Companies will regret return-to-office mandates: Atlassian

Companies mandating their workers return to the office will live to regret it, says a top executive of Atlassian, the Australian software giant that has marked 1000 days of running a fully geographically spread workforce.

Few companies have stuck with working from home since the pandemic, with a growing list of firms – including Amazon, Facebook parent company Meta. and Google’s parent company Alphabet – mandating at least a partial return to the office.

Atlassian’s head of Team Anywhere, Annie Dean.
Atlassian’s head of Team Anywhere, Annie Dean.

Executives at those companies will most likely regret those decisions, says Atlassian executive Annie Dean, who categorised them as rash moves based on misconceptions around productivity and company culture.

“I think leaders are beginning to recognise how significant the erosion of trust is when they have instituted a return to the office [mandate],” said Dean, who serves as Atlassian’s executive in charge of its Team Anywhere policy.

“Because, one, it’s really made a lot of negative impact within the employee base, but, two, they’re often not being complied with. So we’re not seeing that return-to-office mandates are actually working, and employees are not returning at the rate that those policies dictate.

“I think this is the year that executives are going to recognise that return-to-office mandates are not positively impacting productivity.”

Atlassian, which was one of the most aggressive companies to enact a remote-work policy during the pandemic, has just released a report titled Lessons Learned: 1000 Days of Distributed at Atlassian.

The software firm uses the term “distributed” to differentiate between remote work, which excludes people working from an office, and hybrid, which means some mandated office time.

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“Atlassians can choose to work from one of our offices, or not, on any given day,” the company says.

Dean’s view is that hybrid work is an “illusion of choice”, in which many companies are forcing their workers to live within a commutable distance to the office – typically in an expensive city – and not allowing them the opportunity to relocate to meet their own needs.

‘I think it’s really hard for any of us to sit honestly and say that in 10 to 20 years work is going to be less distributed.’

Atlassian’s Annie Dean

“You often then have too many people in the office or too few. So I don’t think those decisions are being made with real awareness of what advantages a more distributed structure can bring companies,” she said.

There are several misconceptions that companies have when it comes to embracing distributed work, according to Dean.

One is the idea that workers aren’t as productive when they are at home, or that they’re working less. Another is that they’re less connected to each other in a remote environment. Some also argue that a company’s culture is impossible to replicate in a remote setting, and that executives are not sure how to realise a return on their real estate investment.

“What we found is that these decisions tend to be made on a gut basis or on feelings,” Dean said. “We’re trying to give people a concrete set of answers and considerations to each of these issues, so they can be empowered to make the right choices for their business.”

She pointed to statistics from the report showing 99 per cent of surveyed Fortune 500 executives agree that the future of work is geographically distributed, whether they have an in-office policy or not.

“I think it’s really hard for any of us to sit honestly and say that in 10 to 20 years work is going to be less distributed,” she said.

“I think that leaders practically recognise that the norm is now working on the internet. It isn’t controversial, it is just the way that it is.”

As this masthead previously reported, some of the country’s biggest employers are turning to bonuses to lure staff back to the office, with big four bank ANZ, financial conglomerate Suncorp, and electricity retailer Origin Energy all tying remuneration to office attendance for some staff.

A survey in October, meanwhile, suggested most chief executives predict a full return to the office in three years.

By contrast, Atlassian’s co-CEOs Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar – two of Australia’s wealthiest individuals – have long been bullish about the benefits of distributed work.

Relatively early in the pandemic – August 2020 – Atlassian announced its Team Anywhere policy, allowing its employees to effectively work from wherever they want. Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar said at the time that the pandemic had accelerated a plan Atlassian already had in place to distribute its workforce.

Atlassian lets its employees live and work from any of the 13 countries in which it has a legal entity. Atlassians can also work outside their designated “home base” for short periods each year.

While work on Atlassian’s new 39-storey Sydney headquarters is progressing, the company’s Team Anywhere policy means about 40 per cent of its workers are located two hours or more from an Atlassian office and work fully remotely. The company says that its number of candidates per role has more than doubled since Team Anywhere, without any dips in productivity.

Dean said Atlassian should be viewed as the world’s leading distributed company, even if it doesn’t necessarily have all the answers.

“It does really come from the top,” Dean said of Atlassian’s culture. “Both Mike and Scott talk about being a 100-year company and, you know, how are we going to be impactful 100 years from now? That means that we need to take big swings and look to design for the future instead of the past.

“They’re not making these choices based on their gut feeling. They’re really figuring out what is the strategic long-term position here, and how can we use data to support our choices?

“Both Mike and Scott have been very clear that Team Anywhere is here to stay.”

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