Going Remote Pt. I: Five Lessons from Scaling GitLab

By Natalie Robichaud on April 7, 2020

We recently launched a series of virtual Fireside Chats and Q&A sessions with distributed teams across the globe to hear their hard-earned lessons as we all adapt to the new reality of remote work culture. The first conversation was with GitLab’s Head of Remote, Darren Murph. GitLab has a team of ~1200 employees, all of whom are remote, distributed across 67 countries and 6 continents. GitLab has built an impressive organization and culture, and given their success in running a business without an HQ, we thought Darren could provide some valuable advice for our team, companies in our portfolio, and our wider network who are making this transition. Here are our five top takeaways from the conversation: 

1. Be deliberate with your documentation and communication

One of the most common refrains you’ll hear when teams are going remote is to document everything. This can be a slightly dangerous ethos, especially if it results in a hodgepodge of siloed communication tools like Notion, Google Docs, or hosted repositories, but it is an important concept nonetheless. Instead of focusing on documenting everything, GitLab has adopted (and recommends) a handbook-first culture. The goal of your handbook should be to serve as a centralized repository or single source of truth, through which you can answer any question with a link. GitLab’s handbook is over 5000 pages, but your team can get started with something as simple as an FAQ document with a few core questions, or even a contact list of individuals responsible for certain topics. A properly scoped handbook will also allow you to delineate your channels of communication, establishing best practices for different mediums. For example, at GitLab, Slack is designated for informal communication (all messages are deleted after 80 days), Zoom is used for meetings, and all meetings must have a Google Doc agenda, where notes and questions are circulated in advance and decisions are documented. As an asynchronous team distributed across the globe, this allows all employees to share their thoughts and see what was discussed, even at meetings that don’t sync with their timezone. We followed Darren’s advice and created an agenda for this webinar – check it out here

2. Be intentional with your time (and set boundaries with your team) 

In a world not defined by hours spent in an office, we are now responsible for structuring our own days by setting (and sticking to) boundaries and staying organized. One tip is to start and end the day by dedicating the time you used to spend commuting to another activity to signal the beginning and end of your work day. Try going for a walk, calling a friend or family member, or learning a new skill, just make sure it is not work-related. It can also be helpful to designate and block time on your calendar for heads down work and make it clear to your colleagues that those are hours during which you are not available to hop on a Zoom or chat. 

3. Take advantage of the new circumstances to get creative, instead of replicating old systems and processes. Ask, “was in-person ever the best way to do this?”

Due to GitLab’s history as a distributed team, many of the processes outlined in their Remote Handbook may be new to teams undergoing a forced transition. As the rest of us adapt to the new reality, we should take advantage of these circumstances to think creatively instead of just trying to replicate old systems. When asked the best way to have creative meetings such as whiteboarding sessions, Darren suggested one could try asking team members to contribute feedback and/or ideas to a Google Doc over the course of a week, giving everyone more time to process the request on their schedule and be thoughtful about their contributions. At the end of the week, the organizer will have more to work with than an hour in a conference room would have ever yielded. It might sound radical, but maybe it was the better method all along. Gitlab also has a virtual on-boarding buddy program, where all new hires are assigned a point person to whom they can direct any and all questions 24/7. In an office setting, it can appear as though everyone is available to answer questions at any point, but what if that leads to new hires not raising questions, either because they aren’t sure the best person to ask or because the question seems too trivial to voice to a group? Think of collaborations and initiatives that would have been impossible in an office setting.

4. Manage with empathy. Focus on metrics and deliverables.

Everyone has gone through a major adjustment in the past few weeks, and we are all still adapting to these changing circumstances—even those accustomed to remote work. We all now have extremely limited contact with the outside world and more sources of anxiety in general, plus many of us also have children stuck at home. Managers and direct reports probably feel a bit out of touch without the usual “good morning” upon arriving at the office. Without this casual checkpoint, it can be hard to recognize when something is wrong, so don’t forget to check in frequently with your team. It may sound simple, but don’t forget to ask how they’re doing and if there is anything you can do to improve their situation. Managers accustomed to seeing reports at their desks or going into meetings throughout the day can feel blind and out of control without these visual cues. Instead of worrying about how employees are spending every second of their time, set reasonable metrics and deliverables to keep everyone on track. Don’t micromanage from a place of fear. Trust your employees, and check in to make sure their situation is working for them—not to make sure they are working. 

5. Don’t neglect culture. Remember we are humans first, colleagues second.

We all have lives outside of work, and the lines between work and home are now going to blur on occasion, no matter how many boundaries we set. It is important to stay focused and get work done in meetings, but embrace the newfound kids/pets/partner interruptions. This can be harder to accept from ourselves than from colleagues, so be as forgiving of yourself as you are of your colleagues. Now is the time to be proactive about culture, to avoid losing touch points with colleagues on topics outside of work. Add just-for-fun Slack channels for topics like cooking, #InTheParenthood, favorite books/tv/movies, and anything you might discuss with a co-worker when you bump into each other grabbing coffee. Also, set up optional team Zoom social hours where kids, pets, and partners are encouraged to join. Most importantly, don’t forget to support each other and stay connected. GitLab has embraced a number of these culture-focused initiatives over the years, including virtual talent shows, where one team recently hosted 100 people across time zones and geographies to show off their skills, and a travel reimbursement program, where any employee can travel anywhere in the world to meet another team member. While the latter may not be possible right now, this is the spirit and ethos that companies need to consider adopting to survive (and thrive) in a remote-first world.

Thank you to everyone who joined our conversation. For those of you who couldn’t make it, a full recording of the virtual Fireside Chat and Q&A session can be found below or here.

Note: GitLab is a Two Sigma Ventures portfolio company.

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