

trello board stories

The story telling aspect of this became a brilliant investment in team building within their organization.

When you genuinely care about your colleagues, you can find out how you genuinely communicate and work together.

But it’s not all success. They’ve also learned how not to try and include remote workers.

In one instance, one of their teams celebrated a release by going out to dinner. While out, they phoned one of the remote team members in an effort to make them feel more included.

This actually created even more fear of missing out because the remote workers was on the phone and not out having drinks with the team. That was a huge learning opportunity for the team.

But instead of sulking in the failures, they celebrate them because they create an opportunity to address what works and what doesn’t. They understand that they need to continue to explore and share the things that work and the things that were failures in order to get a little bit better every single day.

Atlassian is not a remote first company and probably never will be, but they try their hardest to be remote friendly by creating an environment where when the remote worker succeeds, the company succeeds.

If it’s one or the other, that trade-off does not work. It has to be both parties.

 

How does Atlassian explicitly promote remote culture?

 

 

1. They insist on a certain level of overlap among their teams.

It creates better responses to incidents and promotes problem solving which requires people to be online at the same time, some of the time.

2. Make sure there is a central, shareable, transparent version of the truth.

This is where they consider options and make decisions. They make sure that we only ever have one version of the truth of those decisions so everyone can see that and work off the same information.

Whether it be sync or async, just make sure that it’s not a watercooler conversation that determines the work you do.

3. When hiring remote workers, they do all the interviews remote.

job interview

Sounds logical, but a lot of remote companies still want to fly in remote workers to do face-to-face interviews which poses some problems.

It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eyeball them at some stage, but if you need to do that to actually get your confidence, how are you going to manage that over time?

It enables them to actually see how an employee is going to communicate in a remote environment by creating that environment on purpose. It sounds logical but lot of people forget it.

4. Unlearning team building techniques of the past.

We’re in an epidemic of knowledge acquisition. We’re getting really fat with knowledge and we’re doing nothing with it.

So how can you unlearn old practices and habits, either yourself or how can you help others unlearn who are stuck in them?

Most of us learn and we never forget. We never forget the old way and you end up with hybrid models which are neither of either. Dom uses the four Ls.

  • “What did I love?”
  • “What did I long for?”
  • “What did I loathe?”
  • “What did I learn?”

He does that every quarter. To learn is the gift that keeps on giving, and that is his way of constantly evolving and unlearning.

5. Understanding that the environment of remote work is constantly changing.

The danger for remote working companies is they can become very insular. They think they know their environment, and they think it’s static when it’s not.

There are different generations of workers entering the workforce and different types of remote workers that need to be understood differently.

You also have to understand the difference between remote and distributed teams and how to treat them accordingly.

6. Mental wellbeing is extremely important in a remote setting.

If an employee isn’t in your line you of sight, you can’t sense them getting upset, tired or stressed. You can’t sense their anxiety if you only connect once a week online. It’s important to be intentional about making mental wellbeing a priority.

7. Understanding how technology can help change promote diversity and inclusion

In the old business world, the currency was consistency. In the new business world; the currency is creativity and curiosity. How do you enhance that through remote and distributed teams?

 

Wrap Up

We run the risk of getting five years down the line, coming back to The Running Remote Conference when there’s a thousand people and going, “If only everyone else could understand remote work.”

We don’t want to be the bystander. We want to be the people that take action. So instead of thinking about the future, the only way we could create it is to take action.


Watch Dom’s talk here: Session Recordings – Running Remote 2018.

Also check out the lessons on distributed teams and remote work that Dom shared on his Linkedin.

 

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Comment List

  • Jan 03 / 11 / 2018 Reply

    Dominic literally “rocked the house down”. His engagement to his audience was the key to making us focus on him and really listen to what he’s saying. I have tons of takeaways indeed from the 2018 conference which I have applied to my own business, and I look forward to learning more next year. Pretty excited to what 2019 brings.

  • Mohsen Hossein pour 12 / 11 / 2018 Reply

    Great article

  • Jerome Gibran de Jesus 16 / 11 / 2018 Reply

    Cool article super detailed!

  • Megan Bingham 19 / 11 / 2018 Reply

    We’re just starting out as a remote team, so it’s great to learn from the pioneers of this way of working.

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