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How Atlassian is making remote work a priority, bucking the trend in tech

Key Points
  • Atlassian is rolling out an initiative to more broadly and better support remote workers in both the U.S. and Australia.
  • The initiative is an effort to an edge over competitors in recruiting top talent that is reluctant to move to expensive tech hubs like Sydney and San Francisco. 
  • Since March, Atlassian has expanded to more than 300 remote employees, which amounts to nearly 8% of it's more than 4,000 workers.
Vanessa De Coninck is a single mother and a product designer for Atlassian, working remotely for the enterprise software company from her home office in Melbourne, Australia. "Being a remote worker as a parent to young children is probably the No. 1 thing that I'm grateful for," she said.
Atlassian

In Atlassian's Sydney office there's a life-size cutout of Product Designer Vanessa De Coninck throwing up two peace signs. The cutout sits by her colleagues' desks but is occasionally moved around for photos that make it look like she's peeking from behind the office ferns.

"You know you're not forgotten," said De Coninck with a laugh. She works remotely for Atlassian out of her home office more than 500 miles away in Melbourne, Australia. "You know you're a part of the team. There's a really big effort behind it."

De Coninck joined Atlassian in March as part of the enterprise software company's Jira Service Desk team, the company's first fully remote unit. The team was established as a pilot for a broader initiative to support remote workers in both the U.S. and Australia. The Australian company hopes this new project will give it an edge over competitors in recruiting talented employees who don't want to move to expensive tech hubs like Sydney and San Francisco, where its main offices are based.

"We think that by doing remote we can tap into a whole new workforce that our competitors aren't tapping into," Atlassian Co-CEO Scott Farquhar told CNBC.

Atlassian Co-CEO Scott Farquhar said he believes catering to remote workers will give his company an edge over competitors in recruiting top talent.

Driven by Trello acquisition

Atlassian began exploring the idea of remote work after its 2017 $425 million acquisition of Trello, a project management service. At the time, Trello was primarily composed of remote staff. The company started thinking about expanding its roster of remote workers after it began to struggle with hiring in Australia.

A team under human resources staffer Nicki Bellington started doing research on the risks of remote work in the fall of 2018. Those risks can include communication breakdowns, reduced collaboration speeds and alienating employees and managers who are against remote work or have had negative experiences with it.

From there, the team created a remote readiness assessment to determine which of Atlassian's Australian teams were prepared to add remote employees. The company posted job listings for these remote positions, and in March, it created the Jira Service Desk pilot team.

"People are more likely to try something or learn about it knowing that we're testing and piloting it before we just open the floodgates," said Bellington, who is now Atlassian's head of talent programs, remote & early career.

Nicki Bellington is Atlassian's head of talent programs, remote & early career and oversees the company's efforts to more broadly and better support remote workers in both the U.S. and Australia.

This allowed Atlassian to hire people like De Coninck, an experienced designer who was unwilling to move to Sydney after establishing a life with her young children in Melbourne.

"Allowing remote work ticked all the boxes for me," De Coninck said.

For De Coninck, working remotely has been critical to succeeding as both a professional and a single mother. In the mornings, she makes her kids breakfast, readies them for the day, and drives the older one to school before getting back to her computer and pinging her team on Slack to let them know she's online. She connects with teammates for meetings throughout the week via Zoom video calls. At lunch, she logs off and pops out of her home office to have lunch and play with her younger child or go to the gym.

"Being a remote worker as a parent to young children is probably the No. 1 thing that I'm grateful for," she said. "I have my dedicated home office, so when I close my door my family knows it's 'work time' -- but it's still very comforting to know that if anything were to happen I'm there if needed."

The biggest challenge is missing all of the little interactions that occur naturally in an office, like quick chats in the kitchen, desk conversations or chance run-ins at the water cooler, De Coninck said. This forces her to make the most out of her one-on-one video meetings.

"All of those small conversions often let you know what other people are working on, challenges or changes that are happening," she said. "Even with all this in place, I still find communication challenging sometimes, especially during a time where there is a lot of change in our product."

Virtual Friday drinks

The remote process begins before employees are hired. Atlassian interviews the majority of candidates for these roles via video calls. These workers fly in for their orientation and to meet with their teams multiple times per quarter, but otherwise, they work remotely. The company gives them laptops, monitors and a $1,000 budget to get their home offices set up when they first start.

The company has also instituted a number of rituals to better include these workers. For De Coninck and her colleagues, this includes the life-size cutouts of each remote worker, as well as a weekly Wednesday morning session where everyone on the team calls in to work together. The team also dials in for Friday evening social time where they can hang out, play video games or simply have a drink over a video call and bond as colleagues.

"It just mimics that real office vibe," she said. "You can tell that they really wanted to make it work."

Although Atlassian is committed to its remote workers, Farquhar knows the company faces an uphill challenge. He noted that there aren't many examples of big companies succeeding with remote workers, only infamous failures like Yahoo and IBM.

"There's a healthy dose of reality for us," Farquhar said. "This is going to be hard work that's going to take a lot of change inside Atlassian."

Since March, Atlassian has expanded to more than 300 remote employees, which amounts to nearly 8% of its workforce. The majority of those remote employees are in the U.S., including some as far as Hawaii and Montana. In Australia, the farthest employee is located more than 800 miles west of Sydney in Adelaide. To overcome time zone challenges, Atlassian makes sure its remote workers overlap at least four hours of core business hours with their teammates. Approximately a third of Atlassian's teams currently have a remote worker.

"It's not like a light switch," Bellington said. "We want to crawl and walk and then see how far we run."

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