Atlassian PhD: Why Meetings Don’t Work, and What to Do Instead (with Molly Sands, Head of Team Anywhere Lab, Atlassian)

Meetings don’t work, but why? And what do we do about it? Atlassian’s Head of the Team Anywhere Lab shares new research.
Daan van Rossum
Daan van Rossum
Founder & CEO, FlexOS
I founded FlexOS because I believe in a happier future of work. I write and host "Future Work," I'm a 2024 LinkedIn Top Voice, and was featured in the NYT, HBR, Economist, CNBC, Insider, and FastCo.
April 2, 2024
min read

🎧 Listen Now:

Today is the last episode of our second season, in which I have the pleasure of speaking with ​Molly Sands​, a PhD and the Head of Atlassian’s Team Anywhere Lab.

Molly is a behavioral scientist turned product and program leader whose work has been published in top tier academic journals, popular press including the New York Times, and a TED talk with over six million views.

Today, Molly shares what’s wrong with meetings, what we should do instead, and why you need a Chief Vibes Officer.

Here are a few takeaways to apply as a leader: 

1. The Detrimental Impact of Meetings

While we often default to them, meetings are the top barrier to productivity and enjoyment, with 80% of people saying they’d be more productive with fewer meetings. Additionally, up to 67% of people work overtime due to these excessive meetings.

2. Alternatives to Traditional Meetings

Atlassian's research points to asynchronous communication tools, like Loom, and collaborative documents as powerful alternatives to traditional meetings. For instance, managers using Loom for updates, like Molly did, found that "teams felt more connected to the manager, more recognized for their work, and more clear on the top priorities for that week. So bye Zoom, and go Loom!

3. Atlassian's Formula for Optimal Work Week Structure

Atlassian recommends allocating no more than 30% of the workweek to scheduled meetings, advocating for a structured approach that includes blocks of focused work, collaboration, and reactivity. I loved Molly’s idea of keeping some blocks of time open for more casual coworking between smaller groups of colleagues. And, to look at our calendars not just for meetings but for everything on how we spend our time.

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You can find the full episode and transcript here:


Daan van Rossum: We are going to talk about everyone's favorite topic today, which is meetings. Even though we all love to collaborate and we love to work with other people, somehow meetings are the bane of existence for many people. You recently did some research on the topic. 

Can you maybe share with us a little bit about what you found through that research and why are meetings the pain that they are? 

Molly Sands: Absolutely. I think we all love to hate meetings.

A quick intro to Atlassian. We're a software collaboration tool company. We make things like Jira, Confluence, and lots of other products that help unleash the potential of teams. We were interested in better understanding. How teams were using meetings when meetings were reaching their goals and when meetings were just really not serving their needs. And so we commissioned a survey of about 5,000 knowledge workers across the US, Australia, Europe, and India and asked them a lot of questions about how they were using meetings and how that was working.

I can take you through a little bit of what we learned here.

First, meetings are the number one barrier to productivity. They are the thing that people are repeatedly saying is standing in their way of getting their most important work done. 80 percent of people in the survey agreed that they would be more productive if they spent less time in meetings.

Daan van Rossum: We got to talk to the other 20%. Who are the 20 percent of people that say give me more meetings? Must be the executives. 

Molly Sands: The people who want more. There are some people out there who are doing meetings well, but it is definitely not the norm today. They seem to be ruling everyone's lives, more so than even just work.

Half the people in our survey told us that they work overtime at least a few days a week because they have so many meetings that they cannot get their work done. As you rise in a company, that number goes up. So, we saw for directors that around 67% of people were saying that a few days a week, the meetings were affecting their workday.

Daan van Rossum: That is the cliche I'm in meetings all day. Therefore, I have to work nights and weekends. 

Molly Sands: You need the time to do the work, and the meetings are not meeting the needs of people right now.

Beyond that, we are seeing that they are not solving the problems that people are trying to use them to solve. So not only are they in a ton of meetings, but they are not saying that it is helping them accomplish their work, which is contributing to this issue.

When we ask people what they are using meetings for, we ask them about a lot of different situations. Because all meetings are different. Well, not all of them are different. But they can be used for many purposes.

