July 2, 2020

What could work and life look like if we get good at working remotely?

In part two of our conversation with GitLab’s Head of Remote, Darren Murph, we explore what life could look like in the future if we get good at working remotely. Here, he highlights the new possibilities remote-first working can bring – from building teams across borders to uncovering opportunities for business innovation to connecting with new people and communities.

In part one of our Q and A with GitLab’s Head of Remote, Darren Murph, we talked about distinguishing crisis-driven remote work from intentionally remote work, and the ways in which a remote-first business model can enrich business outcomes, customer service, and the employee experience.

In part two, we turn to the future. As companies increasingly consider permanent moves to remote work, doing it successfully won’t be as simple as importing the dynamics, meetings, and project plans from the office into a virtual environment.

For companies and leaders who are used to “command and control” operations, Murph says a critical first step is to let go of that construct and instead deeply tune in to feedback from your people. On the employee side, Murph says workers should give themselves permission to dismiss “remoter’s guilt” and focus on making the most of the time that’s no longer spent commuting.

Murph also advises tapping into your imagination and thinking about everything you can do without having to access the office every day. Here, he highlights the new possibilities remote work can bring.

 

Q: If you were speaking to a leader or a person building a remote team, what skills would you recommend that they develop, or immediate actions they should take?

Darren: The first would be reevaluate how clear the metrics are for your direct reports. I would immediately have one-on-ones with all of my newly remote team members and ask them straight up, “Do you understand what success looks like?”

The funny thing about working in an office is praise and promotion can be very subjective. You can get away with not really expecting a certain metric or takeaway from someone. In a remote setting you can't. You can only judge them on results. Trying to judge them on how many hours they spent in front of a webcam is just absurd and it's glaringly obvious that it's absurd.

As a manager, have those one-on-ones and ask your teammates, “Do you know what I need of you?” And if they say no, that's on the manager to get more articulate and more prescriptive about what those objectives and key results are.

If you've been in a command and control type of situation, it's very difficult to switch your brain to servant leadership. But I recommend to newly remote leaders, one of the first things you should do is simply open your arms as wide as you can and accept feedback. You think you know what's going on, but you actually don't. The only way you're going to have a clear picture of what's going on is to ask people how it's going.

I advise people to take as much of that feedback as you can because you'll probably see some common threads. If you ask enough people, you'll say, “Oh, okay, 40% of these people have relatively the same problem.” That's your priority list. That becomes your priority list of what to fix, and in what order, and what documentation clearly needs to exist that you don't have already.

It's important to remember that remote is a journey, not a binary switch that you just flip on and off.

You'll get better at it. Just continue to iterate and tell your team that. For high performing teams this can be really jarring. So, it needs to be said, “Hey, let's change our expectations and focus on iterations rather than focusing on how quickly we can master something that we had no experience with prior.”

 

Q: Those are some great action items. People likely ask you a lot of questions about remote work, but what's a question that people don't ask you, but you think they should ask you about remote work?

Darren: I love this question. What I wish people would ask me more is, “What could life look like if I get good at remote?” One of the toughest things about my job is getting people to actually use and unlock their imagination. And what you're seeing happen en masse is people are being thrust into remote [due to COVID-19] and they're trying as hard as they can to replicate the experience they just left.

If they work nine to five, they're trying to figure out exactly how to work nine to five at home. Even if it’s clearly not the ideal situation at home, they're just trying to make it work. Whatever rigidity they were used to, they want to maintain. I want people to give themselves permission to not do that. You're in a whole different universe now. You don't have the commute anymore. You don't have the same stigma and expectations anymore.

You can potentially shift your day to work during your peak productivity hours and that opens up hours that have never been accessible to you before; to do other things in life with other people, maybe people that you've forgotten about because the times never were compatible.

It's the ultimate blank slate. It's the ultimate life cheat code. I don't think enough people give themselves permission to recognize that. There's this "remoter's guilt" where you feel like you need to overproduce as a remote employee to compensate for the fact you don't have to run the commute rat race anymore. But you have to remember the commute [time] was never the employer’s to begin with. That was always your time, so you can do something with it. You can be innovative with it; you can plan something with it.

There’s this “remoter’s guilt” where you feel like you need to overproduce as a remote employee to compensate for the fact that you don’t have to do the commute anymore. But that was always your time, so you can do something with it.

So, I wish more people would ask me, “What could life look like if I never had to commute again? If I did not have to be in this city for work, what could life look like? What can I do that I could not do in the conventional co-located environment?”

I think there's a lot of power in that, millions of people asking that at the same time. For me that's part of the excitement coming from this. I'm seeing people rally around community in a way that I haven't seen in a really long time. Remote communities are sprouting up everywhere. We're recognizing overnight that you don't need face-to-face networking, that people are people, no matter the medium in which you meet them.

I think that we will as a society start to tap into each other's imaginations coming out of this and I actually think it'll make businesses stronger. We've all had situations where we go off on some vacation and we have the best work idea we've ever had without ever even thinking about work. That shouldn't be a once a year thing. That can be an ongoing thing.

 

Q: That’s also a great question for leaders as they move forward and think about how to redesign the workplace and work experience.

Darren: Absolutely. What could you do as a leader? How could you empower your team to connect and build bonds in ways that you couldn't do before? To me, it all comes down to the scarcity versus abundance mindset. If you get thrust into remote and you focus on what can't we do because we don't have access to the office, that's the only thing you'll see.

It comes down to the scarcity versus abundance mindset. If you get thrust into remote and you focus on what we can’t do because we don’t have access to the office, that’s the only thing you’ll see.

That's the lens in which you're looking through everything with. Or you can say, “What opportunities do we have to do things differently, to be more innovative because we don't have the burden of the office, or the commute? That's the right question to ask and so I hope, once things are stabilized and there’s some continuity in place, that that's the second order thinking for leaders – let's focus on what we can do now.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Danielle Ng-See-Quan

Dani is the Senior Manager, Content Marketing at Ceridian.

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