The Atlassian veteran talks agile, remote work, Gen Z, and tells us why the four-day workweek is bullsh*t.
Dominic Price, work futurist, has one of the most interesting jobs in the industry. And while he half-seriously tells me the role was invented “almost as a joke,” there’s no doubt he’s made an impact in the six years since assuming the mantle.
Part preacher, part soothsayer, part explorer, the graft of a work futurist is as varied as it is interesting. From TedTalks with millions of views to evangelizing executives and setting the pace for scaling Aussie software titan Atlassian—Price is a busy man. And the speed at which work has changed for us all lately means there’s still plenty left to do.
So, with so many major world events shaking the core of our professional lives, it’s a great time to check in with the work futurist and get a pulse on things to come. In this interview, we cover the big stuff—pandemics, remote work, the four-day workweek, the Great Resignation, Gen Z, and finally—as he is a futurist—we ask him to tell us what the next few years have in store. Price is as compelling in print as he is on the stage—read on and see what the future of work is all about.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity
First, what does a work futurist do?
It’s a job we made up five years ago—almost as a joke. It had some rationale: Atlassian’s mission is all about unleashing the potential of teams. So, we needed to understand teamwork in the future. Not to predict it, but we needed to have a sense of what that environment looked like because we have to build today what we don’t even know you need yet tomorrow.
The role is essentially made up of three components. One is how we think about scaling Atlassian. We were 600 people when I joined, now we’re about to hit 10,000. You don’t scale to that number by accident. You’ve got to do it on purpose to stay nimble and maintain good ways of working.
And then two-thirds is external. How do we share the story around that with our customers and bring it to life in our products? And then the final third is how we share this story at conferences, events, whatever, just to get more momentum in the market because I’m a firm believer that we only create the future by taking one step today. If I can get an audience of people to take one step to improve their way of working, I’ve done my job. Because I think one of the things we’ve all suffered is being in shit teams. So why don’t we all just get into good teams and ways of working? We spend enough time at work. We might as well enjoy it.
With the pandemic, the Great Resignation, and now an economic crisis, the future of work has been a hot topic lately. What’s your take on all this?
This is the Dom trademark view: We’re going through some kind of natural evolution. I’ll give you an example—just before the pandemic hit, our third biggest office globally was home. We were noodling our way into that—a few people every month, nice and slowly. We were getting slightly newer ways of working that revolved around distributed teams. And then in mid-March, we went, oh fuck—and we leaned straight into it.
In March 2020, the pandemic poured accelerant on all the things that were happening. So I think you would’ve found that people’s sentiment towards work was already starting to get a bit meh. If you look at any gallop surveys, engagement scores were going down. And so people weren’t over the moon. Companies were making money, but the people felt a bit soulless. They got forced into this way of working and saw a new light. And that’s where the great resignation came in.
We saw people staying in the same role but changing companies; they want to be more values aligned. Certainly, the generation coming through cares more about values, charities, foundations, and social causes than the previous generation.
Speaking of the next generation: We’re seeing Gen Z’s entrance into the workforce in full swing now. How do you view this?
I’m loving it because I love the provocation and disruption they bring. Forgive me for mass generalizations, but I think there are a few things that stand true. One is this ferocious curiosity that they have. When I joined the workforce, for my first three years, I was told what to do. I don’t see many Gen Z people entering the workplace doing what they’re told. They’re like, “Hey, I want to know the purpose. I want to know what the outcomes are, and then I want to be left to my own devices to do it.”
It’s great. But it’s a very different way of engaging and leading. They’re also digital natives, while I’m a digital immigrant. A great example of this is how you think about intrinsic motivation. So, when I started working in 2000, it was all about climbing the corporate ladder. And you did that by serving time and pleasing your boss. Now, the social currency is likes and followers, which doesn’t require an org chart. It just requires you to create your own content without approval.
The rules have changed. Because every social construct I grew up with had a hierarchy. The social constructs of Gen Z don’t have a hierarchy—everything is ubiquitous and democratized.
The four-day workweek has been cropping up a lot lately. What are your thoughts?
I think it’s bullshit.
It has a potential use case for some businesses. With any suggestion someone throws at me, I ask, what problem are you solving? And I get a different answer each time for the four-day workweek. Where I struggle is it feels like a singular solution to a multifaceted problem. I would rather work five days and work shorter days. That would work better for me because I work with international teams.
A four-day workweek might be fine if you are in a domestic business. If you’re in an international business, help me understand how you’re going to pick four days. Because you just made my work life infinitely hard. If you give me Monday off, that’s fine for me, right? But terrible for the team. Because the team has Monday off in San Francisco, they don’t come online until my Wednesday. That’s too late, I’ve missed half the week.
In reality, I think we will end up having a blurrier set of working hours. I probably work 45 to 50 hours a week. I don’t know how many hours of work, but I have not worked nine to five Monday to Friday for 10 years and won’t for the next 10.
