The Genteel
December 14, 2017
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Photograph by Mark Yeow.

"We didn't want to create a sterile environment," says Joris Luijke, Atlassian's VP of Talent, as we pause in an alcove plastered with sticky-notes and felt-tip annotations on its walls - one of many which punctuate Atlassian's new Sydney office. "We want people to make this space their own." 

As Luijke leads me up the Escher-like staircase, past miniature beer gardens and down corridors which feel more like inner-city avenues, it strikes me just how different this company is to any other - and why it's having no trouble recruiting the best and brightest to its cause.

Photograph by Mark Yeow.

Sterile is the last word you would use to describe Atlassian's meteoric rise. The company was founded by Sydneysiders Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar in their garage some 11 years ago ("Atlas wants his name back," quips the company's website); employs around 600 self-described, "geeks, beer drinkers, and Wolverine-wannabes"; and, like any fashionable start-up, recently announced a strategic pivot - into the t-shirt merchandising business.

Atlassian is a haven for young minds at the top of their fields, one which pays far more than lip service to its talent: the company famously offers A$10,000 to any employee who refers a candidate who is then hired (for those outside the company who refer a successful candidate, the reward is $2,000 or a return flight to any city where Atlassian has an office). On my tour, Luijke points out founder Cannon-Brookes coding in a meeting room, looking just like any other employee in jeans, a t-shirt and slightly messy hair.

And then there's the office. Spanning four-and-a-half floors (one currently occupied but ready for when Atlassian expands, explains Luijke) of the 1920s-built Bank of New South Wales building, Atlassian's quarters are probably the most visceral symbol of its motto: "Open Company, No Bullshit."

Developers trot down the wide runway-style corridors that extend the length of each floor, occasionally stopping in the alcoves to chat, read a memo or quickly add a note in whiteboard marker to the walls. Most tables automatically raise themselves into standing-desks at the touch of a button, a nod to best-practice ergonomic design. Overlooking the islands and atolls of desks, are a series of widescreen TVs displaying real-time updates and data for each project team.

Photograph by Mark Yeow.

"You create a more collaborative workspace when things are more transparent," says Luijke. "You see all the wall boards informing people of how their teams are progressing, what their roadblocks are."

"The second thing is the more physical ways of connecting people: Designs are being discussed and shared in special design alcoves, people meet in the long runways on each floor, and the middle floor provides ample opportunity for people to catch up while eating a sandwich or while playing a game of pool." The staff space Luijke refers to is probably one of Atlassian's most unique workplace features: an entire floor dedicated to employee downtime and social engagements, fitted with pool tables, a fully-stocked kitchen (providing free meals to employees) and even several varieties of beer on tap. Spacious, airy and naturally lit by the afternoon sun, the floor also plays host to regular forums and public events, where developers, entrepreneurs and other creative thinkers meet and bounce ideas off one another.

"When you say, 'Hey, let's create an innovative environment,' it's not just about creating an innovative environment where people within the business share ideas," observes Luijke, "It's also bringing in people from outside the organisation to join the company, in discussing innovative ideas and technologies. And you need to have a space available for that."

On a micro scale, the office's layout and architecture follow the same tenets as the company's social collaboration tools, replete with a myriad of nooks and private/public spaces like the alcoves. All meeting rooms, phone booths and hidden avenues ("Why did we not put the meeting rooms all the way to the wall?" asks Luijke, "Because we wanted to create these little collaboration spaces around the corner.") are furnished to encourage a free flow of ideas, right down to the surfaces that cover them.

"A lot of the surfaces are purposely created to encourage people to write on them," explains Luijke. "There's a lot of glass; a lot of the walls are actually painted with whiteboard paint, you can see people can write on these columns. Basically anything you can see, people stick information on to share."

Redesigning one of Sydney's most traditional buildings had its challenges. Previously tenanted by a government agency, the offices were initially dark, cramped and felt like, "You could hardly breathe," according to Luijke. In addition, parts of the George Street building are heritage-listed, while its foundations - including pure concrete floors which defied efforts at drilling - date back to the 1920s.

"When we wanted to put together a bar and our commercial kitchen, we needed to actually pump the water up with hydraulic pumps rather than just have it flow through the normal systems," Luijke says. "On the first day of being here, someone left one of the taps open…One of the ladies [on the floor below] was surprised the next morning to see her entire desk full of beer...Those are the little things you have to fix up: we actually put in different beer tap mechanisms to ensure the poor lady wouldn't have beer all over her desk once again."

It's not just about creating an innovative environment where people within the business share ideas. It's also bringing in people from outside the organisation to join the company.

Despite the teething problems, Atlassian's team saw an opportunity to apply the same creativity and love of design that its products and services are lauded for globally. The paradoxical blending of "legacy" architecture with cutting-edge technology is a recurring one for the company: it was previously headquartered in Sydney's Corn Exchange; a 1900s heritage building designed by George McRae, the same architect of the iconic Queen Victoria Building nearby.

"You have to play within the rules of a heritage-listed building," Luijke says, "And sometimes people want to fight against it, they want to change everything around. We just said, 'Hey, look, let's just take the space as it is, and just work with that space.'"

"What do you do with a heritage-listed floor? Well, putting offices in there is probably not a very good use of the space, so you work with it and make it a staff space. And then you can put in things like a bar, and massive lunch areas, and games areas, pool rooms - which is fun."

Atlassian has always done things differently, most notably in its continued emphasis on attracting and holding on to top talent at a time when many bigger, more established competitors are cutting back on overheads and perks. Fittingly enough, it seems to inform every aspect of the company's premise, from expansive staff space to the humblest note-covered alcove.

"What I like about it is that you can see people coming together," says Luijke of the office. "We wanted to create a working space where people enjoyed coming to work; where they didn't feel like they just walked into a dentist's office, but like they were in a warm environment where they could hang out with their workmates." For a company committed to making software more open and social, collaboration really does begin at home.

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