Workplace

Atlassian’s work futurist says it’s time to spring clean your musty work habits

Staying productive at work is about what you stop doing, not what you start doing.

Dominic Price

Dominic Price is Atlassian's first work futurist.

Photo: Atlassian

Dominic Price was a work futurist before it was cool.

When he first joined Atlassian about nine years ago, he managed its research and development teams. Atlassian was a rapidly growing company at the time, but there were challenges.

“My boss was like, as we scale, things will break,” Price said. “How do we understand as we scale, how do we stay nimble? How do we keep that agility, that freshness, that scrappiness of being a small company?”

Price found those questions fascinating, and four years in, he decided to devote himself to them full time. And so he became Atlassian’s resident work futurist, optimizing teams internally but also sharing his knowledge with customers. All of this was before the pandemic flipped the working world upside down. Now, we’re more attuned than ever to our workplace norms and habits. “Future of work” is an in-demand job title; Twitter recently called for candidates to lead its new "Future of Work Innovation" team. The trend isn’t exclusive to tech companies: Price said even more traditional Fortune 500 companies have adopted futurist teams.

Protocol sat down with Price to hear about his tips for managing teams and using Atlassian’s products. His biggest goal: to make work more fun and pleasant, one small step at a time. “Find those tips and hacks, find the thing you can try,” Price said. “It’s not reinventing the entire company, it’s finding the one or two things to try this week.”

Get rid of something

The longer we work, the more baggage we accumulate. We pick up working habits (like making endless to-do lists) and never let them go. Price’s first productivity tip for leaders is to consider some of your work habits. Your response to why you work a certain way or hold a certain meeting should never be, “Well, this is what I’ve always done.”

“We don’t often give ourselves the space and the time to add in new stuff,” Price said. “I know the average leader isn’t going to be able to try any of these tips, because they’re full, right?”

It’s time for a spring cleaning of your productivity habits, Price said. Atlassian has a built-in process called a ritual reset, where team members take an hour and a half to run through their typical rituals: monthly 1:1s, weekly standups, quarterly town halls. Then, they separate the rituals into three buckets: rituals to keep, rituals to improve and rituals to remove or reconsider. An example of a ritual to improve could be a meeting that needs a more thought-out agenda or different attendees. Killing a ritual might feel impossible, but in Price’s view, the stakes are low. Worst-case scenario, you can always add those rituals back into your schedule.

“When we remove a ritual, no one dies,” Price said. “The cost of removing something is really quite low, but the benefit it gives you — I did this with a team the other week, they got 12 hours back in their week.”

Atlassian has a guide for how to perform a ritual reset using Mural, Trello and Confluence. But you can run the workshop in any environment, even with good old pen and paper.

Check in on team health

At Atlassian, the most important rituals have to do with team bonding and cohesion, Price said. These are the rituals that usually emerge unscathed from a ritual reset. They help teams build trust and therefore work better together. Atlassian has a whole arsenal of free workshops at its disposal, including Working Agreements where teams create a shared list of expectations for each other.

The working agreement might include banishing meetings on Friday or avoiding Slack after 6 p.m. Price said determining these expectations should come before leaders choose or change a productivity tool. “I work for a technology company, but I think you have to get the human way of working right first, and then put it into a tool,” Price said. “This is where a lot of leaders struggle. I think they look to tools for the answer.”

Another workshop Atlassian uses is the Team Health Monitor. In this exercise, teams run through the attributes of a healthy team and anonymously vote on whether they meet that attribute. Attributes include having balanced roles and responsibilities, a full-time, accountable leader and clear success metrics.

Once you establish your team’s working rules, then you can turn your attention to your tools. Price said when possible, teams should collectively decide what tools to use instead of a boss imposing tools on them. Work gets messy when every team is using a different tool, though. Your organization should standardize its core communication tools, but let teams adopt what they need to get specific work done.

“We standardize that very thin layer across the organization,” Price said. “So how we communicate, our weekly status on our projects, is fully standardized. The tools you use below that, to evolve your work, are completely up to you.”

Outcome, not output

How do you define productivity? If your definition is “ensuring my employees get as much done as humanly possible,” you’re old school. You’re also wrong, according to Price.

“In its purest sense, it’s saying, ‘Are we doing the right things at the right time in the right way?’” Price said. “That vision of productivity is wonderful. It cares about your emotional well-being and your health.”

To encourage innovation and creativity in a team, Price recommends focusing on outcomes over outputs. Instead of asking employees to complete a certain quota of work, ask them to achieve a certain outcome; think about the concrete goals and expectations you want your employees to fulfill. “What’s the collective outcome we want to deliver to our customers?” Price said. “What does that end, sort of North Star look like?”

The work it takes to achieve an outcome might look different for everyone. It might also change day to day. Leaders have to be prepared for the reality that at any moment, meticulously-crafted plans could change. Think about recent major, world-altering events like pandemics and wars. Even small changes in our day-to-day lives impact the work we’re able to complete. Focusing on the destination and purpose of that work, rather than solely the work itself, minimizes disruption.

“The reason we like outputs is we love immediate gratification,” Price said. “We have to understand the full length of all the tasks and activities to deliver that outcome. Otherwise you do lots of outputs, you forget about them and you never quite achieve the end goal.”

It’s still useful to think about productivity as getting stuff done quickly. But the real, high-quality work comes when employees care about the mission.

Five tips for using Atlassian products

  1. Make use of smart links. Copy and paste virtually any URL into Trello as the card title and it will provide a preview of a Confluence page, Google Doc or YouTube video. You can also watch the video or edit the Google Doc directly in Trello. Smart links work in other Atlassian products, like Confluence, as well.
  2. Set up automation to eliminate simple tasks. For example, you can automate a process that moves Trello cards to another queue as soon as you mark them “done.” To access automation, click the "Automation" button at the top of the Trello board. Trello offers some recommended automation shortcuts for you to experiment with.
  3. Track certain Trello cards with Dashcards. This is a new feature that lets you monitor the cards that matter most to you and notifies you of changes. For example, you can keep track of the number of tasks assigned to by creating a quick Dashcard to glance at.
  4. Create Excerpt macros in Confluence. Excerpt Macros are snippets of information you can copy and paste across pages. When you update the original excerpt, it updates in all of the associated pages.
  5. Get started with templates in Confluence. Templates are an easy jumping-off point if you’re unsure on how best to format a page.
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