How COVID-19 is changing the remote landscape: A Q&A with GitLab’s head of remote

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When most of the United States went under lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19, companies had to scramble to help their employees work from home. While many originally thought remote work wasn’t a good idea, some are enjoying the experience so much they’re making a permanent switch—led by big tech companies like Twitter and Facebook.

Of course, fully distributed companies aren’t new—companies like GitLab have been doing it for years. We sat down with Darren Murph, GitLab’s head of remote, to hear how GitLab onboards new employees and thinks about equity, his thoughts on the future of remote work, and his advice for companies thinking about transitioning to fully remote.

Why did GitLab’s founders decide to make it fully remote?

GitLab was remote by default—the first three employees were in three different countries. They did come to California for Y Combinator and got an office coming out of that, but it lasted about three days. They quickly realized that work would continue to get done without an office and money would be better spent on people or research and development, so they just let the office go to the wayside and they’ve never had one since.

What does Gitlab do to make onboarding as seamless as possible for new employees?

We want new employees to get familiar with the GitLab tool, so the onboarding issue is within GitLab and it’s laid out very prescriptively—we have tasks you have to check off so you know when you’re done.

But we also realize that onboarding when there’s no office can feel isolating or jarring, so we pair every new hire with an onboarding buddy—a single point of contact a new hire can go to with any questions. That onboarding buddy does all the dot connecting for them and answers all their questions so they don’t have to spam an entire channel to find something.

This is an essential part of our process, and it’s something I recommend to companies who are transitioning to remote. It may take you a while to get all of your onboarding documented, but the thing you can do right now is tap into your mentors in the company and assign buddies to help people as they acclimate.

What does GitLab do to help team members feel less lonely and burnt out?

When we interview potential team members, we look for people that are managers of one. This is about more than just work—we want people that are comfortable managing the separation between work life and personal life, their PTO schedule, and mental health.

We’re also very intentional about creating an atmosphere where informal communication can happen. In a co-located space, informal communication is one of those things that’s generally left to serendipity and fate. You assume if people are in the same building long enough, they will cross paths and relationships will form. You don’t have to put any intentional effort into that. At GitLab, it’s our people group’s responsibility to establish moments where people can build those relationships.

A great example is a few weeks ago our entire marketing team—130 people across six continents—had a talent show. We had a panel of judges and prizes; this was a real deal, proper talent show across the world that helped us bond in an awesome, very human way. It was very easy to put together but it required that intentional muscle.

We also want to make sure people take time away from work. We recently had a “family and friends day” where we shut the entire office down for a Friday to give people a three day weekend. With everyone isolated, it’s really tempting to grab your laptop since work is always right there. We wanted to do something to remind people that, “Hey, you’ve got friends and family that need you—be sure to pay attention to that.”

How COVID-19 is changing the remote landscape: A Q&A with GitLab’s head of remote 1

GitLab has a blog post about how all remote supports inclusion. Can you expand on that?

All remote enables another form of diversity—cultural diversity. Even if you hired two people from every country on earth and moved them to Phoenix, in six months they’re going to be using American money, American public transit, American telephones, and voting in American politics. They’ll bring some of that culture with them, but to some degree, they’re going to adapt and become an American.

When you’re in a remote setting, your team brings their full selves to work every single day. They bring their time zones, cultural holidays, all of themselves because that’s where they are. I’d say we’re one of the most geographically and culturally diverse companies in the world because we don’t relocate people. We hire people in these regions and allow them to stay there. That’s been big for us and it’s something that’s very authentic and very genuine—it’s not a manufactured diversity.

Why does GitLab prioritize issuing equity to employees?

Offering equity is super important to our CEO. He wants to make sure everyone feels invested in GitLab.

There’s a sense of shared ownership and interest when you go to the same building every day. When everyone is spread out across the world, equity is a big part of creating that sense of ownership.

You want people to feel invested in what you’re building so everyone pulls the same rope and marches toward the same goal. Equity is a universal language—everyone can understand that working hard to improve GitLab benefits everyone. So it plays into belonging in a big way. I think for remote teams in general this is something that should really be considered.

How COVID-19 is changing the remote landscape: A Q&A with GitLab’s head of remote 2

How does GitLab educate employees about equity?