We asked people if they were using meetings to connect, to build relationships, to make decisions, to drive work forward, to get clear on their goals, or to communicate just the status of what work was happening or what progress they had made. And across the board, people say that they are using meetings a lot for all of those things. It tends to be a go-to. It is just a super overused tool, and it is not meeting their needs in a lot of cases.

Daan van Rossum: That would be great to talk a little bit about. It sounds like whenever something needs to be solved or something needs to be done, the default for people is to call a meeting. 

I think those are those moments where everyone jumps onto a call or in person, and then people are just looking at each other, like, why are we here? And then people are gathering their thoughts. 

Are people just defaulting to meetings instead of choosing alternatives that may suit the purpose better?

Molly Sands: That is exactly what we are seeing in this data: People are jumping to schedule meetings, and then they have so many meetings that they do not have enough time to prepare to use that meeting time in a way that is super valuable to them and the attendees, and it is just not meeting their needs for some of the different types of meetings that they are having.

I think one of the most interesting examples to me is this idea of connection. So we want to stay connected with our colleagues. We want to know what is going on with them. We want to know them as people. We want to know what is happening with their work. So a meeting feels like a really good way to do that.

You can very easily build to a point where your whole day or huge portions of your day or 30 minute meetings with lots of different people talking about likely kinds of redundant information to what you are sharing in other versions of those 30 minutes.

When we ask people if meetings are actually helping them accomplish that, they don't think so. Overall, they tell us it is not working, but they are also about three times more likely to feel connected to their colleagues when they solve a hard problem together versus when they spend a lot of time together in meetings.

And I think that is a really interesting thing to think about here in terms of how we use our time together in a more valuable way.

Daan van Rossum: Also, if you think about what is, at the end of the day, the objective of the company is to solve those hard problems. It is to move the business forward rather than just to be talking and connecting. 

We talked about meeting alternatives, and you mentioned that Atlassian recently acquired Loom. So I think that is one of the darlings of the, especially Async and the remote world in terms of “not everything has to be a meeting; you can still have that” vibe of connecting face-to-face, but you can do it in an asynchronous manner.

So what are some alternatives that you see that people should be using instead of, again, defaulting to meetings?

Molly Sands: I think Loom is a great example. People have recorded 3.75 million minutes of Loom, which is really remarkable when you think about how much faster a Loom can be than a full meeting to convey a lot of context. 

I think that is a wonderful way for teams to communicate in a context-rich way. We just did some experiments at Atlassian, where we had managers share updates with their team twice a week via Loom. And we found that the teams felt more connected to the manager. They felt more recognized for their work. 

They felt more clear on the top priorities for that week. Just from these very short three-to-five-minute asynchronous updates, which is powerful for something you can do as a manager.

I do this for my team every week. I have lots of meetings. I have lots of time that I need to do heads-down work or work with other people, but these short touchpoints can be powerful.

Daan van Rossum: What would you put into those Looms? Let us say you do this once a week, what is the kind of information that you would put into that video snippet? 

Molly Sands: We do it twice a week within my team. At the beginning of the week, I schedule them in advance because my team is distributed. I have people from New York City to Sydney, Australia. 

When they start, their week is not even the same; it's not the same day. Many of them start on my Sunday. So I will schedule at the end of my day on Friday. Quick Loom message with what is top of mind and top priority for the team that week to get us all on the same page about what we need to be focused on.

Our higher-level goals are not changing dramatically from week to week, but exactly what we need to accomplish and what is most urgent or important do vary. We will give them that context, which they usually find helpful for setting their priorities for the week and figuring out how they need to be using their time.

Then, at the end of the week, usually at the end of the day, my Thursday, I will record another update that is around what we accomplished and a shout-out to the team, like celebrating big accomplishments. If we finished a big research study or learned something new and exciting or started some new partnerships or anything notable, I will go ahead and record a few minutes of, “Hey, these are the things the team did.” And I think that brings a lot of visibility and awareness.

Daan van Rossum: It is amazing. Doing both the things that are so important, like the being of the week, basically you make sure that people have clarity on what to focus on, what to do, and what to channel their energy into this week. 

Then you cap it off with, “Okay, we've all worked hard this week, and here's the result of that,” or “Here's something that's exciting to think about.” It feels a very fun and energetic pace.

Now, of course, I would have to ask the question, because you are cool and young, and you work at Atlassian. You would go on a Loom and talk to your team. 

