Human beings are pretty adaptive creatures, but we really love our routines.
This year has been a whirlwind and we’re barely halfway through it. The whole never-in-our-lifetime global pandemic has certainly made adapting to new anxieties, dangers, and norms markedly unique. While it’s difficult to authoritatively say, it isn’t much of an exaggeration to reason that the future of work — as we know it — is going to be permanently changed once we’re on the other side.
For many, one of the more uncomfortable changes has been the switch from working in an office to working from home. Now, remote work, WFH, telecommuting, etc. have long been long-standing points of contention throughout many industries. Naysayer, evangelist, or somewhere in between, wherever we’ve fallen on that spectrum of opinion, COVID-19 didn’t care. Millions of people, thoughts on WFH notwithstanding, needed to adapt.
Remote-flexible and distributed work environments aren’t as rare as they once were, though brick-and-mortar office structures have been holding on to practices that might be fine when teams are together in the same building, but less so when they’re apart. When suddenly faced with the task of adapting to a work style that’s far from the established norms of millions of organizations, countless other variables were added to workers’ plates while still needing to be productive, efficient, and adaptive on the fly.
Looking at this from a content development perspective, the efficiency of the content development process can be rocky at the best of times. Now, with the best of times being a distant memory, content teams have been faced with new challenges, one of which is collaboration from afar in the midst of drastically shaken routines.
From company-wide project management to team-specific processes, millions of professionals are in the same boat. That boat ride has been a choppy one. This discussion is meant for teams and individuals navigating the work-from-home process, whether they’re WFH veterans or newbies.
The Australia-based company, Atlassian, has been a key player in helping teams collaborate and communicate, regardless of location. Naturally, speaking with them on the subject seemed like a good call, so I got in touch with Sarah Karp, Atlassian’s Senior Content Design Manager. We spoke about WFH, content development, staying sane while staying safe, and some helpful strategies to consider while adapting to this new world of work. Enough out of me, here’s our chat, broken up by what we discussed. These responses have been minimally edited for clarity and flow. Enjoy!
Interview Contents (For Skipping Around)
Question 3: What can you tell us about this unprecedented shift to fully working from home? Who does it impact most? Who do you think it impacts differently and who, if anyone, doesn’t it impact at all?
Question 5: Let’s talk content. COVID-19 has affected what content we’re developing, but it’s also affected how we develop it. What was your content development process like before the pandemic and what has changed in those processes since?
Question 7: How would you recommend other teams replicate or make use of those principles in their own processes? How might content teams who are inexperienced with content development implementation while WFH, use some of those strategies with their own teams?
Question 8: How do you think companies have needed to approach professional performance differently during this crisis? And what ways have you noticed this, either with yourself personally or among your own team members?
Senior Content Design Manager, Atlassian
Sarah is a content design manager, problem solver, and vegemite lover. Her eight years at Atlassian have taken her from San Francisco to Sydney, where she currently manages a global team of content designers who create the documentation, UX writing, and content strategy for our business team products.
Tell us a little more about you, Atlassian, your role there, and your journey with them.
Yeah, sure. So, a bit about me: I grew up in the U.S., just outside San Francisco. Went to college at the University of Rochester with this guy, Tim, who I’m on the line with.
I majored in Art History and Economics, so seemingly a random combination. Then the job that I had in college, that I didn’t realize would later be super relatable to my career, was basically a writing tutor. We called them Writing Fellows. That job taught me a bit about editing, how to provide voice, and all of this stuff that, again, I didn’t realize at the time, is exactly what I’m doing now.
After college, I was looking to use the Art History part of my degree and go into arts administration and nonprofits. And during that internship seeking process, I landed into an events marketing internship at Atlassian through a woman I went to high school with and kind of fell into the tech world.
Obviously, growing up around Silicon Valley, tech was always there, I just had no actual close connection to it. This was my first experience working in tech, learning a lot of the language, lingo, and things about software that I had really no experience with. So that was definitely a fast-paced course in all things Atlassian and our products.
When that internship ended, I’d fallen in love with the company and had a few amazing mentors who pointed me in the right direction. I landed in what was pretty much our Sales/Support team. Again, a very fast-paced learning process. You have to learn everything at a surface level about all of our products, and then address any and all questions that our customers or potential customers have. That step was fascinating.
I recommend to anyone working in software that they work on some type of frontline team because you get to know what customers are going through.
The kind of technical skills I picked up there were how we can use knowledge and content to deflect a lot of those customer questions, so we could be free and sane to answer complex questions that our content didn’t address.
That team sent me to Sydney. We used to do office rotations when we were a bit smaller but, when I got to Sydney, I worked with our technical support team and with another amazing mentor on a knowledge-centered support project.
So I was really digging into how content can be used internally as a training system and externally to help customers with their requests. That’s how I met what was then called our technical writing team and moved into that team for a product called Jira service desk.