Because as long as I’m getting my work done, it doesn’t matter if I do it on a Saturday or Sunday. I own the discipline of having boundaries around that. But if you said Dom, everyone’s out on a Monday, and that means the US doesn’t get online until my Wednesday. That’s going to stop me from being effective. That’s you forcing a solution on me.
I think we need to understand the role flexibility plays in where and when I work. If we can solve for where and when with flexibility—and I think we can—we can really land on a better way of working.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about work today?
There are a few out there that keep on coming up. What’s this misconception that people need to be engaged? I’m intrinsically motivated. Sometimes if you just get out of my way, I’m effective. There’s this old-school notion of leadership that I am here to lead, and I will bestow this knowledge upon you, and you’re like, no, I need you to get out of my way.
I think there are still a lot of challenges around the most senior person knowing all the answers. The best teams I work with in Atlassian are highly democratized. I don’t care how old you are or what level you are—if you are a subject matter expert in that thing, I care about your opinion.
In a lot of the organizations, if you are the junior person, don’t speak up. You are here to learn. And it’s like, really? You spent all that time in the market hiring a smart person, and then you’re not listening to them. What’s the point of that?
Also, I keep on hearing that humans don’t like change. Humans have got change fatigue. But humans have been excellent at change their entire life. I just think you’re bad at delivering it. I don’t think it’s that humans are resistant to change. And I think if we get more human with how we think about change programs, rather than broadcasting out to people with fluffy diagrams about how life might be better and instead just have a conversation with them in plain English.
Let’s talk about agile. It’s come to be the gold standard as a way of working. How does a large company become agile, and is there anything better?
People see it as a panacea. They think they’ll get to the end of this 18-month transformation, and the world will change. So there are a few challenges with it. First of all, most of the leaders I work with outside Atlassian want agility. And then what they go and buy from the supermarket is agile transformation. And I have to explain to them that those two things aren’t the same. When consulting firms come in and sell you an agile transformation, they’re coming with a cookie-cutter framework they think works for you. What you want is nimbleness. You can get that from your people. You don’t need to give it a name.
So that’s the first mistake. The second mistake is they create an agile transformation, which is an 18- or 24-month program. And then on the last day, some executive flies in, cuts the ribbon on the agile room, and they’re like, there you go, we’re agile now.
It took you 18 months to achieve incremental improvement. And that’s the irony. You built an 18-month waterfall plan to achieve agility. The whole point of agile is quick value realization. If you truly want to be agile, that’s a way of leading; just step into it. Start doing it on day one and do the transformation in the background. But just start.
I see a handful of organizations, certainly ASX organizations doing agility more pragmatically. Look at ANZ bank. They almost canned the phrase agile transformation and started talking about new ways of working instead. They were like, we have new ways of working, and that’s constantly evolving. We have new ways of leading and how we expect our leaders to turn up. And by the way, we never finished the new ways of working projects because there will always be new ways of doing things. That’s continuous improvement.
The third irony—and I’ll share it with you—this gets me into trouble, but I don’t mind sharing it anyway. I find it deeply amusing that organizations are selling agile transformations and are not agile themselves.
You’re a work futurist—can you predict the future?
So here’s what’s going to happen—organizations will wake up to the fact that they create value horizontally—across the organization. Most of the tasks and the way they’re organized are horizontal, and they’re going wake up and realize that strategy built up high and cascaded down into departments doesn’t make work happen better. Because when those departments come together to ship value to customers, they speak a different language.
The best organizations I’m working with now, which I consider relatively futuristic, are solving for their cross-functional teams to make them healthy and effective. They’re asking what network of teams is needed to ship a common outcome to their customers.
I don’t know what it’s going to be called. I might call it fajita because I like fajitas. But the magic that happens, and I’ve seen it in a few organizations, is they realize they’ve been creating silos by running everything using the organization chart. To work effectively, they need to work laterally across the organization.
That’s the first prediction. The second is that we all need to become experts in leading distributed teams, remote, hybrid, or in-office. I don’t care where you are working, but virtually every company I work with is distributed in some fashion—be it time zones, cultures, or customs.
It could be Sydney to Melbourne to Adelaide. It doesn’t matter. You are not in the same human space as your colleagues every day. And the minute that’s true, we all need the muscle to lead distributed teams. And so that’s something that I see just ticking over. It’s not happening enough. But again, the best organizations I’m working with do that.
The third one is this concept of the “healthy team” and figuring out how we drive continual improvement in a healthy team. If you think about the team as the smallest nuclear atom you have in an organization, and you just make one team more effective, eventually, the whole system gets better. And I think that’s the opposite of what’s happening right now with everyone trying to do giant transformations. I think they’re going to become outdated because they don’t work. And instead, people are going to go: you know what, let’s just get one degree better today. If our team gets one degree better this week and then next week we get one degree better, eventually, we’ll get there. Knowing that we will never achieve this mythical best practice cause it doesn’t exist. So instead of best, we just get better. And I think that will be very true in the near future.