Now let's talk about the 99.9% of other managers who may not quite be as familiar with that format or not feel really that comfortable.

Can anyone just pick this up? How did you get into that habit? What can we learn from you in this way of communicating with the team?

Molly Sands: I will tell you that I felt totally silly the first time that I did it. I was in my house recording myself, and I was like, this is absurd. I'm not a TikTok star. This is not a thing that I am particularly comfortable with. 

But truly, after a few times, it got much easier. And the team had such positive feedback. They instantly loved it. Loom is cool because you can make a lot of comments within the video. You can clap, you can give a thumbs up, and you can give reactions.

There is a lot of positive feedback that made me say okay. We have got to keep doing this because it is working, but you can definitely do written updates if that is something that you are more comfortable with. Our technology is better supported. 

We did compare the two. We found that the Loom was better for connection with the manager and feeling recognized. But there is a positive effect from these types of updates, even if they are just in writing.

I would encourage anyone to try it out and see how it works. Do it for a little while and see if it works for your team. But there are a lot of other practices we use at Atlassian that help us with these. So, I am happy to talk about some of those.

We use a lot of documents to deflect meetings. We use Confluence, which is one of our collaboration tools that helps us share information at Atlassian. It is nice because you can give different levels of depth. There are ways to go deeper and have expansions on certain topics. 

But we focus a lot on really writing our ideas down, and that helps bring a lot of clarity to those ideas. It is harder to write something short and great than it is to talk for a long time in a meeting to create a presentation.

There are a lot of forums, but writing it down helps us get super clear. 

Daan van Rossum: So true. I think change is always painful. But this goes against the instinct of people that, again, you call the meeting to get your thoughts out, and then people build on that. And then you get somewhere; this is basically saying we are not going to do any of that. 

We are going to use maybe a collaboration document, Confluence, and you have to think through something and then write it down, and people can build on that, which again, is not natural for people because I think we have just gotten so used to working synchronously in meetings. 

Again, similar to the idea of Looms, how do you make that transition? How do you go from being a typical manager who does live meetings to this kind of collaboration document?

Molly Sands: I think one important thing is that you do not have to do all the work completely by yourself to use asynchronous practices really well. 

A lot of times people get tripped up on that if I am going to write this down, then it has to just be me. I spend lots of time in more unstructured sessions with my team where we have a goal. We are trying to solve this problem. We need to understand this better, but we will have a couple of people have a pretty free-flowing, generative conversation about it. 

I fully believe that asynchronous brainstorming works really well for a lot of people and teams too. In our products, we see too that when people collaborate to create written content, it ends up with a lot more engagement from the team. 

Anytime, we have a page with two or more editors, we get about 10 times more engagement from others. So I think it reinforces this idea that it does not all have to be these standard meetings to start to create value together.

Daan van Rossum: Also because of the 20% that love meetings, we know that it is always the same people that speak in meetings. It is always the same people who dominate the conversation. There are probably a lot of voices in that meeting room that do not even get a chance to talk or do not feel comfortable speaking up yet. 

Whereas maybe in a collaboration document, it feels a little bit more equal in terms of how people can put their thoughts in. So there are probably a lot of other benefits beyond just cutting the meeting time. 

Molly Sands: Absolutely. It's definitely a more inclusive approach. I think anytime you are taking a lot of someone's time, you want to make sure that they have a way to meaningfully contribute, and that should not just be the loudest people in the room. 

So having a written whiteboard or any type of virtual or physical tool works, but having a way that everyone can give feedback and ideas is, I think, key to making good use of their time.

Daan van Rossum: Definitely. That is a real collaboration. But I think we have to get out of the defaults again, which have grown over time to be like the way that we approach work and other benefits too. 

I saw it in the research, and you talk about that when you receive a video update, you can watch that at maybe 1.5 or double speed. So even with the same amount of information that you would normally convey, first of all, you can watch it faster. I watch all my YouTube on 2x. It is great for me.

But then you can also rewatch it. Maybe later on, when you actually need that information, you can go back and get that update again, which obviously is very difficult to do with meetings, maybe someone took meeting notes or something like that. So I'm sure, there are a lot of other benefits. 

Those are all the reasons why meetings are not that great and why there are many great alternatives for meetings when our meetings are still helpful. 

Is there still a place for live synchronous meetings where the whole team gets together? Why would we still use meetings and when? 

