Reading for MEARIE Hybrid Teams conversation

Cut and paste from FastCompany.com for MEARIE Hybrid Teams conversation on Oct 25. NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION

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Meta’s former director of remote work is now leading one of the world’s biggest flexible work programs

While some companies are mandating a return to the office, Atlassian’s Annie Dean says the future of work will become even more distributed.

The return to office has become such a widespread debate—and practice—that many simply refer to its acronym: RTO. One recent survey of 1,000 decision-makers by Resume Builder found that 90% of companies will have fully returned to in-office working by 2024.

While some leaders are forcing workers back to the office, Annie Dean, VP of Team Anywhere at Atlassian, is not. The Australian software company responsible for software development and project management products like Jira and Trello has a “distributed” work policy.

While remote work policies typically involve workers collaborating remotely with a central office, distributed work policies are designed for an entire organization to work from various locations at all times. More than half of those hired by Atlassian during the 2023 fiscal year live two-plus hours away from one of the company’s (soon-to-be) 12 offices—up from just 14% in 2020. Dean says despite the fact that “no attendance is required,” 70% of Atlassian’s 11,000 employees come to an office every quarter and 99% come every year.

Dean was advocating for workplace flexibility before the pandemic forced organizations to implement it as a safety precaution. In 2016, she cofounded and led the flexible work startup Werk.co. Dean then tackled remote work and flexibility for Deloitte before becoming Meta’s first director of remote work.

Now her mission is to help lead Atlassian, the “largest organization implementing distributed work on a global scale,” into a new stage of global collaboration—without mandating a thing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been preaching the remote work gospel longer than many other people. How did your focus shift from real estate to this specific issue?

I was a corporate attorney, representing institutional lenders in real estate, which has been an interesting thread throughout my career. I had children a little bit on the younger side. I wasn’t very senior in my career when I had children—I was 27. And I was at that place where I was running deals and sitting at my desk at 4 o’clock in the morning, and days would go by that I wouldn’t see my young son awake.

I just felt at that time that there was something really inefficient about the way that we were working. And when I considered how much pain I was in, how tired I was, and how I was managing breastfeeding, and how I was trying to have an infant child in the context of this career that had always mattered so much to me, I realized this is not just a personal pain point, this is a more macro-economic problem. At that time, I became very interested in what the macro-economic problem really was, how to quantify it, and if there were any solutions.

My son was born in 2013. Lean In came out in 2013. Anne-Marie Slaughter was talking about why women still can’t have it all. These were kind of “new” conversations. The prevailing attitude was that women were not rising through the ranks of leadership because they were not ambitious enough or not committed. And that was very different from the experience that I was having where I felt like I was breaking for no good reason.

I ended up going on to start Werk.co to try to solve this problem. We originally started as kind of the “LinkedIn of flexible jobs,” thinking that if we could create a marketplace for flexible jobs, we would impact the problem. But the problem we observed . . . was that companies were not ready to market their flexible jobs because they didn’t know what they meant. They didn’t have a common definition of what flexibility was, they didn’t understand why it was impactful, or if it was impactful. There was always a champion in the C-suite. But there was never alignment across the C-suite that it was a good idea.

We pivoted the company to become data- and research-oriented, and use the job search filters that we had created to actually function as a data taxonomy. We studied employee pain and used that to predict what types of flexibility would be useful, or high impact, at an organization. People at the time thought that remote work was absolutely crazy as a concept. And we were like, “Guys, you don’t need to actually make your whole company remote. What you need to do is let people go to the doctor in the middle of the day.” Even that felt wild to people.

Unsurprisingly, we found that the thing that would have been most impactful was giving people variety in the location they worked from. My startup was acquired in January 2020 and I ended up going to Deloitte. At that time, I was like, “Maybe I’m not going to focus on the future of work anymore. Because it’s not happening.” . . . 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. When I started at Deloitte on February 24 of 2020, very quickly the world was like, “Actually, you’re not going to change your focus.”

What made you stay focused on the future of remote work?

The reason why I thought I might move on from [flexible work] is because there’s been a lot of disruption from where things happen. You look at retail, and transactions don’t happen in person anymore. You don’t need to go to the store to shop. But I couldn’t see a way that work would get fully disrupted because nobody could monetize that change.

I think that it took an event as profoundly disruptive as the pandemic, and continued disruption in the variants that continued to come and make the work-from-home orders that had been instituted last longer. I don’t think that we would have adopted this shift as meaningfully [otherwise]. 

