Remote working can have big payoffs, but only if it’s done with intention. We talked to Darren Murph, Head of Remote at the San Francisco-headquartered GitLab, to understand what it means to have a remote-first business model, and how companies can improve business continuity, serve clients better, and build a better employee experience by approaching remote work with intention.
Head of Remote
Many companies over the last few months have shifted their employees to working remotely en masse in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This in turn spurred headlines about the “world’s largest work from home experiment,” and more recently has led to companies considering or implementing a more permanent shift to remote work.
But GitLab’s Head of Remote, Darren Murph, cautions against calling this period a massive experiment. Crisis-driven remote work, he says, is different than doing it intentionally. And he’d know – GitLab was built as remote-first.
The San Francisco-headquartered open-core company, which provides a DevOps platform for teams to collaborate and build software, has been remote from day one. Today, its almost 1,300 employees work from 69 countries and regions around the world.
To get the inside track, we recently talked to Murph to get some insights from a remote-first perspective. There were many, so we’re serving the Q and A up in two parts – you can watch the full conversation on GitLab’s YouTube channel here.
First up, Murph discusses what companies can learn about their business models from this period of remote work, and if they shift to a more permanent model, how productivity metrics, transparency, and work infrastructures need to change.
Q: I’ve seen a lot of articles calling this period a “massive work-from-home experiment.” What do you think?
Darren: I don't love that it's called the world's biggest work-from-home experiment. It's not. This is crisis driven work-from-home. It is not in any way related to actual intentional remote. They're very different. [In speaking with a team that’s feeling drained and zapped after working from home ,] I said, "That has less to do with working remotely and more to do with your entire world shifting overnight [and being] thrust into a work environment that is nothing like the one that you came from."
I'm actually really proud of humanity for how quickly we're adapting and how agile we're being. I do think that on the other side of this, people will be more comfortable with it. They'll figure out what works, and what doesn't work. There's a lot of forced iteration on trying things out right now. I think that's going to yield some pretty awesome benefits.
Q: Do you think this pandemic is going to lead to a permanent shift to remote work for some companies?
Darren: I think that this has accelerated the global embrace of remote by at least 10 years. One of the biggest things it has done is break the myth that your job can't be done from anywhere. For many jobs, that is not the case and we're seeing that play out in real time. In even highly regulated industries, it is possible.
Now, this isn't the ideal situation for it to happen. Definitely ops and business IT leaders have to work on some access issues and things like that to make it more seamless, but it is possible, and the way I see it, you're never going to put this genie back in the bottle.
I think that this has accelerated the global embrace of remote by at least 10 years.
If you give people the freedom and autonomy to work from anywhere for three or four months and they're able to accomplish their work, and if they're asked to resume their two, three, four-hour commutes and disrupt their lives again, I'm not so sure that the masses are going to be amenable to that. And that's just on the worker side.
On the business side, you have business leaders right now that are looking for ways to cut costs to manage through this situation. One of the obvious ones that comes up is real estate. We're now having this great awakening to the reality of decoupling geography and results. You can de-risk your business if you're not tied to a specific geographic region.
Q: Let's talk a bit more about how remote work can support business resiliency. You talked about real estate – what are some other ways?
Darren: It makes your company more dynamic. If you're in an industry where you need to support a client 24/7 and you need everyone in the same geographic place, you're essentially asking two thirds of your support staff to work suboptimal hours and a full third of them to work overnight.
That’s not really ideal, and not a great employee experience. Or you can open that up globally and support clients 24/7 at times that make more sense for your people. You just get a more diverse workforce, and the more distributed you are, the less susceptible you are to risk in any given place, or any single place. And I think business leaders are realizing that from a business continuity and a de-risking standpoint, the further we can get from being centrally located now seems like a great idea. It's amazing because just six months ago it was almost completely the opposite.
People wanted to have the mothership, have the centralization, but they're realizing that while there are some perks to that, there's a lot of risk that comes with that. This COVID-19 situation has forced open the reality that we were always a lot closer to being able to function well as a society remotely than we ever gave ourselves credit for. Ubiquitous LTE, laptops that can last all day, essentially anyone in the working world right now communicates with their family through text message. You don't necessarily need face-to-face to get something done or to have a relationship.
Frankly, companies have been remote for a long time. You hae executives that are on planes every week. When you're working on a presentation deck, 30,000 feet above the Atlantic, you're working remotely. You might not call it that, but you're working remotely. When you land in an office in London, but you're communicating with staff back in Phoenix, you're remote to each other. So, this has been happening for a really long time. There's just been this awakening of, “Okay we can dub it remote and actually put in some proper infrastructure to do this right, now that we all agree that it's happening.”