And then fairly quickly after that, I jumped into people management. My fabulous manager at the time left and gave me the nudge to take on that challenge, which I’m very grateful for because I’ve loved managing people, and growing this little team that we have.
We’ve since rebranded to be called content design, very much doing similar things. A bit of external documentation, in-product content, onboarding, content strategy, etc.
Just to close the loop on that story, today I manage our team of what we call “all teams” content designers. So, that looks at our products specifically for Confluence, Trello, and our Growth Experimentation teams.
When you started with them eight years ago, was the remote work and WFH culture still as big as it is at Atlassian now, or was that something that they were ramping up?
I would definitely say it was something they were ramping up. It was very much an office culture, but we were always remote in the sense that we had distributed teams. Our San Francisco office had to work with Sydney and vice versa, but even then we didn’t necessarily have many specific rituals around it except for things like aligning your meeting time spacing.
After a couple of years into my time at Atlassian, a few more long term team members went remote for personal reasons. That was my first experience learning to work with team members who were remote. Then I remember it exploding into the conversation in the years just before Atlassian acquired Trello. When we acquired Trello — because they’re such proponents of remote work — that conversation definitely took off within the walls of Atlassian.
You can work fully remote and fully WFH on a case by case basis. You can take WFH days when you need to. Again, that kind of work-life balance, depending on whether you need to manage kids or household things, whatever else is going on in your life. Working from home was always something you’d hash out by setting expectations with your manager and with your team.
For certain teams, working from home wasn’t really a thing, but it’s become more of a regular practice depending on the team and the area of the business that you work in.
What can you tell us about this unprecedented shift to fully working from home? Who does it impact most? Who do you think it impacts differently and who, if anyone, doesn’t it impact at all?
I think from my team’s perspective, we were very well set up for working from home and remotely. A content designer at Atlassian supports a few different teams or streams of work. While you’re embedded in a specific area, you’re already having to learn how to switch between different team rituals and practices.
And, a lot of times writers love working from home so they can actually focus and get work done that they’re not able to in the office when there’s a barrage of different requests coming in. I think we’re very lucky in that regard.
However, I did also notice that I had to force myself to look at other situations and remind myself of teams and people who didn’t have it as easy, whether it was factors at home, poor internet — which we’ve all experienced — or, any myriad of issues.
We obviously had our office staff, people who keep our kitchens running, who keep everyone going, who were pretty much out of a job entirely in the wake of COVID. Atlassian jumped into action, and will continue supporting the third party company that employs those workers for the duration of our shutdown offices, which was motivating to hear.
For me personally, it made me feel a bit more motivated to show up for work, even if I was feeling a bit exhausted or on the edges of burning out. It puts things into perspective. Most of these workers had been on the edge of losing, or have lost, their jobs throughout the pandemic. Like, let me show up and be the person I can be for my team.
In terms of teams that have adjusted, we were sort of thrown into it. Like, we pretty much had a one-day decision globally where we all got sent home. Some offices had been shutting down individually, then, I think just to manage the situation, they made a global call. Having that sudden change forced everyone into it.
There were probably a couple of weeks that people had to get used to it, but just being aware of how our teams work specifically at Atlassian, we felt really ready for working from home and working remotely. We have a few writers who already have that setup, and we can obviously learn a lot from them.
That’s in comparison to teams who either could not do their jobs because they were fully office based or others who were used to the physical office equipment at work, where everything’s set up perfectly.
Some things I noticed people picked up right away.
People were sharing their WFH setups, introducing pets, kids, or whatever random things that were around them. They’d also share social channels where you could pop in for a bit of a break on Slack or Zoom. I think there was this sense of camaraderie because everyone had the same kind of shock together. This shock-change in the way that we work. I found that really helpful. It helped curate a lot of empathy around the organization for teams who were doing it well and for teams that were struggling a bit.
What do you think are some of the most prevalent misconceptions about working from home?
Maybe it’s now outdated, but I’m sure the stereotype still hangs around: People who WFH slack off. Showing up in pajamas, faking activity on whatever tracking system your company uses, stuff like that. I think that’s probably the lazy stereotype.
And I think there’s also a stereotype around collaboration not being able to occur as well, and just that, I guess, dent on teamwork. I think for the first one, obviously, if you’re not getting your work done, whether you’re in pajamas or not, you know, that’s something that should be discussed with your team.
We’re all adults here, we’re all here trying to put in the work, so I think that one can be dispelled fairly quickly if you make sure that trust is established early on. One of the biggest kind of things that we spoke about early on in Atlassian when we moved to remote work was how to manage remote teams. Because that’s, you know, one of the main things Atlassian does.
It was basically finding that balance between the extremes of being micromanagy and checking in on everyone all the time and not being connected at all. Finding that balance is a very important discussion to have with your team.