Our handbook outlines the terminology around stock, equity, and options that people may be unfamiliar with. We try to provide as much documentation around that as possible.

We also have a compensation calculator that’s public to the world. You can use this calculator to plug in your role, experience, and location, and you’ll actually see how equity plays a part from the very beginning. It’s something we are very forthcoming about. Even people that are considering joining GitLab can learn what equity means at GitLab.

This purifies our recruiting pipeline—people opt into GitLab because our strategy, vision, compensation calculator, and what we believe about equity are all public. When you have all of that in advance and still want to go through the interview process, you decide this is the culture and workplace for you. I like to say no one accidentally ends up in GitLab. You know what you’re getting into from the very beginning.

Has GitLab encountered any equity challenges as it has grown?

The biggest challenge is equity means something different in different regions of the world. What equity means for someone in the U.S. could look different in Asia or Europe, and it can be more or less motivating depending on the region.

Tax implications can make equity less or more alluring, and there are some regions of the world where equity is just not something that is a traditionally accepted part of a compensation package. So sometimes it requires additional explanation on what it is. 

How do you think COVID-19 is changing the remote landscape?

COVID has accelerated the global embrace of remote by at least 10 years. People now have no choice but to embrace remote workplaces and do it well. You can’t just pretend everyone’s going to go back to the office and no one will ever ask for flexibility in a job interview ever again—it’s never going to happen.

There’s no putting this genie back in the bottle now that this many people have experienced what it’s like to achieve work outside of the office. This is especially poignant for people that have been told, “Your job can’t be done remotely.” Everyone’s learning it can be done even in the most suboptimal conditions.

In past years, you could only ask for flexibility if you were a very senior leader, you got deep into the interview process, and you had the portfolio to justify it. But now you’re going to have people in first stage interviews asking, “What’s your stance on flexibility? I need to be home. I want to homeschool my kids. I want to be close to my aging parents. I’m a military spouse and want to make sure my career is portable.” These are things that would have been taboo to talk about just a year ago and now I think they’re going to be very transparent, very out in the open.

Once companies have a few months to catch their breath, implement better communication protocols and tooling, remote’s only going to become more efficient for everyone involved. It’s a tragedy this crisis has happened, but we’re going to end up stronger on the other side of it. It has been an amazing forcing function to get us to where we’ve all known we needed to be as a society and taking advantage of this thing called the internet to allow ourselves to work more flexibly.

This’ll also be a great litmus test of companies that adapt to this and ensure their company is one that’s more nimble, flexible, and inclusive to remote environments versus those that are going to bury their head in the sand. They’re going to suffer from a talent and operational strategy standpoint.

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What advice would you give to founders who are either thinking of starting a fully remote company or taking their current company fully remote?

1. Document everything. Documentation was core to who the company was at the very beginning. The early founders and team were very disciplined in writing things down—from culture and values to protocols and processes. When you write everything down, there’s less need to be in the same room to get something done.

2. Lean into it. It will enable greater flexibility and allow you to hire the world’s best talent and adapt to where business takes you.

3. Invest the money you would have spent on real estate on people. Companies that are tying themselves to real estate will have less assets to compete with you.

4. Remember that remote is a process of iteration. It’s not a binary switch that can be flipped or something that happens overnight. Don’t hold yourself to this artificially high standard of having to go from zero to mastery straight away. GitLab has been remote since inception and we’re still figuring out new ways to get better at remote.

What are some tools that can make remote work easier?

We use GitLab for collaboration. It’s an amazing tool for collaborative software development and project management. What’s key is it’s built by a remote team to enable remote teams.

Also, there are likely tools you already use that you could take better advantage of. For example, if you have G Suite or Office 365, you probably have access to shared documents, and you can attach a shared agenda to every meeting, take notes in real time, and have a permanent artifact for every meeting.

There’s also a tool called Kona that is really powerful. It allows remote team members to build personal READMEs so whenever you join a meeting with a team member you’ve never worked with before, it provides an overview of who this person is, what makes them tick, and how they prefer to communicate. In a remote setting, you might not always have the ability to establish rapport with people, so using technology to help build that in advance is beneficial.

Want to read more? Check out The GitLab Remote Playbook or GitLab’s blog for more resources.


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