Molly Sands: I think there is definitely a place for meetings. I know that in this conversation, there are so many hot takes; all meetings are dead. Get rid of them all, or companies and cultures; that is the only way that we work together. But I think there is a very healthy middle ground for all of this. 

Part of it is about setting goals; being clear on what you want to do in that meeting and what you are trying to accomplish. And I think that is a useful way that people can lessen their dependency on really traditional meetings.

Sometimes you want to have a meeting with an agenda. People usually do not know why they are being invited to meetings. That is actually what we saw in this research, more than 60% of workers say that they often attend meetings and do not know why. They do not have an agenda. They do not have a goal. It is just like you show up and then what are we doing for the next hour together, which is not a good way to prepare you to be a good participant. 

People do believe that agendas or structures of some sort help. We saw that about 80% of people are saying that it is really useful to have that kind of structure, and that makes better use of time. That does not mean we want to use it for everything, though. 

So I think when you are really trying to get people on the same page and you think that there's a lot of nuances or kind of diverging opinions, I still think the more prepared you can be, whether you have something written or planned for that time, is useful, but it is also useful to have synchronous conversations when things are getting super complicated. 

If you are trying to move really fast, sometimes it is easier to just hop on a call. But those meetings can also be of different lengths. Our calendars really drive us to the 30 minutes or an hour. There are a lot of things you can resolve in 5 minutes. There are a lot of things where you need 90 minutes of a working session where you are super deeply focused together. 

I think those options and rethinking our Calendar defaults and how much time we are using for different things is a huge unlock for meetings being useful.

Daan van Rossum: Something you said earlier, Molly, also goes back to if you have the time, if you free up the time, then you have time to prepare the meetings that you are going to have much better.

Then you can think through what is the goal of this meeting and what is everyone's role. Not just like a few people who would typically speak. What is the format of this meeting? How do we structure it well, and how do we make sure it delivers on those objectives?

That is now possible because you are not going back to back in other meetings. 

Molly Sands: Exactly, and I think that is why it is such a vicious cycle to break, is that you are stuck in the meeting. You do not have time to have really great meetings, and then people are not having that experience of a meeting that is really great. 

Because when you have a meeting that is wonderful and you solve a huge problem or you feel like you all really get on the same page, that is an energizing experience. That is not the average meeting experience. But it feels great when you do that. 

We want to help people take control of their time so that they get more of those moments where you are like, “Oh wow, we really did solve a hard problem together.”

And that can absolutely happen synchronously. 

Daan van Rossum: That is great. What is your favorite meeting? Give us a peek at your calendar. What's the one you look forward to? 

Molly Sands: I love my team meetings. We do them in a different way than I had ever done before I came to Atlassian, but we use a page where we all add something that we learned that week. We add our key top priority work so that the rest of the team has some visibility into where we are focused. 

Then we add personal updates. People put photos of what they did over the weekend, good food they ate, and new cute stuff their kids or their pets were doing. Sometimes they share really meaningful stories about things going on with their family. 

I learn something new every time because they are sharing what they learned, which usually I do not know either. It is a nice way to really connect with everyone. You could do some of it async, but we will spend time all together at the same time, commenting and leaving notes for each other on what everyone else has done. 

That is one of my favorite times of the week. 

Daan van Rossum: I love that. How long would that meeting run for? 

Molly Sands: That meeting is an hour and we do that part for about half of it.

Daan van Rossum: Okay, nice. Then you just dive into a discussion about any hot topics or any work that needs to move forward that week.

Molly Sands: Yeah. If we have, forging a kickoff for a project or we have some research results that we want to share and discuss as a team, or there are all sorts of other topics, but those are planned in advance too and then someone facilitates that part of the session.

Daan van Rossum: Final question about this very important meeting. What day of the week does it take place in your time zone? 

Molly Sands: For me, it's on Tuesday. 

Daan van Rossum: Okay. The beginning of the week kickoff, then two days later, you have the meeting where you prepare the documents, everyone already has put in all their points, and then there is some time to have the discussion, and at the end of the week, you get that again, async video update about all the results of that. 

That seems like a nice cadence. Is this something you came up with or is this also a standard way of working within Atlassian?