And also just with maybe another group of managers or people who have tried to manage priorities and people.
For the collaboration myth, I guess you could say, I think we’re in a pretty fabulous era with technology. We have so many tools that allow collaboration, at least from the design and writing perspectives.
There are so many tools that you can set up at lightning speed to enable you to collaborate, and many of these tools are used in the regular office environment. So I think that’s a big step and I think this is just our chance to innovate how we work together.
For people who are stuck on the collaboration-can-only-happen-in-the-office mindset, maybe challenge yourself and see what areas for growth you have. Another interesting point that was shared at Atlassian was when we first went to work from home, we kind of got into the solution thinking mode to replace things we had in the physical office.
We had this whiteboard in the office and that’s where we shared upcoming work. So let’s use a tool like Mural where you can kind of transpose things exactly like the whiteboard. The challenge from a few of our leaders was to really think about the problem we were trying to solve and not just replicate office solutions in a WFH environment.
I’m not saying we’ve solved that, but it’s a really great challenge to get yourself thinking from a different perspective and that was a helpful one for me personally.
Let’s talk content. COVID-19 has affected what content we’re developing, but it’s also affected how we develop it. What was your content development process like before the pandemic and what has changed in those processes since?
Content! Before this all started, which feels like years ago at this point, we did rely on the combination of in-person and remote collaboration practices. Most of our content designers sit directly with the teams that they’re embedded with or working with, rather than all sitting together.
Just being in that physical space gives people a lot of connection to what their teams are doing. So that’s obviously been a big change, though I think that’s been replaced by being a bit more aware and alert of things like Slack rooms and things like that.
Rituals before were going to things like team standups, project kickoffs, design critiques, product demos, etc. all the stuff you do in person.
Content creation is generally quite an individual process. You do it on your laptop, usually, using a tool that can be used whether you’re in the office or at home. But, n the office you might roll your chair over to someone’s desk and ask to spar ideas or help tweak something.
That’s changed, but I do think our process has translated quite well into working from home.
The biggest thing that we’ve had to adjust to is staying connected across all of our teams, that maybe we were a bit closer before because you can’t just walk on over to someone, or rotate where you’re sitting in the office to get closer to the people you need.
So, there’s definitely an increased reliance on chat and video tools. Of course, I don’t think we’re unique in that sense, but making sure that teams are using those to actually communicate things that seem small, that they maybe wouldn’t have used those tools to communicate with before.
Just making sure that publishing dates, value props, anything content specific are super, super clear, and documented in one place so we’re all writing for the same reason and the same goal.
I think our kind of core process has stayed the same. It’s more just some slightly different obstacles, like not having as much actual focus time because, without that human to human contact in the office, we’ve been much more inundated with meetings, Slack, and Zoom calls.
There’s a need to find a new type of balance there. Then there’s a feeling of slight disconnect to your team or not knowing necessarily who to go and message on Slack because you can’t mentally see where they sit in the office in relation to you. Those are the newer obstacles that have come up in our process.
With those obstacles, how have you been managing them across your team?
I am very lucky because my team is a lot of self-starters, and I don’t really need to do much in terms of directing them towards teams they need to work with. It’s more of just paving the way in case there are obstacles, questions, or ways that we could be working more consistently together.
Some of the things that I’ve found that have worked really well for the people on my team have been just making sure that they’re in the right Slack channels. They kind of invite themselves to meetings when they need to, and then they find the right rituals that make sense for them. We obviously can’t attend everything or we would have no time to actually create our content.
We’ve also been chatting a lot about practices. Things like the Atlassian Playbook, just those kinds of shared concepts, ways that you can run workshops, ways that you can kick off a project, we have a set of shared resources there for that.
I think this move to being fully remote and having some teams who aren’t as comfortable with it as others has really forced us to look at those practices, so we have something to lean on when we’re asking for something.
Rather than going to another team over Slack and saying: “Hey, you know, I’m not involved enough or early enough in this process and I really need to be.”
Instead of that, just focusing on what you need, taking a step back, and actually guiding that team through a conversation so you can get what you need while also curating the way that team functions around remote work.
I think having a set of standards and best practices has been quite helpful and it’s something that we’re always working to improve upon. Not to be this kind of Golden Standard per se, but something to help us when we need to have harder conversations that inevitably surface.
How would you recommend other teams replicate or make use of those principles in their own processes? How might content teams who are inexperienced with content development implementation while WFH, use some of those strategies with their own teams?
I think this situation [WFH] we’re in might be more common in the future than we expect, but regardless of what you’re working on, content, design, engineering, things outside of tech, etc., really focusing on how your teams communicate is super important.
We even do this when people join from other companies and are more used to communicating with something like email. It seems so small, but when you have those differences, it just means that the conversations aren’t as quick or as natural.
