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Transitioning to a Distributed-first Team with Atlassian's Sherif Mansour

We recently sat down with Sherif Mansour from Atlassian, to delve into what it takes to successfully run a distributed-first team. We spoke about how Atlassian chooses to structure their team, what distributed-first looks like for them, and how transparency, visibility, and those water cooler moments, matter the most when working in a remote-first world. Sherif also shared with us the idea behind what they call, the "Daily Cafe" to keep their team engaged and connected.

Advancing Humanity through the Power of Software

If you haven't heard of Atlassian, maybe one of these names will jog your memory; Jira, Trello, Confluence and Bitbucket. These are a few of the SaaS products that make up the suite of Atlassian tools. The way Atlassian describe themselves is as a company whose products help teams across the world advance humanity through the power of software. That's one powerful statement, but their products do help thousands of teams collaborate from anywhere in the world, and their innovative practices are what has allowed them to blaze on ahead as they grow their distributed team. Our interview with Sherif Mansour, Distinguished Product Manager at Atlassian, was full of nuggets of inspiration and many helpful insights. We hope that through his shared knowledge, you'll be able to take back some of the learnings you gained and apply them within your own team.

What Atlassian's Distributed-First Teams Look Like

"Behind every great human achievement, there is a team. Our mission is to help unleash the potential of every team."

Teamwork and collaboration have always been important values of Atlassian, and how they've grown their suite of tools is a display of this. Their other values are just as important and are showcased front and center on their site, throughout their messaging, and in the way in which they connect with their customers. Check them out below 👇

  • Open company, no bullshit
  • Play, as a team
  • Build with heart and balance
  • Don’t #@!% the customer
  • Be the change you seek

After speaking with Sherif, it's no wonder why the company has been able to continue thriving through the pandemic and maintain momentum as they've fully shifted into a distributed-first team. We were curious to know more about the structure of Atlassian teams and how the team looked pre Covid.

How are teams at Atlassian structured? Pre-Covid, was there traditionally a culture of remote/distributed work?

Sherif explained how Atlassian was co-located until the acquisition of Trello in 2017, making this their starting point as a distributed workforce.

"Trello was a 100% remote team, so they started to inform a lot of the cultural practices and tooling and many teams began a transition to distributed work as a consequence of that."

Recently, Atlassian announced a distributed-first policy, which allows their employees the freedom to choose whether or not they want to go into the office. They have made "distributed" a choice, allowing employees to work from wherever feels best for them. For some of their team, that means working from the office most days, while for others the preference has been fully remote.

What does your team look like right now?

"Everyone's distributed, we have 3 of our 12 people who are spread across different timezones, but they are overlapping. We try to ensure we have a 3-4 hour timezone overlap...Australia works pretty well with west coast USA."

Atlassian shared with us how the transition of going from a largely co-located team to distributed-first in the last 6 months hasn't been an overly smooth one. Let's dive in and share the origin of some of those struggles from the individual employee standpoint, for the user's side, and as a team.

The Remote-first Mindset

"The TLDR is that everyone's transition to remote has been different."

A research paper on remote work, released by Atlassian, showed that there are 4 key factors that dictate how people will experience this transition; Experience level, Household complexity, Role complexity and Network quality. Sherif Mansour explained how these 4 key factors affected each person's transition to remote working in a unique way.

"In our team, we've had younger people in tiny apartments having video calls with their flatmate in the background, we have others with screaming kids behind them. Generally speaking, it hasn't been easy, but for me personally, I feel that the work-life blend has definitely been harder. I've lost the decompression time you get from the commute to/from work, just being able to flick that mental switch from work-mode to home-mode, it's just really all blurred together now. "

User response to Remote

Atlassian could see the user behaviour change inside the products as well, showing that the remote transition was playing more heavily on user's work-life balance than what may have originally been thought.

"Time spent inside the Atlassian products has gone up since the pandemic - clear evidence of blurring the lines of work and home life."

