Owl Labs (OL): How'd you get to where you are in your career today?
Nicki Bellington (NB): I graduated from Baylor with a B.A. in Psychology, and then I moved out to the Bay area for a couple of years and started working in college recruiting. That's where I got my start. Then, I moved to Austin and got my M.B.A. and moved into HR Generalist work.
From there, I became an HR Business Partner, working on HR strategy, employee development, and leadership coaching. I've been doing that for a little over ten years at various companies now, and for almost four years at Atlassian. Here, I was asked to help figure out what remote work should look like at Atlassian, and in July, I will have been in the role for one year.
OL: You're the Head of Remote Talent Programs at Atlassian. Your tools help remote and hybrid teams work together, so the company seems like it's bought-in on remote work. How does remote work fit into the future of your team?
NB: Honestly, I wouldn't say we're "all in." As with many topics that are controversial or that require change management, we still have some folks who are in the "no-remote" camp. But it's part of our journey as a company. We've been intentional about starting the process with research, data, and experiments. Especially as a company that's primarily made up of engineers, data is key. It's helped us ensure a solid philosophy and approach to remote work that has helped take some of the emotion and sentiment out of the debate.
We're still uncertain of how much remote will play a part in our future, but we're being as objective about it as we can be, instead of simply saying, "Hey, we're opening the floodgates to anyone who wants to go remote." We know it has a role to play in our future, but we're still figuring out how big of a role.
We've been intentional about starting the [remote work] process with research, data, and experiments. Especially as a company that's primarily made up of engineers, data is key. It's helped us ensure a solid philosophy and approach to remote work that has helped take some of the emotion and sentiment out of the debate.
OL: What's the scope of your role as Head of Remote Talent Programs?
NB: Acquiring Trello was the catalyst for us to figure out what we're doing around remote work. Trello is mostly remote-first; they're about 70% remote, along with a 30% contingency in their New York office. Once they came on board, we realized that Atlassian as a whole needed a better viewpoint and strategy around remote working.
Our executive team decided to dedicate a full-time person to figure that out. I'm responsible for creating, embedding, and adopting a remote work strategy, program, and policy at Atlassian. Longer term, we'll overhaul our policy and figure out our benefits, but right now, we're trying to figure out what exactly our strategy is and how we'll get there. For that reason, a "day in the life" changes for me every day.
For the first six months, I spent my time doing a lot of research to understand what we were doing internally, as well as understanding what our peers were doing, what the market was doing, and what the pros and cons were with different approaches. I also conducted a lot of internal fact-finding to understand our employees' opinions about remote work and what we were doing already and what they wanted to do. I interviewed different company leaders to understand executive sentiment. Now, we're focused on starting to build out a system. This includes programs, guides, best practices, and other resources to slowly help people along in their change management around this shift.
OL: I imagine you work in close partnership with your recruiting team. How do recruiting and interviewing differ between employees you're considering for remote versus in-office roles? Are you looking for different qualities or different experiences depending on where they come from?
NB: One of the folks who works with me used to be the Head of Recruiting for Trello, and she's been a valuable resource for figuring out the answers to those questions. At Atlassian, we try to conduct all interviews for remote positions via video conference to give us a sense of what it would be like for that candidate to work remotely. This process helps us get a sense of their communication and collaboration styles, as well as their flexibility and adaptability if they encounter any tech issues on the call. It helps us get a sense of what digital communication with a candidate could be like if they were in the role and on the team.
From a screening perspective, there are a few qualities we've found are critical to drill down on. One is a passion for the actual work and role – not just for working remotely. Are they aware of the challenges that come with remote work, not just the benefits? For example, working remotely can be somewhat isolating without as much in-person interaction. Are they aware of that aspect of the work? Do they understand and agree to our basic requirements and parameters for working remotely? This could include time zone overlaps and dedicated office space expectations.
One thing we've found in our research is that in-person interaction becomes even more important with a remote team member. You have to build that trust in-person so that when they are working remotely it just naturally continues. We need to make sure remote candidates are on board with traveling to work in-person on a regular basis, too.
There are many similar questions we're screening for with remote candidates, mostly centered on mutual understanding. Do they understand the high expectations of the role? Can they give us clear examples of when they've worked autonomously and been able to drive and manage their time and deliver work independently? Are they clear, proactive communicators throughout the recruiting process? We evaluate how they communicate with the recruiting staff and other folks they aren't necessarily interviewing with to get unbiased candidate feedback.
We try to conduct all interviews for remote positions via video conference to give us a sense of what it would be like for that candidate to work remotely. This process helps us get a sense of their communication and collaboration styles, as well as their flexibility and adaptability if they encounter any tech issues on the call. It helps us get a sense of what digital communication with a candidate could be like if they were in the role and on the team.
OL: What are some of the perks and benefits that attract remote employees?
