Dom Price on leadership during COVID-19, and what Atlassian got wrong

Atlassian Dom Price

Atlassian's resident tech futurist Dom Price.

When it comes to the global pandemic and the abrupt shift to remote work, even a tech giant such as Atlassian can be caught unawares, according to the Aussie unicorn’s resident tech futurist.

Speaking at Qualtrics’ Work Different event last week, Dominic Price said the key to leadership during the pandemic is experimentation and vulnerability. Ultimately, that can lead to long-lasting positive outcomes.

Even before the pandemic, Atlassian’s third-biggest office was “home office”, Price said in the online session. So, when the whole workforce went remote, there was a touch of complacency.

“We thought we were just going to be naturally really good at it — that once we flipped to working from home it was just going to be normal,” he explained.

“Actually, what we learnt quite quickly is that our habits, our rituals, were really baked in being in an office — that water-cooler conversation, the incidental meeting in the corridor, a whole lot of habits that just didn’t work suddenly in a remote fashion.”

The key to adapting has been listening to employees, taking pulse surveys, and keeping lines of communication very much open.

“We practice stuff, if it works, we do more of it. If it doesn’t, we can always roll it back.”

For Price personally, despite working in a business built on innovation, it has helped to take a step back from technology once in a while.

When he starts feeling “Zoom fatigue”, he switches a few meetings to be audio-only, putting on his headphones and going for a stroll while chatting.

“We started to evolve technology almost backwards,” he said.

“It’s bizarre how old school talking on the phone suddenly felt.”

Shaking up constructs

COVID-19 is shaking up people’s everyday lives, both in work and home scenarios. That gives us space to challenge some of the social and professional constructs we tend to take for granted.

From a workplace perspective, one of those is ‘place’, Price said.

Even pre-pandemic, many ‘knowledge workers’ had multiple workplaces anyway, flitting between home, the office, and a collection of favourite coffee shops.

For the most part, employees who can complete their tasks alone can work from anywhere.

“Our job as leaders and custodians is to create an environment where they feel comfortable and flexible to do that,” Price said.

“Why should you need a desk in an office and a certain commute time to do that?”

The challenge is, once you have a work-from-anywhere model, “how do we ‘team’ from anywhere”?

Walking the walk

It comes down to experimentation, Price says, and that can seem scary. But, during a global pandemic, when business-as-usual is out of the window and uncertainty abounds, there’s actually never been a better time to experiment.

“We have this desire to be right, and experimentation means you’re probably going to be wrong as much as your right, and we stray away from it,” he explained.

“As leaders, we’ve got this opportunity … the hard part here is the vulnerability,” he added.

“The superpower of a great leader in this modern world is the ability to be authentic and vulnerable. And that’s not perfect, it’s beautifully imperfect.”

Opening up these conversations within teams, about how to experiment and improve the remote workplace allows leaders to evolve, rather than simply telling others to, Price said.

“It still amazes me, even before the pandemic, the number of leaders I was working with who were driving transformations — agile, culture, digital transformations — but they weren’t changing themselves.

“We have to be able to walk the walk and talk the talk in these times. When we role model those behaviours, you will build momentum in all of your teammates around the world.”

Investing in inclusivity

Price is the first to admit that moving to a remote-first workplace and maintaining a team mindset is no easy feat.

But, the benefits could be wide-reaching, and lasting.

Distributed teams can expand the talent pool within their reach, he noted.

“If we design this on purpose, we can build environments that are way more inclusive than ever before,” he said.

“Literally commuting to an office rules out a whole lot of people from being able to work.

While some leaders are treating this adjustment as something to be endured, if they go about it mindfully, it’s an opportunity for investment in the future of any business.

“You get access to a whole new talent base that has amazing ideas, and amazing backgrounds and amazing innovation — we’ve just not tapped into them yet.”

NOW READ: A specific kind of leader will see success during this pandemic, says Brené Brown

NOW READ: Atlassian makes remote work permanent, to “create the future of work by living it”

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