Q: It feels like we’ve been thinking about work in a particular framework. We’ve spent years perfecting how to work in an office. And as you said, many people work remotely, but don’t classify it as such. There’s a mindset or attitude shift that needs to happen to think about work outside of that framework. What would you say to business leaders to start that shift, and extend it across their organisations?
Darren: The first thing I would say is acknowledge to yourself that it's different. Here's what I liken it to: If you're driving a vehicle with the steering wheel on the left side and you just magically switch countries and you're still in the same car, but you have to drive on the opposite side of the road, it's familiar, but still oddly difficult. You're not quite sure why it still doesn't feel quite in sync. It's like you're still driving the car, but the rules of the road have changed quite a bit. And everyone around you that's in this new country seem to just get it. I think remote is much like that.
I think the first thing leaders need to do is understand that their team has been thrust into this situation where now everyone's desk looks different, everyone's access and connectivity is different. There's a lot more variables now. There's a higher burden than ever now I think on managers to be open to feedback, be receptive to feedback, and help unblock and solve challenges that are new to their remote world.
From a young age, we're put in the classrooms and we're taught how to function in that box. Essentially grade school is office work for kids, but no one ever teaches us how to do school at home. We all just fumble through it at home. No one really has any guard rails around it. That's kind of similar to what's happening now. No one has really been taught how to work remotely and people have different levels of what I call remote fluency, different levels of appreciation and undersatnding and comfort with doing something outside of the workspace.
Then there's the reality that not everyone's home is equally amenable to being an ideal workspace. For someone that on Monday was working in the office and now Tuesday hence forth, they're working in their one bedroom apartment with their spouse, with their kids, with essentially one room for everything to happen, obviously they're going to be at a disadvantage.
People have different levels of remote fluency. Not everyone is on the same playing field. It's important for leaders to understand that and do whatever they can to level the playing field.
So productivity metrics have to change. Expectations have to change. The flow of communication and feedback has to change. It's not the same and not everyone is on the same playing field. And I think it's important for leaders to understand that and do whatever they can to level the playing field. Even being more lenient on expensing – let people expense a nice keyboard and a secondary monitor and noise canceling headphones so they can actually be productive and do work. And you've got to remember they're probably leaving $5000 or $10,000 worth of gear at the office and now they have to work in their kitchen.
Q: We’re seeing many of the traditional frameworks in the world of work being disrupted – whether it’s the traditional payday, or new ways of learning to address the need for new skills. Is this a call for people to get comfortable with a broader new norm?
Darren: There's as much to unlearn about working as there is to learn when you're coming into a remote environment. The tighter you try to cling on to what worked in the office, and the more closely you try to press copy from the office norms and paste them into a virtual world, the worse it's going to go. There are different phases of remote. The skeuomorphism [a term used in interface design for to describe interface objects that mimic their real-world counterparts], the kind of copy and pasting is phase one where you're just trying to make it work. You had a meeting in the office, let's try to have that same meeting virtually. But the point is you should strive to get beyond that. You should strive to move to a more asynchronous model where there's more transparency.
The tighter you try to cling on to what worked in the office, and the more closely you try to press copy from the office norms and paste them into a virtual world, the worse it's going to go.
In the office, transparency is actually actively avoided for many things. Everything is an as-needed basis because everyone is just three or four feet from you. It's very easy to loop someone in at the moment you think they need to be looped in. But when you destroy that construct and you have people all over the world, and no concept of how close they actually are to you, you have to let that guard down and be okay with being more transparent about how you communicate as a company. Be more transparent about how different departments are marching towards their own goals. Open up those goals so that finance knows what engineering is aiming for and engineering knows what HR People Ops is aiming for.
If that spooks you, you need to get introspective and ask why. You're one company, you're all marching towards one common goal. If there's some fear in transparency, it might be because you need to work some things out. What you’re feeling is accountability and on the whole, remote forces you to be a lot more disciplined than you otherwise can get away with.
The important point there is every company should be this disciplined. It's just that remote makes it glaringly obvious that you have no other choice. I think companies that wrap their arms around that instead of run away from that in this time, even if they do transition back into the office, they'll be a more disciplined company with better communication and people will feel more aligned and more tightly integrated as a team even if some of them stay outside of the office.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity