True Triads: The Secrets To Thriving Agile Teams In A Distributed Working World

True Triads: The Secrets To Thriving Agile Teams In A Distributed Working World
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At the beginning of 2018, Christina Bell [pictured] made the move from Auckland to Sydney to join Atlassian’s graduate program. 

Since then, Bell has moved up the Atlassian ranks, becoming a full-time software engineer and mentoring new graduates looking to follow in her footsteps. 

Even as she excelled in an industry-leading engineering team at Atlassian, there was an urge to return home to New Zealand at some point.

With COVID-19 plunging the world into lockdown early last year, these feelings became more pronounced.

“I always had the intention to move back home to New Zealand, but with COVID-19 and the lockdowns, the desire to move closer to family increased,” Bell told B&T.

“It was even more challenging because I had family members in New Zealand struggling with serious health issues, and it was tough not being able to just hop on a plane and visit.”

And while the pandemic might have pressed pause on international travel, it did serve as the catalyst to the biggest shift towards remote work ever seen.

This approach has been embraced by Atlassian, with the company launching its TEAM Anywhere work policy – allowing employees the flexibility to work as distributed teams.

Distributed working provided Bell with the opportunity to move back to New Zealand and in March of this year she relocated.

“Atlassian has been incredibly supportive. I always thought I would have to give up my job in order to move home. I am so grateful to have this opportunity,” Bell said. 

“In fact, Atlassian went one step further by providing me with thorough guidelines, support and resources to help inform my decision to move home.

“Atlassian’s ‘distributed-first’ approach helped me feel comfortable making this big decision, particularly knowing my career growth would stay on the same trajectory.” 

Making distributed teams work

Atlassian’s approach to distributed work not only allows individuals like Bell to thrive, but also ensures teams stay connected and on track, regardless of the location. 

Bell works within a TRIAD team (engineering, product management and design), meaning she and her team are constantly solving complex problems. 

“One of the things we have done to support innovation is to be more intentional about our time,” Bell said. 

“As a team, we ensure we’re deliberate about what collaboration has to be synchronous over Zoom, and what can be done asynchronously via Confluence or Slack.”

Bell pointed to “Lightweight Decision Records” – or LDRs – as an example of this approach in action.

While it is inevitable that the team will uncover problems when implementing solutions, LDRs allow team members to outline the issue and the intended solution as they find it.

This can then be left on a Confluence page for other team members to consume and approve at a time that is convenient for them.

“As an engineer, this increases our autonomy and ensures we are accountable for considering problems from a customer perspective, as well as an engineering one,” Bell said. 

“It also provides greater flexibility for TRIAD members, by reducing meetings on an already busy calendar. This allows for increased focus time and deep thinking for technical innovation.”

To further maximise everyone’s time, Bell’s team conducts their daily standup via Slack.

Not only does this help everyone better manage their time, but increases written communications and sharing amongst the team — rather than a passing conversation. This drives greater participation, equality and broader perspectives.

“I often hear about a lack of ‘water cooler’ conversations as a negative outcome of remote working, but in my opinion, this has helped level the playing field,” Bell said.

“Since we can capture these conversations in a written format, it provides opportunities for everyone to see what is going on. You don’t miss out if you didn’t happen to be at the ‘water cooler’ when the conversation happened.”

“Much of what we do now is still very much the same”

While Slack and Zoom might have replaced in-person meetings, Bell believes the fundamentals for how her team communicates have remained consistent. 

“Much of what we do now is still very much the same,” she said. 

“When we were in the office, some team members occasionally worked from home, and we’ve always collaborated with dispersed teams, globally. For example, my TRIAD works with teams in Bengaluru, so we were often dialling in colleagues to our meetings before.”

Bell added that the team has been helpful working across timezones, particularly now she is living in New Zealand.

“I think this really promotes inclusion and helps ensure everyone’s voice is heard,” she said.

“When Atlassian offices reopen, the rule of thumb is, that if one person is remote, all members will join Zoom individually via their laptops – ensuring everyone is equally included.”

While distributed working provides employees with a great deal of flexibility, a common drawback is the loss of face-to-face interactions and the coinciding social culture. 

To remedy this, Bell’s team has added two social Zoom chats each week (where everyone is invited to discuss all things non-work related) and has also incorporated some special virtual team building events throughout the quarter, such as escape rooms and cocktail making classes. 

These sorts of initiatives are also being rolled out across the wider company.

“Atlassian always had an incredible culture in the office. Maintaining that culture remotely is challenging, but we have an amazing Workplace Experience team who are experimenting with lots of awesome initiatives in this new world,” Bell said.

“This has included pivoting our annual A-Festival to be a remote care package (employees were given the choice of an ice cream maker or movie projector), and providing remote events like Friday DJs, online workout classes, and social activities.”

There is also emphasis being placed on mental health, with employees being supported through access to a variety of tools including — Headspace subscription, Modern Health app with 1:1 coaching support, licensed therapist sessions, and additional COVID-19 paid Special Leave.

“The mental health conversation has been driven by senior leaders, which really encourages myself and my team members to carve out the time for our mental wellbeing,” Bell said. 

“Having Atlassian be so supportive and understanding makes me feel valued as an employee.”

 

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