Molly Sands: We do this across a lot of team anywhere, and the Loom updates are something that we are doing more widely at Atlassian. I think with the team meetings, we are still experimenting with some different methods. Hopefully, we will learn lots more about what is working for all of them. 

But we are doing a study on a practice that is very Atlassian called the Chief Vibes Officer, the CVO, where teams choose someone. It is very silly and very Atlassian in a wonderful way, but it really helps drive team connections and help people build those relationships. Especially when we are distributed. 

The teams will have a CVO every week. It rotates across the team, and that person will pick a topic, and then they have an async thread. We do Slack, where you have some sort of challenge or prompt, and you ask people to pick. 

This week, my team is sharing a childhood photo of themselves. Last week, we shared our favorite piece of art. It is a very wonderful team. They will often share a book they are reading. We have played some pretty wild, would you rather, games. Lots of really funny, just fun prompts where you get to learn a little bit about people. 

That kind of stuff is so powerful for driving connections. But again, it does not require a meeting.

Daan van Rossum: That's amazing. We have a CFO, and we have a Chief Fun Officer. Their job is to make sure that we have fun and I know companies always love to have a long list of core values. We just have one, which is to make it fun. We often say to each other, if the work gets too serious, is it still fun? If not, then let us cut it. What's the point? Life is too short to be spent doing boring work stuff. 

I wanted to go back, besides the vibes and the fun, on the idea of time, because I know that you guys have some kind of magic formula in Atlassian in terms of what percentage of the week you are spending on your individual or collaborative work and what time in meetings? Can you share a little bit about that formula/structure? 

Molly Sands: Absolutely. We try to keep it to under 50% of the meeting time. So what we recommend people start out with is no more than 30% of scheduled meetings. 

Start your week with that as your threshold or your goal, and then block out some time when you are available to work with your team or your collaborators. We asked them to find about 20% of their week where they are not going to be booked in something else, but they know that other people that they work with are online, and that really enables that bursty collaboration of, “Hey, I just need to ask you a question or I want to send you a few things to look at or let's work on this or talk about it at the same time.” That might fill up with virtual collaboration time where you are on Zoom or something like that as well. 

Then ask people to keep the rest of their week for designated blocks of focus time, and also some time to react or respond to messages. 

We recommend that about 30% of the week is just deep-focused work, really creating, thinking about hard problems, and writing code, depending on what your job is, the things you do with that time might look very different. 

The real key to that focus deep work is not being constantly interrupted. We encourage everyone to time-box their calendars. So, say these blocks of time when I am going to do certain tasks and then you have certain periods where you are really reactive to notifications, messages, and all that stuff. But do give yourself 60 to 90 to even 2 hours to dive deeply into that more meaningful work.

Daan van Rossum: First of all, thanks for sharing, because I think it is a very practical template for people to apply to their jobs. 

Also, that is something that can be a really nice principle, but then the chaos of the day takes over and we end up still being booked. 

Is it so much part of the company culture that this actually happens? Or do you, as a manager and as a leader of the team, also have to coach people to adopt those habits and practice those habits? How organic is this? 

Molly Sands: I think, more so than any company I have worked for, Atlassian really takes this approach to how they spend their time. They are good at asynchronous work here, but you still have to be really intentional about it. Because it is so easy to schedule lots of meetings or to just have the amount of things you are trying to do at any given time. Expand beyond the week. 

I really encourage my team and I do this myself too, to think about your calendar as a prioritization tool rather than just a meeting scheduling tool. When you start to think about it that way, for me, this is a huge unlock. And I think for a lot of people at Atlassian, this has been true too. 

If you are really thinking about it, I need to look at it tomorrow. What is my top goal for the day? If I look at my calendar, that is not what I see as where I am spending my time. That is a problem. 

Then I need to more dynamically reprioritize, and that does not mean no meetings. I spend Tuesday doing a lot of stuff with my team. It is helpful Monday and Tuesday to get everyone on the right track, make sure they know what is important, and get things going as needed. So I tend to have those as review meetings heavier days for me, but then on Thursday and Friday, I will have very long stretches of head-down focused work. 

But if that is not the work cycle that we are in, then we adjust and change it. So I think my tips are to think of it as dynamic and to make sure that when you look at what you are doing tomorrow, it reflects what you think is most important. 

Daan van Rossum: Such a great way to rethink the calendar, because I think we look at calendars and we think about that is my meeting schedule, but you are really talking about it more, like, I have a certain amount of time this week. How am I spending it? 

