Atlassian swears by remote work—but time zones matter

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Among the companies sticking with remote work and doing it well, Atlassian is a standout. The Australian firm, which makes collaboration software and has a market cap of $63 billion, adopted a “team anywhere” policy in 2020 and found that it works so well that it’s sticking to it. 

But the term “team anywhere” might be misleading. That’s because Atlassian, which has 12 global offices and operates in 13 countries, still wants employees to be based within a particular set of time zones in order to work on a certain team.

Atlassian has divided the planet into a few “collaboration zones,” and it tries to make sure any one team is within one zone. For instance, on a team of, say, 150 engineers, the employees should all “have at least four to six hours of overlap and can reasonably work together across that,” Atlassian CTO Rajeev Rajan said in a YouTube interview with Josh Twist, CEO and cofounder of Zuplo, a smaller software firm.

So Sydney and India work, because those time zones are close enough together, said Rajan. But Seattle and London would be less feasible because the sleeping hours for one are the business hours of the other, with little opportunity for overlap.

If a job candidate is outside a particular team’s designated time zones, they might well be turned down for that reason. 

“We’ve had to say no to candidates who couldn’t accommodate their team’s time zone and adjust our location policies so they’re clear and specific,” Atlassian co-CEO Scott Farquhar told CNBC recently. 

The policy contrasts with the company’s initial stance of letting remote workers choose any time zone as long as a manager approved it.

“What we’ve found is that we’ll make exceptions, for example, for one or two people to work in Japan, but the rest of their team is 12 or 14 hours behind, and at the end of the day, their happiness at work suffers,” said Farquhar.

Now, “we actually make sure that our teams are healthy from a ‘collaboration zone’ standpoint,” said Rajan. 

Overall, the company has thrived with remote work, Farquhar said, adding that the biggest benefits have been in recruitment and retention. 

Annie Dean, global head of Team Anywhere, told CNBC that for each open role the company has received twice as many applicants since the new policy started, including from technology companies with less flexible work policies. 

Dean told Fortune earlier this year that she isn’t a fan of hybrid work, or requiring employees to come into the office a set number of days per week. The problem with that approach, she said, is it “requires people to organize their life around the office, and companies have to pay the highest cost of real estate. It means you’re carrying all the costs of the old model, and can’t have any efficiencies of the new model.” She called hybrid “the illusion of choice.” 

Farquhar himself told Australia’s 60 Minutes program that he “might come into the office about once a quarter,” adding, “We expect people to be able to work from home, from a café, from an office, but we don’t really care where they do their work—what we care about is the output that they produce.”

In the wake of the pandemic,  companies have diverged in their approaches to remote work.  Amazon, for instance, has blocked promotions for employees who violate its return-to-office policy but AI chip powerhouse Nvidia still allows staff to choose where they work. 

Like Nvidia, Atlassian maintains appealing offices for staff but doesn’t force them to work in them. It’s now developing new offices in Seattle and Sydney. But it’s adopted new metrics for evaluating its real estate strategy, tracking cost per office visit and the degree to which employees utilize an office and engage within it. 

To build strong teams, Rajan said, “you need human connection.” To achieve that, Atlassian focuses on what it calls “intentional togetherness” to, as it explains on its website, “round out our sense of one another: digitally, but also in person, so that we might know one another as full humans with lives outside of the digital ‘walls’ of our workplace.” 

Such bonding can take place in offices or at off-sites. For its upcoming Sydney headquarters, Atlassian is focused on collaborative spaces, knowing it will need to sometimes accommodate large teams gathering for meetups.

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