While I was at Deloitte, I was doing funny things like helping executives model the amount of wait time that it would take to get [employees] into an elevator 6 feet apart. Doesn’t that feel so antiquated, that we thought that was a solution? It was six hours, by the way. So work-from-home orders ended up being the right approach, because safety [in the office] was not feasible.

Then I became the first head of remote work at Facebook, which was very interesting at the time, to build out those talent policies. I joined Atlassian 18 months ago.

Now I’m the head of Team Anywhere. My remit is to shift the company to a distributed-first model. I’m essentially the head of real estate and oversee all of our offices. I run a team of PhDs who are researching distributed work pain points and solutions—and how we might solve that for ourselves and for the industry at large. I have a strategy and operations team that helps me figure out how to build the right programs and policies to keep the company optimized and running in a distributed-first environment.

What was the most difficult thing you had to deal with as the first head of remote work at Meta?

I can’t comment on my exposure directly at Meta, but I can say that early in the pandemic, for anybody who was building remote programming and disrupting the talent experience, there were a lot of compliance [issues] and figuring out how to make the plumbing work. That was the first big challenge. People wanted to move. You have to create certainty. That was a challenge for any company who was adopting these policies. Once the plumbing got put in place, then we started to focus on things like experience.

And I do think that speaks to the average person’s experience of remote work and distributed work, because there’s a frustrating lag in adopting and fixing how we work and fixing the experience of how we work, because we were in a crisis mode for a long time. And crisis mode was more about figuring out those operational pieces, safety, and those kinds of things.

It appears to me that we periodically see an upswing in investment in, and acceptance of, remote work and then we see a retrenchment. What do you make of this cycle?

I think that the status quo is a powerful thing, and it makes sense that people in leadership are reflecting on their own experience of how they came up through the corporate world. And it was largely office based and in person—and that worked. I get it.

But when we look at the problems that people are facing in this working environment, there are a couple of things to know. The first is that people are distributed. We can’t pretend that that is not a reality. When you look at Microsoft, for instance, they had 61% of their team prior to the pandemic working shoulder to shoulder in the same office—that’s now approximately 25%.

When you look at industry research, 19% of teams are what we call “co-located” . . . working in the same physical space. And yet even when they are in the same physical space, they’re still acting like distributed workers because they’re on different floors, in different offices. Working virtually and using technology to get work done is absolutely the norm; working together without this technology is not the norm. We have to figure out how to optimize for a noncontroversial reality.

This isn’t a sacrifice. This is a huge opportunity. It’s an opportunity for women, it’s an opportunity for people of color, it’s an opportunity for people with disabilities, and it’s an opportunity for businesses. Because what we’re seeing is that our teams that are designed to be distributed are actually figuring out better ways of working.

You’re calling remote work an opportunity, not a cost. Central to this discussion is an argument about productivity: Are people more productive in the office, or not? Is there a definitive data set that people should look at to answer this question once and for all?

I wish there were. The problem is that we haven’t nailed down how to measure productivity in a knowledge work environment, so we can’t weaponize the conversation to make it seem like distributed work is a problem. Nobody has figured that out. 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.

When we think about productivity, I’d really like people to get deeper into the design of how to fix these problems, instead of imagining that these issues are going to be solved just by sitting next to each other.

Atlassian is working across so many time zones. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from leading a global team?

The cool thing about Atlassian is that we’ve been working this way for 20 years. Having been a company that was built in Australia and has always had a meaningful relationship with the U.S. and other parts of the world—India, Europe, and others—we’ve always had to figure out how to use our tools to drive how we work. That has enabled our leadership to not second-guess itself and to recognize that by continuing to experiment with these ways of working, and our tooling, that we’re making better outcomes for our customers.

In terms of time zones specifically, I think it’s all about choosing an approach that really works for the company. We think all the time about how to design through time zones. We have something called “halos.” Halos mean that there are discrete circles around the globe where teams are fully located, and that enables an overlap in working hours and makes sure that no team members are isolated.

Isolation is another big issue facing distributed teams. What have you learned about helping distributed team members feel included?

We have 11 offices, and we’re growing to 12 offices around the globe. They’re well-attended, they’re bustling, and yet nobody is ever required to come to the office. So I think with isolation it’s really about empowering people to make the best choice for them. If people want to be located within a commutable distance of an office, they absolutely are welcomed to be part of that community. If it doesn’t work for them, we have many other ways of engaging them.

