Even Fortune execs who mandate return to office admit it doesn’t improve productivity


Ask any manager how they feel about flexible work, and you’ll get a number of different answers. For the more buttoned-up leaders like David Solomon and Jamie Dimon, any amount of remote work is an aberration, a distraction, and an excuse for workers to slack off—because they’re evading the watchful eye of a manager who would keep them in line.

Then there are the more lenient sorts—such as the leadership team of Australian software giant Atlassian, which steadfastly encourages a work-from-anywhere policy. In other words, it’s a “distributed work” model, which emphasizes how work happens, not where. They officially rolled out the program just shy of three years ago, publishing a retrospective report this week titled “Lessons Learned: 1,000 Days of Distributed at Atlassian,” which outlined the firm’s key learnings and contextualized them against the larger public sentiment. 

For the report, Atlassian’s data team surveyed 5,000 internal employees about their feelings on the distributed plan and then worked outward, surveying 100 Fortune 1000 CEOs and 100 Fortune 500 CEOs. (While 200 is a small sample size, there are very few executive roles in those companies, making Atlassian’s representation fairly close to capturing that specific pool.)

Atlassian employees are big proponents of the distributed plan. Nearly all (92%) of the 5,000 respondents said the policy (zero mandated in-office days) is integral to their ability to carry out their best work, and 91% say it’s a banner reason that they’re staying at the firm. 

CEOs aren’t far behind. Nearly all (99%) of the chief executives Atlassian surveyed said they believe that distributed work is the way of the future, and it’s only going to grow in popularity from here. That’s hardly a new feeling—and hardly a baseless prediction. 

The data, certainly since the onset of the pandemic, has shown that in-person work rates have stabilized at just shy of 50% in the top 10 metro areas in the U.S. Most workers have made themselves clear: Full-time in-person work is no longer compatible with their lifestyle, and it’s also not necessary for them to produce their best work

Bosses might (finally) be agreeing with them. Per Atlassian’s research, 1 in 3 Fortune 500 and 1000 bosses whose companies mandate some amount of in-person work say that the rule hasn’t impacted productivity at all. Those same executives were three times as likely to say that how their people work is more important than where they work. 

That’s certainly what Atlassian has done—and, as they’ve stressed in the report, new data always guides their decision-making.

Team Anywhere wins again

The plan’s popularity comes as no surprise to Annie Dean, the head of Atlassian’s distributed work research arm, Team Anywhere, and a longtime flexible work evangelist. As Dean told Fortune last year, companies who steadfastly refuse to meet workers where they’re at with regard to work location will undoubtedly suffer the consequences. Namely: dampened morale, untenable churn, and worsened productivity to boot. 

A recent report from think tank Economist Impact found that workers don’t actually lose focus when they go remote—it’s really when they feel they’ve lost autonomy or have to grapple with “a weak infrastructure for a thriving workplace.” Time and time again, data proves that workers simply don’t like being told what to do, and will resent feeling forced into an office needlessly. 

Even part-time in-office arrangements are a policy failure, Dean explained, which might be a blow to bosses who think they’re offering a compromise in the form of a hybrid plan. “Hybrid is an illusion of choice,” she said. Any amount of mandatory office attendance, which she called “the crux” of hybrid plans, removes many potential benefits for the employee “and much of the benefit for the company.”

As the 1,000 Days retrospective makes clear, the office itself won’t actually solve any productivity, innovation, or creativity issues leaders are facing. “Those are all how to work problems, not where to work problems,” Dean told Fortune back in July—a sentiment the report echoes. “This is a watershed moment of innovation of how work gets done, but we’re still talking about the f–king watercooler.” 

Maybe 2024 will be the year inflexible bosses stop insisting otherwise.

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