'We need to change how we work and where we work': Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes on the company's new work-from-anywhere policy

Mike Cannon-Brookes
  • Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield and Atlassian co-founder and CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes discussed navigating the disruption of work under COVID-19 in a virtual panel on Wednesday.
  • Butterfield said now is a good opportunity for businesses to look at what has been inefficient in their company and change it.
  • Cannon-Brookes further explained why Atlassian allowed workers to choose whether they wanted to work from home or in the office.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

The coronavirus pandemic may have disrupted how many of us work, but it also presents an opportunity for change.

At a virtual panel on Wednesday, Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield, along with Atlassian co-founder and CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes, discussed the idea of navigating the disruption of work.

Butterfield described how the fear of change can be an inhibitor to the things you should be doing in your business. But now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, is a good time to change.

“This is also the time to look at anything that you were doing in the old world that was ineffective or inefficient, or that didn’t work for employees or that didn’t work for customers and change it,” he said.

Why Atlassian decided to let its workers choose whether they wanted to work from home or the office

Cannon-Brookes explained why the company decided to permanently give its employees the option to work from home, the office or both.

“The simple genesis is we need to change how we work and where we work,” he said. “And we need to separate these two concepts.”

He explained that by letting people work where they want, you first need to standardise how they work.

“Our policy has been very clear about communicating to employees and giving as much notice as possible that where you work is going to be up to you – within some constraints of your team and time zones and other things. But how we work has to be standardised.”

That includes factors like guidelines for using Zoom, the types of communications sent via Slack compared to email and when you should expect people to reply to messages.

But Atlassian is not going to do away with offices completely, especially as it revealed plans to construct a 40-storey building as its new headquarters in Sydney. That’s because the company expects many people may still prefer to go to the office.

While Cannon-Brookes acknowledged that there are a lot of details Atlassian still needs to work out with its new model, he said the company is “trying to set the norms of how we work so that we can allow people to work wherever they want.”

“There’s a lot of things we still need to learn. We have 5000 people that are experimenting and trying things. We have a set of decisions we’ve made, we have a set of directions we’d like to have and we have a lot of experiments that we’re running, and those will hopefully move into decisions as we get better at it.

“But we’re very honest with internal employees that we’ve still got a lot of things to figure out as I think a whole lot of companies that are heading in this direction are and should be.”

Stewart Butterfield

Could the pandemic change the five-day work week?

While the concept of a nine-to-five job, five days a week, still holds true for some businesses, Butterfield highlighted the idea of giving people flexibility.

Cannon-Brookes said Atlassian has “already moved quite a bit beyond the industrial-era nine-to-five work week” but stressed the importance of trusting your employees to complete the work they need to get done.

He explained that he has meetings on a Saturday morning while San Franciscans often have meetings on Sunday nights because of the time difference in Sydney – which can equate to almost a six-day working week. But Cannon-Brookes warns his employees against constantly doing that.

“You can’t do that regularly on both ends,” he said. “Literally you are burning both ends of the candle.”

Instead, it’s about teaching employees to manage their own level of work and their outcomes and making this process sustainable over a long period of time.

Key lessons from agile companies

Cannon-Brookes shared three main tips business leaders can learn from agile companies.

“The first is you still have to have a direction,” he said. “Anarchy is when you head in any direction you choose. Agile companies still say ‘There’s my northstar – there’s the mountain I want to climb’.”

The second tip is knowing that you don’t know how to get there. “Agile companies are always learning,” he said. “We don’t know the exact journey the entire way along so we have to build a learning organisation and be able to flex and move as we do that.”

And the third element is constantly reassessing what you do.

“Truly agile companies have a long term direction they’re heading in, but they are constantly assessing: ‘Am I heading in the right direction? And then what did I learn from the last little burst of work – the last little period?’ And then resetting their compass, changing and then moving forward.”

And as we continue to navigate this ‘new normal’, Cannon-Brookes advised business leaders to consider getting ideas from their employees. “You probably have the answers inside your business,” he said, adding that “the best thing you can do is to be honest and say, ‘we don’t know how to handle this right now but collectively, we’ve got to get through it’.”

“Most businesses I think don’t do anywhere near enough to unlock the power of the people they already have,” he said. “And starting there in a hugely uncertain time is incredibly fulfilling for employees, it’s incredibly trusting.”

“And then they’ll show up and say, great, it’s my job as much as everybody’s to make sure my company and my group gets through this.”

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