NB: That's something that is still in progress for us. We have a stipend to set up your home office in place, but what we're focusing on now is trying to understand the needs of our remote folks – not just when it comes to setting up their office, but also from an employee experience perspective. Atlassian is great about holding different events for our in-office folks, whether it's a friends and family event, or our "Big Bash" which is a celebration of the end of our fiscal year. But what makes sense for our remote folks? Do they want to come to those events? Do they want some kind of remote equivalency?
At this point, we're trying to get a better understanding of what the needs and wants are. Longer-term, we want to create a "digital supply closet" that gives remote employees the option to choose the benefits that work best for them. Someone might not care about a standing desk, but they might want a bigger travel budget to spend more time with their team, and this system will allow that flexibility and autonomy.
OL: I love that idea. People's needs are different, and they can evolve with time to be different, too.
NB: For a long time, we were sending remote folks birthday cakes, and the response from some people was they didn't want it. They were sitting at home working alone all day, and an entire birthday cake that would either go stale or make them feel unhealthy wasn't sustainable.
As we continue on our journey, our goal is to be more intentional with the experience of our remote workers. Do they want a plant? Do they want a Fitbit? What is it that would make them feel more connected to the company, more connected to their team, or just happier with their overall experience? We're still working through the specifics of these rituals.
OL: One question we get a lot is about company culture across remote, distributed, and hybrid teams. How can hybrid teams and companies build a company culture, and then, how can they maintain it?
NB: It starts with company values. I've worked for companies that have a strong set of values and companies that don't, and there's a stark difference between the two, regardless of whether I've worked remotely or in-office. Atlassian has strong company values. They include: open company, no bullsh*t, don't f*ck the customer, build with heart and balance, be the change you seek, and play as a team. They're not just values that get hung in a conference room or embroidered on swag – they're embedded in our DNA.
For example, I've been in meetings where someone has said, "Hey, is that really open company? It feels like we might not be sharing enough," or "Hey, that feels like we're f*cking the customer, we probably need to shift that."
Decisions are made using these values at every level of the company. They're also part of our performance reviews and our interview process. We have a values-specific interview as part of our recruiting process, and there are only a handful of people throughout the company who are trained values interviewers. The weight of the interview feedback is deliberately heavy, and they do have veto power. If someone doesn't pass the values interview, at the very least, they'll talk to someone else as a follow-up, but many times, it's the reason why we don't move forward with a candidate.
Something one of our co-founders said has always stuck with me: "Every person that walks through the door adds to our culture, but our values should never change." Your culture might grow and be dynamic and fluid, but the values are the foundation of who we are as a company – and that doesn't change if we work remotely or in the office.
When a company grows quickly, regardless of whether it's remote or in-office, culture and values are hard things to protect. Can we protect company culture 100%? No, but we have systems in place that will allow us to help new team members understand how important it is. I believe that as long as our values continue to be a part of who we are as a company, it won't matter if you're co-located, distributed, or remote.
Longer-term, we want to create a "digital supply closet" that gives remote employees the option to choose the benefits that work best for them. Someone might not care about a standing desk, but they might want a bigger travel budget to spend more time with their team, and this system will allow that flexibility and autonomy.
OL: For growing companies that are maybe 1-2 years behind where you are today, what advice do you have for setting a clear policy for remote work and working from home?
NB: The best advice is to gather the data and understand how the opportunities and threats are specific to your company. We spent six months researching what our internal pulse was around remote work. Did more people want to work remotely? Were they willing to change the ways of working to enable more remote work? As you know, you can't simply have someone on your team move to Iceland and hope things stay exactly the same as if they were in office. You have to change some of your processes and your ways of working to enable remote work.
We also looked at what our peers were doing, what the market was doing, and we looked at the opportunities and threats associated with remote work, because they're real. We presented a very holistic case of how we felt the threats were going to impact us, as well as the positive opportunities remote work presented. It wasn't simply an enthusiastic, "We should go remote" sentiment. It came with the data and the research that was customized to us as a company. Figure out how you think it would impact your specific company and do the research to prove your case.
OL: What's a misconception you hear about remote work that you want to set the record straight on?
NB: One thing we heard throughout our research phase that was fascinating was people who were referring to remote work as a perk or a privilege. When we launched some of our initial research and approach, one of our biggest priorities was to reinforce that remote work isn't a privilege or a special accommodation.
It's a way of working, and that's a strong statement for some people. It shouldn't be a question of rewarding top performers with the ability to work remotely. There are things we're looking for to make sure you have the skillset and the ability to work remote, but it isn't something we should regard as leverage. That's the biggest mindset shift that's needed in the conversation, not just for us as a company, but also from an industry perspective.
Company culture starts with company values. I've worked for companies that have a strong set of values and companies that don't, and there's a stark difference between the two, regardless of whether I've worked remotely or in-office.