We have what we call Atlassian on Tour. So for instance, in Denver, there’s a group of about 200 Atlassians, and we’ll bring in a leader so that people can meet leadership, and host social events, so that people can come together. We do see that relationships develop and continue to grow after coming into those social environments.

We also look at team connection as an important part of people’s experience and non-isolation, but also an important way that predicts how successful a team is. The way that we manage that is through our Intentional Togetherness Program. That’s why I’m in the office this week and next week. I have my whole leadership team coming in from across the globe. We focus a lot on spending social time together, but we also work on the really thorny, difficult work that is best managed in person. And we find that team connection grows by 27% when people come together in this format, and that the team connection stays high for four to five months [afterward].

When we looked at office attendance as a predictor of team connectedness, it had no impact. That’s in part because teams aren’t located together.

Do you think the push to return to the office makes extroverts with big personalities more valuable in the labor market because they can use their social skills to attract people into the office?

This is a golden age for introverts. I think that personality influence and cult of personality as a tool of influence is less relevant than ever. I think authenticity and the ability to have high EQ and empathetically connect with people is at a very significant premium—but that’s not the same as having a good personality. And I think that ways of working that are more written by default—which is what success looks like in a distributed environment—is much more inclusive to your quieter, more introverted, hopefully very thoughtful and brilliant colleagues.

What do you think makes leaders so nervous about remote work?

I think executives are looking for proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and I don’t think that’s the right way to treat innovation. You have to take a risk. You have to understand that things are going to break.

What I really like about our founders’ approach, both to this issue, and to all the issues that face Atlassian, is that they’re always looking 10 to 20 years ahead. And when you do that, there’s no way that the world is going to be less distributed than it is today. So it makes sense to try to get ahead of the curve, to invest for your customers, to invest for your people. Because we have to imagine that there is a return to [investing in distributed work], and that it will be a competitive advantage.

Is it possible that some leaders are trying to get people back into the office because of their egos? Because they missed how their direct reports would flatter them?

I do think that the way we influence others in a distributed environment, and therefore in a modern environment, is much different than it used to be. In the past, a lot of influence was built in these in-person interactions, which of course include things like feeling good, and flattered, and connected. And now I think we need to influence others through writing, through clear thinking, through solving big problems. It feels like an entrée into a more substantive working environment.

One of the things that I think is interesting, just philosophically, is that people have kind of put work at the top of their identity stack for a long time, because they spent a lot of time discretely focused in these working spaces. And I do think [distributed work] opens an opportunity for people to define themselves in a more diverse way. And I think that can only be a healthy and positive thing.

What do you make of cities that are using tax benefits to encourage workers back into physical offices? Are there any places you think are doing this work well?

I think it’s interesting for a company because I love the idea of work tourism. I think that’s a very cool concept, and we embrace it. At Atlassian, we have something called the “90-day-rule.” You can, for 90 days a year, work outside of your home location. I’ve had people go spend three weeks in the winter in France. I spent the summer at the beach; I have a special-needs son, and getting him out of this environment and into nature is profoundly impactful for all of us, but especially for him.

It’s hard, though, because these regulations lag, and despite the fact that countries can enable mobility into their country, they are not addressing the corporate tax impacts, and ideas of corporate presence, and things like that. So there are certainly high-level tax and legal implications that there isn’t a lobby around because who is going to lobby for it?

Amazon lobbied for the unified sales tax regulation that enabled goods to be sold seamlessly across the internet. But there’s not a single body, or a single company, or a single locale, that benefits enough to drive that global change. So it will probably happen slowly and piecemeal.

It appears that the labor market may be impacting the return-to-office tug-of-war. When we have low unemployment, workers get more flexibility. And when the labor market swings in the other direction, employers pull people back to the office. What do you make of this back-and-forth?

I can’t say conclusively that there is not a labor market impact, but I do think that employees have been experiencing this now for three to four years, and they can’t unlearn the experience they’ve had. [Workers] know that it doesn’t matter whether or not they’re in the office, and that’s why there’s such tension in the top-down directives that require them to come in. I think workers find that inauthentic. And I think that’s why we’re seeing noncompliance.

Often when return-to-office mandates are instituted, they’re not complied with—not meaningfully. And so I think we as leaders have to look at the tea leaves and the trends and really challenge ourselves to ask: What are we actually solving for? And does in-office attendance solve those problems? My argument would be that it does not.

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