GitLab has been remote since its early days, and is now one of the biggest remote employers of all time. The company tripled in size during 2019 and currently employs 1,300 people across 67 countries and regions, with thousands more contributing to their open source project. According to CEO Sid Sibrandij, one of the key benefits of remote working is the ability to hire great people wherever they may be, without the risks or expense of owning an office.
But perks like that don't come for free — they're outputs of a system that's been carefully designed from the start.
Clearbit CEO Alex MacCaw and coach Matt Mochary sat down with Sid and GitLab's Head of Remote, Darren Murph, to chat about their best practices for building a remote-first company. "One of the effects of [COVID] is that it's accelerated the global embrace of remote by at least ten years," Darren says. "It's time to start having more serious conversations about the best way to do things right."
GitLab believes every CEO should pay attention to three items in particular: creating social bonds through informal communication, rethinking process documentation, and staying very wary of the idea to go hybrid-remote when offices open back up.
In a physical office, people form bonds naturally, and companies even hire facility managers to create inviting spaces for casual run-ins. In a remote environment, however, physical proximity isn't an option, so social bonding needs constant nurturing. "You'll likely need to be a bit parental about it," Sid says.
With this in mind, GitLab organizes a diverse set of events and opportunities for connection, including:
- A week-long companywide offsite
- Visiting grants: a $150 stipend to cover travel costs for employees to visit one another
- An AirBnB in the Netherlands as a free-of-charge gathering space for teams
- Talent shows
- Short "take a break" calls with five non-work discussion topics
- Monthly retrospectives where the engineering team inspects and adapts their methods after completing an increment of work
Intentional social events, such as pizza parties or weekly hangouts, draw a line between work and play. "The social chatter can take any direction," Sid notes, "as long as you don't talk about the sprint in progress."
Social interactions are also baked into onboarding — GitLab arranges ten mandatory "coffee chats" for new employees that pair them up with a random colleague. Pairs are cross-functional, not within teams, to help prevent workplace silos. Socials, though optional, are regularly scheduled and boast high attendance rates.
Children of GitLab employees can also bond through "Juice Box Chats" on the Slack parenting channel, a digital space for parents working from home with kids. Juice Box Chats are for the whole family, and as Darren puts it, "You have kids that are in isolation but they're actually getting cultural exploration across six continents, which they probably couldn't even get if they were in school."
Being fully remote, with no office lease to answer to, frees up resources that GitLab can redirect to developing rich, intentional, informal communication channels that bring employees closer.
For more tips on how to formalize informal communication, check out GitLab's list of 15 suggestions.
You're in trouble at GitLab if you refer to the company's 5,000-page handbook as "documentation." "It's not documentation," Sid says. "It's what we do."
GitLab works from a "handbook-first" perspective, so before any new process or project is implemented on any team, it's detailed in the handbook.
By contrast, many other companies craft proposals that are — maybe — later documented officially, almost as an afterthought … if thought of at all. "At every single company I've known outside of GitLab," Sid says, "the handbook is out of date and no one looks there."
This relentless focus on documenting processes — and their changes — isn't necessarily intuitive or easy to enforce and Sid needs to actively reinforce it throughout the organization. However, letting things slide raises the threat of slipping into workplace rhythms that aren't conducive to a remote-first environment. As Sid says, "Naturally, communication descends into meetings and synchronous communication."
For him, the continuous maintenance required for an up-to-date handbook is well worth the extra effort.
There's been a lot of talk about companies moving to a hybrid-remote model as they reopen post-COVID. However, Sid warns against this approach and argues that companies should just go fully remote.
Half-and-half is not as simple as it sounds. As Sid says, "It's not like, ‘Oh you need to do two things.' You need to do two things that conflict."
Because once a company reopens as a hybrid, some people will go back into the office and some people will continue to work remotely, depending on their roles and risk tolerance. Inevitably, this leads to two separate workstreams. "If the leadership is present at the office, it's clear which style is going to give you more information and more career opportunities," Sid says. "And the people who are remote will feel left out, and the most talented and ambitious people will leave."
Why, then, are offices reopening in the first place, especially when many companies have seen an increase in productivity while fully remote? "Is it a sunk cost fallacy because of the lease?" Sid asks. "Is it because they like what it affords them, the feeling of walking into the building they built, with the people that work for them? The only conclusion I can come to is that they think they need more informal communication. And I bet they do."
That is, employees crave more social connection, but going back to the office isn't the only way to get it. Sid says, "[People] don't want to go back to the office — they want to go back to informal communication with each other so they can restore these bonds." As GitLab shows, there are many ways for employees to connect. After all, if they live in the same city, they can get lunch together. It just doesn't need to be inside GitLab's office.
Sid provides a personal example. His extroverted wife loves her own workplace's culture and had never been keen on the idea of working remotely. But now that COVID has shut down her office, she's in no hurry for it to reopen. She grabs a daily boba tea with her colleagues and finds that taking Wednesdays off makes her more productive the rest of the week. Now that she's established her own informal communication channels, the downside of remote working has disappeared.
The rise of COVID-19 has caused a sea change in the industry. The very investors who were once skeptical about GitLab's remote-first strategy — asking Sid to promise to drop it as soon as it stopped working — have become pro-remote.
"We found that your costs are way lower," Sid says. "Plus, you have 88% year over year retention, and you get better talent than any company we know. So we think this remote thing is a way to make companies work."
As the COVID headwinds continue to push back against a full reopening, now is a good time for CEOs to embrace remote work — and discover how it can make their teams even more effective.
If you're curious about how GitLab has succeeded with a global team and no office, take a look at the All-Remote section of the GitLab Handbook.
It covers everything from embracing asynchronous workflows, communication styles and tips on running meetings, to remote hiring practices and global compensation strategies.