It’s almost like having a bit of a communication reset and having a, “Hey, as a team, what methods of communication are we using for X, Y, Z?” conversation. My first suggestion is laying that communicative groundwork, even if it feels a bit awkward, and just getting people to share around the room. That’s incredibly important to establishing open lines of communication.
I think the second one is establishing what success looks like and not in the framework of success working from home because that makes it seem like working from home isn’t as effective.
But, this is a new way of working, so I think we still need to have that conversation around what we’re actually looking to achieve. This is especially important when you have a situation like a pandemic, which does impact the way that we work, how much stress we’re under, and other circumstantial pressures we feel in a day.
Having that conversation makes people feel a bit more empowered to reach reasonable goals and not feel like they have to do too many different things at once while working long hours because no one can physically see them.
Defining success isn’t necessarily metrics, nor anything micromanagy, by any means. That’s definitely not my style. Just some team conversation around where we’re trying to go in a given month or quarter.
Not necessarily reinventing what success is, but reframing it in the context of something that we’ve never experienced before?
And if someone is feeling a bit more stretched or burnt out, that conversation can help reframe bandwidth and team priorities and who’s taking on certain tasks at a given time.
I suppose we’re fortunate in the sense that it sounds like collaboration and communication are relatively natural in our own respective companies, but I can imagine this being much more difficult for an organization that’s not necessarily used to that type of culture.
How do you think companies have needed to approach professional performance differently during this crisis? And what ways have you noticed this, either with yourself personally or among your own team members?
I think another one that I’m very much taking from Atlassian was pretty early on, they essentially told teams to redefine that question with your own teams.
So the question or the prompt would really be is that you need to redefine what a productive work week looks like in your team. We didn’t really have a specific conversation about that in my team per se. We didn’t have a conversation around this is how much content you’re creating or this is how many meetings you’re taking.
Because every single person’s schedule and scope of work is different, the main conversation was actually the flip side and was centered around things like making sure that you take a day off here and there when you need to, focusing on self-care.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of establishing psychological safety and spaces within companies where people can open up about what they’re feeling and how they’re being impacted personally and professionally.
I think that was the most important focus in that “what is productivity?” conversation. We haven’t had really any fallback from that at all in terms of missing work or unresponsive people
I think there’s just acute alertness right now about giving people benefit of the doubt if you haven’t heard from them or realizing that when people might not be around, that someone else is still covering their work.
So I think that’s probably the best advice I can give, but I’ve just seen Atlassian’s experience. I do have some friends who work in banking and other industries like that and they have a little bit more of a hands-on check-in, so they have to show that they are truly active in their system.
So whether it’s a chat or some activity tracking app, they have an active status. Then they have to do a very regimented process that lists weekly accomplishments and plans for the following week. And that seems to work with them, but I think adds a little bit more stress because they feel like, you know, they can’t quite take a break when they need to. But, obviously, they’re in a different industry and they have different goals to work toward, but I’m glad we don’t have that where I work.
Do you have any final tips that you want to share with everyone as we continue working from home until further notice?
Give yourself time to focus on you. I’ve very much jumped into this WFH thing, not necessarily mindlessly, but just very much kind of went straight into sitting down on my laptop, going straight into meetings, just go, go, go, to the point that when I was taking breaks, I was still looking at a screen or watching TV or doing something in my house.
My kind of personal tip that I’m trying to get friends to help hold me accountable for is to be a bit more practical about how I’m spending my days and not just mindlessly gliding in and out of meetings from one day to the next.
Which, you know, it’s going to happen and that’s fine, but I’ve definitely found that I feel a bit more alert and engaged when I look after my mental health, when I take the time to get out of the house — which thankfully we’re allowed to do in Australia — get some exercise, read an actual book, and not look at a screen, and just take a bit of a break before diving back into work.
It’s not perfect. Like days when I have full meetings, you know, it feels a bit draining, but I think that’s just been something that I can use to nudge myself when I’m starting to feel a bit numb, I guess. and then also taking things day by day.
One colleague and I were actually both meant to move back to the U.S. to start new positions within Atlassian and that’s obviously quite on hold at the moment.
I think when this all first started, it was like, “Oh, well, it’ll just happen in a few months.”
Now there’s kind of no planned time for it, so I’ve been lucky to have that conversation with my close colleagues and we can kind of keep each other real, essentially.
I do think it’s a really interesting practice to shift to taking things day-by-day. Like, we have no idea what’s going to happen. You can’t plan, you can’t be frustrated about the lack of being able to plan. You just have to look for the positives.
I’ve had more video chats with friends and family back home during these last couple of months than I’ve had in my six years in Australia. So that’s definitely been positive.
It will be a roller coaster. It’s a crazy time, so that’s something to be aware of; that and keeping time for yourself.