OL: What do you think is preventing remote work from becoming more ubiquitous? Do you think we need better tech? Different leadership models? Or do we just need to do it for longer?
NB: I can only speak for Atlassian, but I think it's a combination of education and time. When you deal with any major change, you're dealing with people's perceptions, their emotions, and their individual experiences. For example, I spent a lot of time with the different senior leaders of Atlassian, and many times, the conversation started with something like, "I once had a remote person years ago, and it didn't work out because it was difficult and clunky." That one experience had solidified people's thinking about what remote work was.
So much of what we're finding comes down to education and change management. Some folks are further along the curve, some folks have incorrect information or data and just need more information around it, and some folks need to test out remote and be exposed to it to realize that it's not that scary or hard. For us, we need a combination of more time and better education.
One thing we heard throughout our research phase that was fascinating was people who were referring to remote work as a perk or a privilege. When we launched some of our initial research and approach, one of our biggest priorities was to reinforce that remote work isn't a privilege or a special accommodation. It's a way of working, and that's a strong statement for some people. It shouldn't be a question of rewarding top performers with the ability to work remotely.
OL: Besides your own tools, are there any tools that your teams live and die by for remote and hybrid team collaboration and communication?
NB: The two most important tools for us, outside of our own, are Slack and Zoom. We recently switched over to Zoom, and it's been fantastic for the team. As much as we can, when the meeting space allows, we try to have each individual person call into a Zoom meeting when we're doing distributed or remote meetings. Video is very much an expectation for us now, because it's not just about using audio to connect with others – at Atlassian, it's meant to be a reminder for people to engage and interact with their team, even if they aren't sitting together.
Slack is part of that synchronous communication, too. We've got a ton of team channels, as well as individual chats.
OL: Do you need rules in place for notifications and @ mentioning one another because you're all in different time zones?
NB: One of the things we're hoping to publish externally in the near-future is a remote practices playbook based on our learnings from our internal processes and systems. One practice we launched internally that has become important is establishing ground rules and writing them down. It may differ for each team – things like how they want notifications set up, how they want to let each other know when they're out of the office, or how they want to let each other know certain times they'll be on or off of Slack.
We've encouraged teams to walk through this ground rules exercise to figure out what makes the most sense for individual team members and the team as a whole, and then to write those things down. It's been interesting even for teams that have worked together for a while. Within my own team, we walked through this play as an experiment and realized that, even as a team that's been working well together for over a year, we had some misunderstandings. I was tagging one of my teammates on Trello boards, and she said she doesn't always look at that tool. She said, "If you want me to do something, drop it in a Slack, or @ mention me on Confluence." It wasn't a matter of my way being wrong and her way being right, it was simply a process we needed to clarify. What tools do you use to communicate urgent issues? What do you use to communicate an FYI? So much of that ends up becoming assumptions if you don't set expectations in advance.
OL: With all of these new tools that enable remote work comes the need to build new operating systems for using them. Otherwise, you're creating more work and more confusion for your team.
NB: Exactly! Everyone's personal preferences are a little different, so going through a simple exercise to determine processes for decision-making, collaborating, and sharing has led to positive outcomes for us.
Some folks are further along the curve, some folks have incorrect information or data and just need more information around it, and some folks need to test out remote work and be exposed to it to realize that it’s not that scary or hard.
OL: I can't wait to read your remote playbook.
NB: We've also built a team assessment to help leaders figure out how remote-ready their teams are. It's tied to questions and research around how to change the way you're working to get ready. It also dives into individual skill sets, like communication skills, your readiness for the social challenges around remote, etc. Teams who are interested in remote work can walk through a simple, basic, process of figuring out what you need to know before starting to actually go remote. It gives them a score indicating if they're not ready, if they're in-progress, or if they're ready to make the change. It's not a pass or fail quiz, but it's an education tool to help them walk through the questions we've talked about.
That's in the pilot phase right now. We hope to be able to share it externally in the next year or so. We've piloted it in our Sydney office, and it was fascinating to see managers' light bulbs go off. They make connections and see the difference between words and actions to figure out what processes they would need to change in order to get to a place where half the team worked remotely. Data always helps clarify things if people are especially excited or dreading a big change.
OL: What do you love most about what you do?
NB: I've loved talking to teams and understanding what specifically is working or not working for them when it comes to remote work so that we can try to help them overcome any challenges they have, or build things that are useful for them in moving forward in their remote journey.
It's a pain in the butt sometimes, but I've also enjoyed influencing our leaders. I've had a number of conversations where it started out with a leader telling me they were anti-remote that ended up with them saying they're remote-agnostic. Helping them in their journey without emotion or with sentiment so they can learn about and understand the research and the data is so gratifying for me.
To learn more, read our interview with Dan Manian, co-founder and CEO of Donut, next.