Building a Shared Brain Remotely

One of the biggest difficulties remote teams face is how to build and maintain a cohesive and aligned brain, something that Sherif expressed has been a challenge for their team as well.

"Our discovery work has been much harder. In the previous world, we booked a meeting workshop for half a day, whiteboard the hell out of everything and you build that shared brain. We've tried adopting some of the practices of the Trello team and using tools like Miro, but it just hasn't quite been the same."

Combatting Communication Silos

If you're working remotely, or have at some point, you've likely encountered communication silos which spring up as a result of companies failing to share critical information across their various departments and teams. What often happens when silos emerge is a misaligning of priorities, failure to meet the goals set, and often a lack of workplace cohesion followed by decreased employee engagement. Even in large co-located teams, communication silos emerge. We were curious to know whether Atlassian found that remote working amplified these silos or whether they had been able to take steps to avoid this.

"At Atlassian, we're probably an edge case here; what shocked me when I arrived at Atlassian was the level of transparency throughout the company. We're open by default, so access to information has never been a problem for us."

Although the transparency Sherif spoke about is a positive aspect, he did mention that there was also a flip side to it, which is that there is often a signal to noise problem. He commented that with this firehose of information, it can be difficult to know which is most important to pay more attention towards.

"I think where remote has made it harder for us is that we're missing some of the serendipitous conversations that pointed to relevant information, that's gone away."

Sherif mentioned how it's in those water cooler conversations where you often hear people say, "did you see that post, or hear about this project, or what are you working on?". These short casual conversations act as somewhat of a guide for what you should be paying attention to.

"Most people discover content through their physical social networks; it happens in Slack now, but it's not the same."

Recreating those Water Cooler Moments

Finding unique and creative ways to recreate those serendipitous water cooler moments isn't always so easy. Sherif expressed that finding solutions to building random connections with individuals outside of your team is challenging. Their annual hackathon was one way they used to help build these connections, but as Sherif explained, it wasn't too common.

"I think we could learn a lot from online gaming communities, they seem to have solved part of the challenge of creating completely online communities and giving people identity."

At Atlassian, they also experimented with running remote socials. Activities like Zoom cocktail mixing lessons, playing online "boardgames", and painting classes, are just a few of the activities Atlassian's team has organised.

"I think these work pretty well for small groups of around 5, but when you get a larger group you have to be a lot more deliberate with the conversation or use breakout rooms to split the group up."

Remote First Strategy - How to Improve Visibility

Many people are struggling with the lack of visibility that comes with remote work. Finding a way to support your team to be as close to 100% and focused on the most important objectives is challenging when visibility over the work done is easily lost. Sherif shared some insights on the two angles that are often taken in regards to visibility.

"There are two angles here; the manager who's concerned about everyone doing their job, and the individual who needs that feedback loop or recognition of their work."

How Atlassian Approaches Visibility

At Atlassian, one of the key elements to improving visibility is linked to their level of trust. Sherif explained how as a company, they have a lot of psychological trust and put the focus on outcomes rather than the outputs.

"We've also always done weekly check-ins just to get a pulse of what's going on in the team. For the individual, it's been a little more difficult"

Some of the other techniques Atlassian has used that have worked well have been:

  • Asynchronous videos - where employees record their thoughts and share them with their team or manager.
  • Asynchronous text-only stand-ups
  • Replacing the in-person standup with something they call the "Daily Cafe".

Replacing the Daily Stand-up for the Daily Cafe! Yes, Please!

The replacement for an in-person standup at Atlassian is the "Daily Cafe", which runs for 30 min, 2-3 times per week. The "Daily Cafe" is optional to attend, and invites everyone to take a turn acting as the facilitator. During this session, each member of the team can bring up any topic they wish to discuss; anything from work to social life is fair game and up for discussion.

"It's there to create that psychological safety, to make sure everyone feels like their voice is heard like they're part of a team and are free to share anything without having a structured format. It's been really helpful and probably ends up being 30% social, 70% casual work chat."

Interviewed by: David Smyth

Written by: Tanya Lesiuk