Even then, day-to-day rethinking, what is my priority for tomorrow? Is that calendar reflecting or is my planning doing gap there? Is my calendar reflecting what I actually want to focus on? 

That is a totally different way of thinking about time as well. So it sounds like there is a lot of connection between sort of the principles and practices on one hand, which obviously is informing the culture as well, and then also the technology that enables that, even something as simple as just a calendar and rethinking how you use the calendar. 

I am sure you are talking to a lot of other companies as well. You are not just focused internally on Atlassian. This research also aims to educate the world and inspire them to do better. 

When you are looking at other companies and seeing how they are approaching tech, I know this is a really big part of the HR agenda right now to rethink. 

What is the technology that is going to enable us to work differently and maybe to adopt more flexible working schedules or maybe even async practices? 

How would you advise those companies when they are looking at the technology side of it? 

Molly Sands: That's a really, good question. At Atlassian, we do have our full platform, it's called the Atlassian platform. We use all our own technology here.

Daan van Rossum: It would be a super awkward conversation if you have to talk to your CEO, is “Yeah, so actually I decided to use platform X because I do not think it works so well.”

Molly Sands: We do use Atlassian at Atlassian. One of the things that I really love about that is that goals are very much integrated into everything. But when I think about evaluating software platforms right now, I am looking at how they are adopting AI technologies and how that is helping to integrate information. 

I do think that this idea of helping information flow really transparently in organizations so that people can work whenever, wherever, whatever your work policies are, the nature of work is that it is really happening online now, and I think that is why so many organizations are spending a lot of time re-evaluating what technology they are using, but the more that it can keep people connected, make goals clear, if there is good, strong defaults, those kinds of good behavioral science principles, those are all the things that I am looking at for what technology is going to do really well in this next evolution of work.

Daan van Rossum: What do you see as AI's role within that? Because you are talking exactly like the link between remote work, online work, or distributed work in Atlassian's case. And then, the amount of data and documentation that generates, that obviously is primed in for AI to come in and unlock all that information that maybe does not exist for you because it is not in your team or it is not shared with you directly. 

What do you see as AI's role, maybe in the next kind of cycle of evolution of technology in the workplace? 

Molly Sands: Yeah, I do think that connecting people with the right information at the right time, making it way easier to gather context is going to be a key role of AI and how it transforms the way that we work. Giving people

insights when they need them rather than spending lots of time searching for information. That's something I am excited about. 

I think it is going to be a game-changer for everyone. 

I think there are going to be a lot of surprises too. I do not know that anyone can perfectly predict what is going to happen with AI in the future. I am very excited to see how we learn, but I think that information and insights are definitely top areas in which we're seeing a lot of progress already. 

Daan van Rossum: Absolutely. We know from the research that spending time just getting the right information is another huge amount of time that people spend at work just to try and get that data.

Molly Sands: Absolutely. With our new AI features, over 90% of Atlassians are already using Atlassian intelligence to help them sort through gathering context and information within our systems. That is really exciting to see. 

Daan van Rossum: That is very exciting. 

Thanks so much for sharing all this wisdom with us. I think there are so many principles and practices we can apply. Obviously. a lot of good hints at what software to use to make that happen.

To close out just one wish you have for the future of work, besides less meetings? 

Molly Sands: Less meetings, I think, is genuinely part of my wish, but I really think that being in control of your time is very powerful for people, and getting to do more of the building and creating that I think is what draws a lot of people to the type of work that they do. 

Spending less time on administrative work about work and more time on creating value solving hard problems and using our brains and new ways. That is the stuff that gets me excited about work and that I love about my job and I hope that lots and lots of people get to do that more and that it is not so much how many hours are you putting in, but actually what value are you creating. 

Then, go home and be part of your community and do things with your family and whatever it is that really brings you joy. I think we can have more joy at work and more joy outside of work.

That is what I hope that the future looks like for all of us. 

Daan van Rossum: Amazing. You will drive part of the future. So I know it is in good hands. 

Thanks so much, Molly, for joining today. And hopefully, we will speak again. 

Molly Sands: Thank you so much for having me.

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A weekly column and podcast on the remote, hybrid, and AI-driven future of work. By FlexOS founder Daan van Rossum.