Jul 31, 2019 - Sara Kassabian    

How being all-remote helps us practice our values at GitLab

GitLab CEO Sid Sijbrandij and Mark Frein of InVision talk about why all-remote is the future, and moving beyond 'But how do you know they're working?'

All-remote workplaces like GitLab and InVision are disrupting the status quo by abandoning the office and creating a new model for the ideal workplace, and employees and employers are starting to catch on. GitLab CEO Sid Sijbrandij and Mark Frein, chief people officer at product design platform InVision, recently met to chat about the future of remote work, leadership in a distributed company, and the values that drive their work (and why all-remote isn’t one of them).

Build interpersonal relationships, digitally

On your first day at GitLab or InVision, you don’t walk up to the office, put on a smile, and find your desk. Instead, you sit on your desk chair, deck, or couch, open your laptop and connect using a suite of different technologies that provide a portal into your home.

“I often say, ‘How often do you invite people into your home on day one when you're starting a new job?’” says Mark. “We are already inside your most personal space. We can see your bookcase, we can see things that are important to you, we can see your cat jumping on your lap, because animals always want to make sure they’re with you on important calls.”

When a company empowers a distributed team to embrace the inevitable interruptions of doorbells ringing, phones buzzing, and demands from pets, children, and partners, you get to know your remote teammates better than if you shared an office. People are free to share more of themselves than if they were commuting from their homes to a common area.

By sharing your home, albeit digitally, with your colleagues, it is critical that your teammates show the same degree of humility and empathy for colleagues as they do for customers.

All-remote companies that are making hiring decisions ought to search for workers that are highly skilled in their areas of expertise, as well as in interpersonal communication. It is the active listeners, clear communicators, and willing collaborators that drive progress in all-remote companies, because these interpersonal skills allow teams to breach the digital divide and make lasting contributions to the company and product.

Leadership in all-remote organizations must be similarly intentional. Managers do not have the benefit of serendipity at all-remote companies; instead, they must work harder to emotionally engage with the people they lead.

Technology is driving the all-remote movement

There are three primary communication channels that connect GitLab team members and InVision team members. “I think of our right and left hands as Zoom and Slack,” says Mark. At GitLab, we primarily use our own product, as well as Zoom and Slack to connect our distributed team.

The advent of these powerful communication tools is what helps all-remote companies like GitLab and InVision exist, and is a driving factor behind the movement for workplaces to go all-remote.

“I think we're just at the beginning of this movement, and a lot of what's worked has been hacked together so far,” says Mark. “I think remote is going to last as long as the history of work, and it’s just in its infancy.”

Thinking back to 10 or 15 years ago, communication technologies first started being used in new and unique ways to mediate relationships. Mark points to the early days of online multiplayer game, World of Warcraft, as an example of serious all-remote gaming that helped condition us to using communication technology in collaborative ways. Just like WoW unlocked online massive multiplayer gaming, tools like Zoom unlock the potential of the all-remote workplace.

But wait, how do you know if they’re working?

There are many people from outside the all-remote world that remain incredulous about the idea of a distributed team. Both Sid and Mark are often asked the same questions about all-remote: "How do you know that people are working?"

“I view these as old workplace, old economy questions,” says Mark. “Those are usually the least interesting questions.”

The framework that “work” is a lot of people in the building at the same time minimizes the focus on each individual contributor’s work product.

“In many co-located companies, you can just show up and people will presume you’re working, but at GitLab we actually check your output and results,” says Sid.

There are also many people at co-located companies who will claim they value hiring the best people for the job, or that people are the heart of their organization, a statement largely incongruous with their practices, notes Sid.

“You're saying people are the most important, but you limit your hiring to 1% of the world population? Then the people who are most important, you make them commute two hours of every day?” says Sid.

The drawbacks of part-remote

In response to the demand for greater flexibility in scheduling and workplaces, there are more co-located companies that are trying out remote teams or allowing a few remote work days a week or month. While this is generally a move in the right direction for greater employee autonomy, Mark and Sid have some skepticism about the effectiveness of this approach, because in each case there remains a single center of power.

“I am still very much a skeptic around an organization that culturally is anchored in physicality bolting on remote capability,” says Mark. “I have not seen that work, which doesn't mean that it hasn't and I obviously haven't seen every organization out there, but in those cases there sare still real stretches of culture and behaviors when it comes to the haves and have-nots and the people who are in the center.”

There is intentionally no headquarters for GitLab or InVision, because by creating a physical room where it happens, there are certain advantages for the team members in the room, and disadvantages for those that are not.

Beamy is GitLab’s company robot that lives in the San Francisco boardroom, which is in Sid’s home in the city. Beamy was created as an exercise in transparency, so every GitLab team member can see for themselves that there is no secret headquarters where decisions are made. “I’m just working from home like everyone else,” says Sid.

All-remote isn’t a value

The fixtures of GitLab’s company culture are our values: collaboration, results, efficiency, diversity & inclusion, and transparency. Everything in the company flows from those values, and while being all-remote is a distinguishing feature to our company, like InVision, we don’t really consider it to be a core value.

During this part of the discussion, Sid, who is one of the rare people who can stay fully engaged in a conversation while also multitasking, added a section to our handbook, “What is not a value,” which reads:

“All remote isn't a value. It is something we do because it helps us practice our values of transparency, efficiency, diversity & inclusion, and results.”

Watch the full conversation between Sid and Mark on GitLab Unfiltered.

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