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Atlassian’s Dom Price on the future of work after COVID-19

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The COVID-19 crisis has necessitated changes in the way we work with a speed and scale unlike anything we’ve experienced in our lifetime. But while many are predicting that remote work is the way of the future, Dom Price isn’t so sure.

Price is the resident ‘work futurist’ at Atlassian, the Australian tech unicorn responsible for ubiquitous project management tools including Jira and Trello, among others. Price recently took part in a Town Hall Talk with Queensland Chief Entrepreneur (and Everledger founder) Leanne Kemp, and explained that just because COVID-19 has proven that remote work is possible, doesn’t mean it should become the ‘new normal’ in the post-coronavirus world.

“For the last three or four years, virtually every leader you would speak to would say, ‘Oh, I like the idea of remote work, but we just can’t do that’,” Price said. “And [COVID-19 has proven that] they didn’t mean ‘Can’t’, they meant ‘Won’t’. Because they always could. The technology was there, the tools were there, but they didn’t have the trust and they didn’t have the systems, the mechanisms, in place to follow through on that. Now they’ve been forced to.

“I think the danger is that we celebrate this as a success, without realising the constraints of the environment we’re in. Hopefully, this is just a short-lived reality, and there’s a new ‘normal’ that comes at the end... For me, I’m really missing human contact, and Zoom doesn’t do it for me. It’s an amazing tool, and I’m obviously a big fan of what Eric [Yuan] and his team have done – huge kudos to them! – but it’s not the same for me as that physical, incidental conversation; the stroll around the office; the change of environment and the change of creative mindset. I’m missing those things. So I’m surviving, but I wouldn’t say I’m thriving right now.

“The danger I’m seeing is the desire for binary. Most articles I’m seeing right now claim that in the future, everyone’s going to work from home. Everyone! Because we’ve now decided, post-COVID, that remote work is the answer. Well, it’s not the answer. It’s a question, it’s not the answer.

“The real discussion is flexibility. I’m a firm believer in the hybrid approach. For me, in a great working week, I’ll probably do two days working from home, three days in the office. And the nature of the work I do at home is different to the nature of the work I do in the office.

“The knowledge workers that we hire are creative and curious, they want to innovate, they want to drive our business forward, and there isn’t a singular way they want to work. Our job as leaders is to create a safe environment, and give them that flexibility to do their best work. That’s what we’re experimenting with right now, across all our teams across the globe.”

The challenge of COVID-19 for businesses, Price said, is to survive in the present while still taking this opportunity to innovate and focus on the future.

“The utopian in me says, ‘Now’s the time to focus on the future, because all the toys have been thrown out of the cot, and we can decide which ones we want to put back in’,” he said. “The problem is that most people have some level of ‘Business As Usual’ that they have to maintain just to keep their business alive.

“A lot of it comes down to mental bandwidth… at the end of a long day of Zoom calls and meetings, you’re probably not going to be feeling your most creative. There’s no amount of people saying ‘Pivot, innovation, creativity’ [that makes up for the fact that] you’re lucky if you can open a tin of canned soup, because the mental load we’re putting on people is higher now.

“We’ve seen the science that says being on eight hours of Zoom calls is mentally taxing because you get less physical cues and you’re searching for more information... so how do we find the time, the energy, and the cognitive bandwidth to innovate?”

“You might need to have some teams focusing on surviving the crisis, and some teams focusing on the future. But if all we do is focus on the crisis, that crisis might end, and we might crack the champagne, and then we’ll realise we’re not very well prepared for the next phase. And I think that next phase is going to be different to the one we’re in now.

“I’m confident that we’ll come out of this, and the challenge for leaders will be, are they going to embrace the things they learn from this COVID-19 experience or will they want to return to normal? Is the ‘old normal’ the thing they secretly want?”

While Price is skeptical of remote work as a one-size-fits-all solution, he emphasised that businesses will need to be open to new ideas to carve out their place in the post-COVID future.

“It’s normally the organisations that have been around for 150 years or more, the traditional heritage businesses, who are stuck in default-thinking,” Price said. “To be fair to them, the reason they’re stuck in default-thinking is because it’s made them a shedload of cash. They’ve been extremely successful. It’s just all in the past.

“At Atlassian, we set out to have innovation at the heart of what we do. We believe in a culture of innovation, and we believe that an employee has that innovation within them. They have that fire in their belly, and our job as leaders is to create an environment where we get to see that fire. When they join us, people are a product of their environment. They’ve had that fire beaten out of them. But there’s still just enough of a flame there, and with a bit of support and emotional leadership, you can get that fire from them.

“The reason we have to do that is because our environment outside of Atlassian changes every day. If we’re static, we become the anchor. If you look at the software industry, and the rate of change outside our four walls… our job is to match or beat that rate of change, because the reality is that if we don’t, our competitors will come and eat our business for lunch.”

You can watch Leanne Kemp’s entire conversation with Atlassian’s Dom Price here.

The full playlist of Town Hall Talks – including Leanne’s conversations with Yasmin Grigaliunas (World's Biggest Garage Sale), Michael Irvine (BMI Group), Laura West (CBRE), Marc Orchard (BDO Australia), Leesa Watego (Iscariot Media), Domm Holland (Fast) and Queensland Small Business Champion Maree Adshead – is viewable here.

The Office of the Queensland Chief Entrepreneur also conducts Toolbox Talks with entrepreneurs, founders, startups and innovators across Queensland. That playlist is viewable here.

Follow the Queensland Chief Entrepreneur on Facebook and keep an eye on our upcoming events to join live Town Hall Talks and Toolbox Talks and have your questions answered by Australia’s leading business minds!

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