Jurriaan Kamer

@jurriaankamer

No Need to Come to the Office: Making Remote Work at GitLab

Most people spend several hours per day traveling to and from their work. Employees are expected to be at the office between set times, and their time sitting in the office is tracked to ensure they live up to the employment contract.

Photo by Cara Fuller

Imagine never needing to commute to work again. You simply work from home, wherever you decide to live on this planet. Imagine having access to all your company’s information, including financials and the CEO’s personal improvement points. Imagine spending company money without upfront approval.

GitLab is remote only

Having worked for large corporations and government agencies, GitLab’s founder Sid Sijbrandij has experience with frustrating workplaces. So, when his startup grew exponentially, he decided to design his organization differently.

Many workplaces are remote-friendly, letting employees work from home every now and then. But GitLab has abandoned the concept of a physical office altogether, and it is a remote only company with currently 275 team members in 37 different countries. Most of them work from home. If they can’t or don’t want to work from home, they are allowed to rent out a co-working space at the company’s expense. Additionally, they are encouraged to travel the world and visit their co-workers.

Since the work happens across many time zones, employees can also work whenever they want. Tools support an asynchronous way of working: People don’t need to be in the same room at the same time to get work done. People can plan their days however they want. The asynchronous way of working also heavily decreases the need for meetings, as most information is conveyed in written form. As Sid explains, “We focus on results, not on long hours, so that you can have a sane life next to your work and don’t burn out.”

For a long time, this way of running an organization was unthinkable. But these days, with the availability of high speed internet, high-quality low-cost video call software and great team messaging apps, this is no longer the case. According to Sid, “We even hold all-hands meetings where over 200 people attend in the same video call without problems.”

“My favorite thing about remote working is time and freedom. I can work whenever and wherever I want. Inversely, if I want to visit the beach in the middle of the day, I can do so. Any day.” — interview with Job van der Voort (VP of Product)

The benefits

GitLab is not limited to recruiting close to the office; they can reach out to talent across the world without the need to relocate. Also, their remote manifesto lists the following benefits for working remotely:

  1. Documentation of knowledge: information is written down
  2. Fewer meetings, if you miss one, they are recorded
  3. More flexibility in daily life
  4. Reduce interruptions to productivity
  5. Cost savings on office space and compensation
  6. Reduce inequality due to bringing better paying jobs to lower cost regions
  7. Encourages focus on results, not hours worked
  8. Reduce environmental impact due to less commuting
Sid Sijbrandij, CEO at GitLab (photo taken by Olaf Hartong)

Planned face-to-face time

Resistance to remote work often comes from the fear of reduced collaboration. Managers are afraid that it will prevent their employees from having impromptu conversations, which will then kill innovation within the organization.

Sid argues the contrary: “At GitLab, there is even more social bonding than in traditional companies. In most companies, if you work in the same office, you seldom talk to someone on a different floor of the same building.”

To support remote work, GitLab relies heavily on written communication. But Sid points out: “People still need to collaborate, have conversations, and feel part of a team. We’re human, we like to converse. Because we are remote only, we need deliberate planning of social interactions.” At GitLab, everyone is encouraged to dedicate a few hours a week to having video calls with any teammate or take part in the Coffee Break calls. During these informal calls, people talk about non-work related things: what they did with their free time, TV shows they watched, or other everyday things.

“Having pets, children, significant others, friends and family visible during video chats is encouraged. If they are human, ask them to wave at your remote team member to say ‘Hi.’” — employee handbook

To improve bonding even further, every nine months GitLab organizes a summit, somewhere on the planet, and flies in the entire company for a week of bonding (and a bit of work). Amsterdam (Netherlands), Cancun (Mexico) and Crete (Greece) were among the locations.

Transparency and clarity

In many traditional organizations, information is shared on a need-to-know basis. Only the people at the top of the pyramid have a complete view of the organization’s performance and strategy. How and why things are decided is often unclear for the average employee, and their improvement ideas are not heard. The many rules and policies are hidden in documents and are seldom changed or simplified.

But not at GitLab, as Sid says, “Everything we do is public by default.” People from both inside and outside the organization can see what is going on and learn how the organization functions. “Our public employee handbook makes collaboration easier, increases speed of onboarding, and prevents mistakes.”

It also makes it easier to change processes. As the handbook explains: “It is really hard to change a process that doesn’t have a name or location and lives in different versions in the heads of people. Changing a written process and distributing where it was changed is much easier.” And since GitLab’s mission is everyone can contribute, it is important that employees can easily suggest changes to the handbook.

Some highlights from the handbook:

  • Our strategy and objectives are completely public because transparency is one of our values. We’re not afraid of sharing our strategy because as Peter Drucker said: “Strategy is a commodity, execution is an art.”
  • Spend company money like it is your own money: You don’t have to ask permission before making purchases in the interest of the company. When in doubt, do inform your manager before the purchase, or as soon as possible after the purchase.
  • Companies often wait until someone resigns to gather feedback during an Exit Interview. But we hold a quarterly Stay Interview because we are most interested in three things, why people join, what makes them stay, and what would make them consider leaving GitLab. Here is a summary of the responses.
  • Sid’s own personal improvement points: “Transparency and directness are part of our values and I want to live them by sharing the flaws I know I have.”
“We started with our public handbook very early. We basically said, let’s optimize our way of working for the people that don’t work at GitLab yet, since that’s the majority of the people.” — Sid

Clear decision making

In many organizations, it is unclear how decisions are made or who can decide what. To get something decided, you need many meetings with many people. This is both slow and expensive.

At GitLab, how to decide and who can decide what is clearly defined. People seldom need to consult with others to make a decision. This prevents the need for installing committees that come together to decide on things. The org chart with role descriptions are visible to everyone. Decisions are recorded and are visible to everyone. When decisions are complicated, they try to make the decision smaller, quickly decide, and learn if it is right. If it’s the wrong decision, it’s easy to go back.

“One of the worst things are approval processes. We should keep approval processes to a minimum. Both by giving people the authority to decide by themselves and by having a quick lightweight approval process where needed.” — employee handbook

The takeaways

As Organization Designer at The Ready, I’m always looking for great examples to learn from. However, blindly copying another company’s way of working is seldom a good idea, but there are some valuable lessons that can be applied to any organization’s operating system:

  • Create an easily accessible and changeable handbook containing all policies, and make them easy to understand and repeatable.
  • Encourage people to suggest improvements to cumbersome processes that prevent them from doing their best work.
  • Use collaboration tools that enable transparency of information and support an asynchronous remote-only workflow.
  • Simplify management structures and assign clear decision rights, putting decision making power as close as possible to where the information is.
  • Define when and how to conduct effective meetings to reduce the meeting load.
  • Let employees write and publish a ‘user manual to me,’ starting by yourself.

Ready to change how you work? As a partner at The Ready, I help organizations become adaptive, responsive, self-organizing ecosystems by implementing new practices, rhythms and behaviors that enable transparency, openness, innovation and a progressive way of leading. Contact me to find out more, follow me on Twitter, sign up to my newsletter Change how the world works or book me as a speaker.

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